Senior Living Meets Food Hall in Willow Valley’s First Urban Development

Urban senior living is on the rise across the country, and Willow Valley Communities is going big with its first property in a city center.

The organization is planning a senior living highrise and is redeveloping a historic venue across the street to create a culinary center in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Willow Valley anticipates synergies between the two components of the project.

“The fact that we can be involved in master planning and combining these two sites makes this a really unique scenario,” Willow Valley Communities CEO John Swanson told Senior Housing News.

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Considering that Lancaster was named the No. 1 place to retire by U.S. News and World Report last October, Swanson anticipates healthy demand both from aging locals and new arrivals to the metro area of about 500,000 people.

A natural extension

Willow Valley Communities owns and operates four senior housing communities — The Manor, Manor North, Lakes Manor and Spring Run — all of which are essentially co-located on sprawling tracts of land south of Lancaster.

These communities operate on type-A lifecare models, but Willow Valley has taken pains to position itself more as an active adult-style option rather than a traditional continuing care retirement community (CCRC).

“We probably stack up with some of the major active adult homebuilders in terms of clubhouses and amenities,” Swanson said, noting that residents’ average age at entry is in the low-70s.

Like other senior living providers, Willow Valley saw increasing demand for city living among older adults, and set out to find a site in the city of Lancaster itself.

“Our goal was to … be in the heart of the city, to have a true, walkable scenario where residents could walk from our community to virtually all of the major restaurants and cultural venues,” Swanson said.

The organization found an ideal location: the former production facility for the Lancaster newspapers. This building is located close to Penn Square, in the city center, and is adjacent to a parking structure that can be used by future residents.

The plan is to demolish the former production facility to construct a highrise that will be over 20 stories tall, pending city approval. A historic property that is on the site will be preserved and adaptively reused.

Although the building design is still in process, Swanson anticipates that the highrise will feature street-level retail open to the public, while residents will have access to multiple dining venues, lounges, elevated terraces, a rooftop amenity, a dog park and pet wash stations, and a large wellness hub with fitness center, pool, yoga studio and spa components.

The highrise will be entirely independent living. Outpatient therapy will probably be provided on site, but otherwise residents will have two options for health care. They will be able to receive services on Willow Valley’s nearby main campus, or they can enroll in Willow Valley’s Smart Life program. This is a “life care at home” model that currently has 225 members, and would allow for residents to receive services in their units.

“We felt this was a natural expansion and extension from our main campus to create an urban satellite,” Swanson said.

A culinary component

In addition to the prime location in Lancaster’s city center, Willow Valley was attracted to this site for another reason: an opportunity to become involved in redeveloping the 47,000-square-foot Southern Market Center across the street from the planned senior living highrise.

Dating back to 1888, the Southern Market used to house a farmers’ market and is one of the most historic properties in Lancaster, Swanson said. Today, it is only being used for some leased office space. In partnership with community development firm Lancaster Equity, Willow Valley Communities has developed a culinary-focused master plan.

The groups intend to transform the Southern Market into a food hall that will be a culinary incubator. This is a model that has begun to catch on in other cities, such as Chicago, where One Eleven Food Hall just opened. The concept is to provide space and resources for startup restaurants to establish themselves.

In addition, the plans call for a culinary job training center with a demonstration kitchen, a community kitchen, and an event venue, with other uses potentially including co-working and maker spaces, and offices.

“We see a tremendous amount of synergy between this community resource and what we’re doing across the street,” Swanson said.

For example, the senior living community could use the Southern Market demonstration kitchen as a test kitchen, and could hold cooking classes there. The senior living community could use the event space for functions, freeing up space within the highrise for other uses. And the startups in the food hall could potentially cater Willow Valley Communities’ events, whether at the Southern Market itself or in the neighboring highrise.

There’s a resident engagement benefit as well, Swanson said. Many Willow Valley residents are active in business development programs and could become involved in supporting the startups in the food incubator.

Willow Valley and Lancaster Equity are currently in the entitlement process. By the fourth quarter of this year, Swanson hopes to have the project officially launched, with a name attached, and to be compiling a lead base for the senior living community.

It’s premature to put a dollar figure on the project, Swanson said. He anticipates financing will come through tax-exempt bonds, and notes that Willow Valley maintains an A credit rating from Fitch.

Given Lancaster’s growing reputation as a retirement hotspot, Swanson is excited to be further burnishing the city’s appeal through this project.

“We’re thrilled to be part of revitalizing a key part of the city,” he said.

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