A “zen-inspired” continuing care retirement community in northern California is taking shape. Proposed by Kendal Corporation, Greenbrier Development and the San Francisco Zen Center, the project now has a name, financial backing, approval from local officials and a growing list of seniors interested in calling it home.
The project brings an innovative new twist to the rising trend of wellness-oriented senior living communities. It is also an example of two other industry trends: creative partnerships and the integration of senior living into mixed-use developments.
Last month, the Healdsburg City Council approved the North Entry Area Plan, a master plan to develop a 32-acre site — formerly home to a lumber mill of privately owned land — into a mix of uses including the CCRC, to be called Enso Village, Zen Center Spiritual Director Zesho Susan O’Connell told Senior Housing News.
The site will be split into two parcels, with Enso Village on one and 290 residential units for middle-market, affordable and workforce renters on the other. A 130-unit hotel will also be built on the second parcel, which will subsidize the affordable housing component.
Enso Village is estimated to cost around $300 million, when completed. It will contain 220 independent living units, 30 assisted living units, and 24 memory care units, while the Zen Center will provide hospice services through its Zen Hospice Project. Twenty of the independent living units will be reserved for senior Zen Center instructors who will require housing as they age.
Founded in 1987 in response to the AIDS epidemic, the Zen Hospice Project opened a guesthouse in 1990 and saw over 100 residents annually before closing in August 2018 due to a lack of funding.
Enso Village will not have a skilled nursing unit on site, but will contract with local skilled facilities for skilled nursing services, Kendal Chief Marketing Officer Colleen Ryan-Mallon told SHN.
With the master plan completed, focus now turns to entitlements. A conditional use permit for the site will be filed with the city of Healdsburg this week.
Kendal and Greenbrier are big names in senior living. Kennett Square, Pennsylvania-based Kendal is the 12th-largest nonprofit senior living provider in the nation, while Dallas-based Greenbrier offers a range of senior living services, from market studies to management. But both companies agree the Zen Center is the driving force behind Enso Village, with O’Connell running point, Greenbrier Executive Vice President Barry Johnson told SHN.
People don’t understand how much fun zen people have. The idea of us being completely silent is not as true as much as being present in all involvements.San Francisco Zen Center Spiritual Director Zesho Susan O’Connell
Founded in 1962, the San Francisco Zen Center has grown to become the largest Sōtō zen organization in the West. The network of zen practice and retreat centers has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, something Kendal and Greenbrier discovered as their relationship with the Zen Center evolved.
The Zen Center first approached Kendal about partnering on a CCRC three years ago, O’Connell said. While Kendal was intrigued by the concept of incorporating Sōtō zen principles into a senior living environment, the nonprofit suggested the Zen Center develop the business model for the community.
With that advice in mind, the Zen Center then reached out to Greenbrier, which helped with business and marketing research. What most impressed Greenbrier, however, was how far along the Zen Center was in considering the notion of a CCRC, and how this was a unique opportunity to bring a groundbreaking approach to aging to senior living.
“The extent of their business acumen was fascinating,” Johnson said.
With Greenbrier in the fold, the Zen Center did its due diligence and sought out a third partner, but realized Kendal’s federal system — which allows for wide-ranging autonomy and input from residents, board members and staff in how a senior housing community is run — was the best fit.
“Kendal’s values matched so beautifully with the Zen Center,” Ryan-Mallon said.
The Zen Center believes it could not be in better hands with Kendal and Greenbrier.
“We call them the A-Team,” O’Connell said.
As Greenbrier was providing marketing research for the Zen Center on Enso Village, Kendal conducted its own marketing research with assistance from GlynnDevins, a data-driven, technology-enabled marketing firm focused on senior living with offices in Kansas City, Missouri and Richmond, Virginia.
The response was overwhelmingly in favor and, to date, the Enso Village team has amassed a list of over 4,000 individual households eager to learn more about the project, Ryan-Mallon told SHN.
“This is even before we’ve done any official marketing,” Johnson added.
Part of the allure is the incorporation of Sōtō zen principles into a CCRC — in particular, the concepts of quiet, meditation, allowing for time, space and reflection. But it is also more than that, O’Connell told SHN.
“People don’t understand how much fun zen people have,” she said. “The idea of us being completely silent is not as true as much as being present in all involvements.”
In addition to upscale amenities such as a fitness center, a pool and community spaces, Enso Village will have a meditation hall as a separate purpose building. Enso Village residents will not be required to participate in meditation, and the community’s common spaces will have flexibility to accommodate most activities of interest for residents.
The extent of their business acumen was fascinating.
Greenbrier Development Executive Vice President Barry Johnson
Another amenity of note will be a focus on healthy food. The Zen Center operates Greens, a popular vegan restaurant in San Francisco’s Fort Mason District. Enso Village will have two dining venues, one of which will be a bistro operated by the Greens staff that the Zen Center hopes will be open to the larger Healdsburg community.
Part of the site will be earmarked for farming, and the team is also looking for ways to bring the Zen Center’s popular Green Gulch Bakery’s products to Enso Village.
The Enso Village team expects to start accepting deposits and break ground on the development in 2020, depending on when the entitlement process is completed.
When that happens, the team will be ready, O’Connell told SHN. As the Zen Center was putting together its business model, it received a generous donation from a benefactor. Kendal and Greenbrier have financial stakes in Enso Village, and the team landed an anonymous impact investor and has been working with specialty investment bank Ziegler on forming its capital stack. Ziegler has also been active educating the impact investor on the senior living industry, O’Connell said.
“We needed to prove to Kendal that we could put the money together to bring this project to the marketing and design phase,” she said.
To meet the demand for middle-market and affordable senior housing, the Zen Center is being cognizant of cost and looking to raise funds which could be used to support move-ins who need financial assistance, and hopes to have the details of a plan in place before Enso Village opens.