Denver Development Holds Special Appeal for Jewish Seniors, Suggests Promise of Niche Communities

A senior living development underway in Denver holds the potential to become a niche community for Jewish older adults. In so doing, it could showcase why serving particular demographic groups could become a more prevalent play for senior living providers in the years to come.

The 205-unit, $97 million project is dubbed Hilltop Reserve because it is located in the Hilltop neighborhood. This area is “the center of Denver’s Jewish community,” Josh Fine, president of developer Focus Property Group, told Senior Housing News.

Hilltop Reserve will be in close proximity to a Jewish community and senior center, day schools, a major philanthropic federation, a full-service kosher restaurant and synagogues.

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And, the Hilltop area is within the East Denver Eruv. An eruv is a parcel of land on which Jewish people are allowed to carry babies, push strollers, use canes and perform other activities on the Sabbath that would otherwise be prohibited.

While the community will not be exclusively marketed to Jewish people, the development team anticipates that it is likely to serve this market niche. Doing so could help the community draw residents from a larger geographic area than is typical for senior living and provide valuable competitive differentiation in the years ahead.

The design by architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht calls for 124 independent living units, 56 assisted living units and 25 memory care units. Construction got underway about two months ago, and the team anticipates opening in the summer of 2021.

A unique site

Based in Denver, Focus has been doing real estate investment and development in the city for about 30 years. The firm bought the Hilltop site about five years ago. Previously, that land was occupied by an industrial dairy distribution center, but the surrounding area had changed and the location was no longer appropriate for industrial use.

“We immediately recognized the potential for a unique 4.3-acre development … that assemblage in this neighborhood never comes along,” Fine said. “Before it was even publicly listed, we contacted the seller and paid full cash price.”

After abandoning initial plans for a mix of retail and self-storage on the parcel, Focus began to consider senior living, even though the firm had never developed this type of property in the past. There was senior housing in the area — including a Brookdale continuing care retirement community (CCRC) — but Focus believed there was demand for a newer product.

Around this time, the Focus team connected with the leaders of Ascent Living Communities, a senior living owner and operator also based in Denver.

“We set up a meeting and thought we were going to talk about buying [the site] from them, but they didn’t have any intention of selling,” Ascent Co-Founder and Principal Susie Reimer told SHN.

After several subsequent meetings, the two companies formed a joint venture to develop a senior living community, which would be operated by Ascent.

In 2015, the re-boot of a predecessor company created the current iteration of Ascent. Today, the company’s portfolio encompasses two operational Denver-area communities, which it also has an ownership stake in. One of those projects — Village at Belmar — was a joint venture with Boston-based Blue Moon Capital Partners. Ascent brought Blue Moon into the Hilltop project as well.

Reimer was excited about the Hilltop project for several reasons, including her deep familiarity with the local market. Prior to joining Ascent in 2013, she ran the Brookdale CCRC, Mountain View, that is located just a mile east of the Hilltop Senior Living site.

So, she was well aware that the neighborhood had seen no new independent living product since that Mountain View community had opened. She also has insight into demand that exists beyond the immediate area, having seen that Mountain View attracted Jewish seniors from far-flung locales.

Ascent Co-Founder and Principal Tom Finley refers to this as the “hidden demand” factor, and he anticipates that Hilltop will benefit from it as well, estimating its market reach could extend well beyond the typical 5-mile radius, with even a 25-mile zone being possible.

One reason for this is Hilltop’s location in the eruv — a point driven home by Fine, whose wife grew up in the neighborhood. When her grandmother was near the end of her life, she moved to a senior living community, but there was not a viable option in the Hilltop neighborhood.

“It was really difficult for an observant Jewish family,” Fine said. “We couldn’t see her on the Sabbath … Either we would take her to our house, and she would spend the weekend out of her home, which is not ideal, or we wouldn’t see her on the Sabbath, which is really sad.”

Had there been a senior living community in the eruv, the family could have traveled to be together on the Sabbath.

While the ability to draw residents from a wide geographic area is a bonus, it still was important to Finley and Fine that the project pencil out according to standard feasability metrics.

“From a strict financial and market feasibility perspective, it has to stand on its own,” Finley said. “But we firmly believe there’s additional market that will seek out this product that’s no where close to the primary market area.”

Niche ‘happens’

The “hidden demand” factor is one reason why more senior living developers and operators are interested in niche or affinity communities, particularly as the market has grown more crowded with new supply in recent years.

But creating a niche community is not a simple matter, as housing regulations and business imperatives can make it necessary or important to market a community widely and welcome a diverse resident population.

Hilltop Reserve will be welcoming to residents of any stripe, and its operational model is not overtly tailored to Jewish seniors. That said, the project team has certain expectations based on where the property is located.

“Our approach here is that it’s a natural niche, and naturally happens,” Reimer said.

She compared it to naturally occurring retirement communities, or NORCs, which are residential buildings that organically become retirement communities as their residents age in place.

Other senior living communities also are finding that they are naturally serving a particular affinity group, and are then taking steps to more proactively serve and attract members of this group. For example, the Carrington in Lincolnwood — a community in Chicago operated by West Bay Senior Living — has a significant number of artists among the resident population. The community has started a gallery wall to display and even sell resident artwork, is considering adding a sculpture or other piece of public art to the grounds, and otherwise try more actively to be a first-choice community for older artists, West Bay CEO Jim Biggs told SHN.

But this is only one approach to creating niche senior living. Other projects are specifically designed to appeal to, and serve, particular affinity groups. Examples include communities that Seattle-based Aegis Living has developed for Chinese-American residents, and Priya Living’s communities oriented toward Indian culture. Aman Living is also creating a community with a focus on South Asian and Indian culture, near Chicago.

In the case of Hilltop Reserve, programming might become more oriented toward Jewish customs, culture and spiritual practices, but only as appropriate to meet the needs of the resident population.

Focus and Ascent did consider including a kosher kitchen, but decided against this for several reasons. For one, kosher food can be too salty for older palates and dietary needs, Reimer said. Her own grandmother kept kosher her whole life, but simply wanted delicious food after moving moving into a senior community at age 95.

The team also toured a community with a kosher kitchen, and observed that the operational complexities appeared to be compromising the quality of the food.

Hilltop Reserve will have a kosher-style kitchen, and the community plans to partner with nearby East Side Kosher Deli to make fully kosher options available.

Its standard operational model is to offer a variety of religious services, and its activities programming, dining and design are meant to have a broad appeal. Hilltop Reserve will have a wellness focus and amenities such as a yoga studio, aquatic center, multiple dining venues and a salon.

The building itself will be “inwardly designed,” Reimer said, so that instead of being focused on the surrounding commercial streets, residents will be more focused on spacious interior courtyards that will include fire pits, waterfall features and walking trails.

For its part, Blue Moon is also excited about the project, with Co-Founder, Managing Partner and COO Susan Barlow presenting it as a case study at the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) conference last September.

“This I think is a really good example of getting those local consumer preferences, focusing in on the community, and building something that is an asset for the community,” Barlow said at NIC.

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