Old Psych Hospitals Are Becoming Vibrant Mixed-Use Sites with Senior Living

As developers seek to adapt offices, hotels, schools and commercial buildings into senior housing projects, one unlikely property type holds newfound appeal: former psychiatric hospitals.

Across the U.S., a handful of senior living providers have opened or are building communities in mixed-use sites that once held asylums or similar institutions.

Examples include Cordia at Grand Traverse Commons, a high-end senior living community in the former Traverse City State Hospital in Traverse City, Michigan; 10 Wilmington Place, a senior living community at the old Dayton State Hospital in Dayton, Ohio; and Merrill Gardens at BullStreet, a Merrill Gardens community slated to open soon in a master-planned development on the former South Carolina State Hospital campus in Columbia, South Carolina.

Both the BullStreet District and the Traverse City projects exemplify why plots of land that once held psychiatric hospitals can hold promise for new senior living development.

In general, these sites are usually large and located near metropolitan areas, and can accommodate the development of many different property types and uses, from housing and retail to education and health care. They also sometimes carry tax incentives or other economic bonuses from local municipalities eager to both preserve the sites and put them to good use, making them more attractive to developers interested in adaptive reuse.

And while developing these projects presents some challenges for the senior living industry, the benefits can outweigh the risks in many instances.

‘Village and a neighborhood’

In the case of the BullStreet site, Hughes Development Corporation’s plan is to convert the 181-acre site into a walkable, mixed-use development with residential, retail, restaurant, medical, sports and recreational spaces abound.

Merrill Gardens at BullStreet is a ground-up development that will have 196 apartments and carry a total project cost of about $66 million. The project is a joint development of Merrill’s sister company, Pillar Properties, and Second Fifty Communities of Charleston, South Carolina. Overall, Merrill Gardens has a portfolio of 33 U.S. communities.

“I don’t think there has been a site we’ve had that’s been more unique in terms of its prior use, other than the conversion of a prior convent to a senior housing community,” Bill Pettit, president of R.D. Merrill Company, the parent company of Merrill Gardens, told Senior Housing News. “We’ve never before done a project [on a site that held] a former mental hospital.”

The BullStreet project already includes offices, restaurants and a minor league baseball stadium called Segra Park, and will get a new 20,000 square foot retail store from outdoor retailer REI next year.

For Merrill Gardens, the BullStreet plan fit into the company’s vision of developing senior living communities in intergenerational “town centers” across the U.S. The baseball stadium — which has to date hosted more than 565,000 fans of all ages — was a particular draw for the company.

“Most of what we’ve been concentrating on for the last five to seven years has been focused on seeking out sites that connect seniors to all generations,” Pettit said.

Looking ahead, Merrill Gardens may even develop a rental active adult building in the BullStreet District under the direction of Pillar Properties. If those plans do materialize, they would begin to take shape in the project’s second development phase.

“Frequently, when we build a community today, we are pairing a Merrill Gardens community along with a Pillar community,” Pettit said. “[For BullStreet], that’s one which we have yet to make a decision on, but we’re still pretty intrigued.”

Another senior living provider, Boston-based Cordia Senior Living, also sees the appeal of marrying senior living and former psychiatric hospitals. The provider’s Cordia at Grand Traverse Commons community opened in 2013 at the site of a former institution built according to the vision of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a physician who advocated for the construction of mental hospitals in the 19th century.

The Cordia community spans the north end of a Victorian Italianate building, with 110 units and design features that include thirteen-foot ceilings, large windows, spires, grand porches and views of a nearby arboretum and park. The roughly $34 million community is located within The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a 63-acre mixed-use campus that houses markets, restaurants, a winery coffee shops, a bakery and boutique shops.

Cordia Senior Living

Like Merrill Gardens, Cordia is especially interested in the social connectedness that a larger mixed-use development can bring, according to Karen Anderson, Cordia’s president, CEO and founder.

“Seniors don’t want to be isolated off to the outskirts of the community they live in, they want to be right in the middle of a vibrant, walkable neighborhood,” Anderson told SHN. “What really makes these communities special is not so much the building or what it was before but how it can be converted into a village and a neighborhood.”

Challenges to the model

Despite the many advantages, there also are challenges in the concept of redeveloping psychiatric hospitals. For Cordia, which redeveloped an existing building instead of building anew, one challenge was working around the historical preservation guidelines that Traverse City set.

Another potential concern is safety standards, said David Dillard, principal with D2 Architecture.

“Rarely does a building built before 1990 — the year that the ADA was signed into law — come close to conforming to today’s standards for fire protection, ramps, non-combustible building materials, exits, elevators, heating, cooling, ventilation, insulation, wiring, plumbing, and critical dimensions of doors, windows, hallways, showers, even closets,” Dillard told SHN. “That is a lot of headwind.”

Still, new development on the site of historic former psychiatric hospitals like the ones in South Carolina and Michigan can and should take place, according to Christian VanAntwerpen, president of PreservationWorks.

“[Former psychiatric hospitals] were meant to not only house, but provide life, entertainment, food, relaxation, exercise, and work for mentally ill patients,” VanAntwerpen told SHN. “Because of this, reuse can take place in very unique and varied spaces to meet the needs of the developer. Depending on need and vision, either can suit large scale redevelopment.”

PreservationWorks is a national advocacy nonprofit committed to preserving former Kirkbride asylums for adaptive reuse. The Traverse City site is a classic example of an asylum built under the Kirkbride Plan design, while the BullStreet project predates that initiative but bears characteristics of an early Kirkbride structure, according to VanAntwerpen.

“Kirkbrides, specifically, are starting to become a model for senior housing,” VanAntwerpen said. “Patient wings seem perfectly suited for updated living spaces in the 21st century, [and] the construction of these buildings allow for a communal living space with opportunity for different uses.”

While Merrill Gardens hasn’t yet come across any other sites that once housed psychiatric hospitals, Pettit said the company isn’t opposed to doing another in the future, provided it’s the right opportunity.

“It’s just so unique to find these type of sites in cities today, and the overview and the vision of the plan was ultimately what the draw was,” Pettit said. “The inclusion of senior housing in these locations is, I think, an element of new demand for our industry that the boomer generation is bringing.”

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