Gaining support for your seniors housing development project requires an ability to listen and adapt.
By Lynn Peisner
As commercial development projects go, seniors housing is a popular use — much more widely embraced by communities than new shopping centers, offices or hotels.
Seniors housing developments generate light traffic and low parking demand. What’s more, the neighbors don’t have to contend with loud noises or visitors coming and going at all hours of the night.
Most importantly, seniors housing communities put no strain on public schools, which eases the typical concerns about potential overcrowding that come with most new residential developments.
As an added bonus, new seniors housing offers nearby options for families whose relatives may be ready to transition into some form of assisted living but who only want to move a short distance.
That doesn’t mean, however, that every new build goes off without a hitch. No project is impervious to opposition when it comes to building in a neighborhood’s backyard.
Long before shovels hit the dirt, seniors housing developers engage in dialogue with neighborhood leaders to win their support while seeking approvals from local governments.
Convincing neighborhood associations, zoning boards and city councils to favor new seniors construction can sometimes be relatively easy, but it also has the potential to be a contentious, drawn-out and laborious process.
Still, it is meaningful work and requires a great deal of finesse. After all, no two development projects, neighborhoods or local ordinances are exactly alike.
Whether developers are presenting before hundreds of residents or quietly knocking on one neighbor’s door at a time, their efforts tell the story of the company and can help cement a positive perception of the future community from day one.
Paul Chapman, chief development officer at Houston-based Belmont Village Senior Living, says community support can’t be overstated.
“We’re building these buildings to fill them up. You want to win everybody over and have them welcome you. If everyone’s mad at us at the end, they’re not going to put their mom in our building,” explains Chapman.
“We pride ourselves on the way we work with neighbors. We put a lot of time and effort into neighborhood outreach. We think it’s critical. You could argue that it’s as important as designing and building,” adds Chapman.
A celebration of seniors housing
The art of nurturing relationships with communities is likely to become an increasingly important part of doing business. Many industry experts agree that the consumer demand for new product is still strong, especially when delivered by experienced seniors housing operators.
“Most cities are underserved in terms of modern seniors housing,” says Richard Ackerman, founding chairman and senior managing principal at Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Big Rock Partners. “In spite of what is typically published about overbuilding, there is a lack of seniors housing. There is not enough that is viable and modern in America.”
Big Rock Partners is currently building three projects, including one in Celebration, Fla., a planned community just outside the gates of Walt Disney World. The project, Windsor at Celebration, is located on nine acres purchased for $4.5 million in 2014. When it opens in spring 2018, the community will contain a total of 240 units, including 152 independent living, 55 assisted living and 33 memory care units.
Ackerman says that in planned communities like Celebration, seniors housing enjoys a rare, privileged position of being in such high demand that residents don’t just accept the development, they encourage it.
Several factors are driving demand for seniors housing at Celebration, according to Big Rock Partners. The first factor is pent-up demand from Celebration’s 10,000 residents who are aging in place, who love the community and want to stay, plus younger residents who want to relocate their aging parents nearby.
Other factors include the presence of a major hospital and numerous golf course communities on the west side of Orlando, an area where Ackerman says there currently is no seniors housing.
When Disney established Celebration as a planned unit development (PUD), seniors housing was not a component. As the community matured, the PUD was amended to provide for this use.
“The people who live there went to Disney and asked them to find a developer like us,” says Ackerman. “Residents were the driving force because they didn’t want to move from the community. Disney had never thought about seniors housing back in the 1990s. Now, developers are starting to think longer term when they build huge communities.”
There is an added incentive in Celebration, points out Ackerman. If more traditional residences were to be built, the community might feel compelled to build another school.
“Going forward, the community will add more single-family homes and apartments,” predicts Ackerman. “Having seniors housing as a component takes some of the pressure off the need and timetable for new schools.”
Ackerman adds that seniors housing generates tax revenue without significantly altering a city’s infrastructure. “People are very receptive to seniors housing. When you have the city wanting it because of the lack of school impact and the low impact in general for traffic and parking, it just makes it a lot easier. It’s hard enough to do this business without having to deal with fights with the community.”
When it comes to zoning laws, seniors housing lives on a wild frontier. Unless developers build age-restricted housing, which is zoned just as an apartment building would be, they need to obtain the necessary municipal approvals before the project can move forward.
Because assisted living and skilled nursing communities are not listed among commercial uses in local laws, developers typically are required to file for a special use variance for a commercial property.
“Even if you find a site, rezoning for any purpose is always a difficult process — and particularly challenging if there’s community opposition,” says Ackerman.
“Seniors housing is generally welcomed by communities since it doesn’t put pressure on roads or schools,” continues Ackerman. “The fact that there’s almost no community opposition when it comes to senior housing is one of the reasons I chose this business.”
Community engagement is key
While seniors housing projects tend to be widely accepted, it remains essential for developers and operators to drum up support when they first step foot in a community.
Belmont Village Senior Living owns and operates the 24 communities that it developed. Three others are currently under development. Belmont Village prefers high barrier-to-entry locations where new development is not easy to get off the ground.
Ready to meet that challenge, Chapman and his team enter each community poised to tailor their approach to support a neighborhood’s unique identity. In Albany, Calif., Belmont is under construction with Belmont Village Albany on land that was ground leased from the University of California Berkeley. The project is a collaboration with Cal Berkeley that ultimately received unanimous approval from the Albany City Council.
The university and city had been working for several years to entitle and redevelop the tract of land before Belmont took the lead, so the community wanted to be intimately involved in driving the development.
Belmont hosted several community meetings with high turnout. Chapman says there was a tremendous push from citizens about green initiatives.
“They were particularly insistent about solar energy, so we agreed to add some solar,” he says. “We did that specifically because there was a strong interest from the community’s neighbors.” Belmont Village started working on the design in January 2013 and plans to open Belmont Village Albany this August.
Belmont also had to come up with some atypical solutions to win over residents of West Lake Hills, Texas, a small city about five miles from Austin with a population of approximately 3,300, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Ask Chapman today how many trees are on that site, and he can tell you there are exactly 4,400.
“And we know this because we had to tag and number every single tree,” says Chapman.
He recalls the day the development team first showed up on site to meet with a landscape architect who had inside knowledge of the local community. Chapman explained the plan for a detention pond in front of the building, which would have required cutting down a large number of trees.
“The landscape architect said, ‘Well, you’re dead on arrival. You might as well go home. You’ll never get that approved.’ So we pledged we’d figure out how to handle the [water] runoff without disturbing the trees in front. West Lake Hills has even tougher tree ordinances than the city of Austin.”
The result was a win-win, says Chapman. The property today provides a tranquil, resort-like vibe because the building had to be pushed back to preserve a landscape buffer in front. Even during construction, ingress and egress roads were built carefully to disturb as few trees as possible, and neighbors monitored construction closely to ensure crews were careful with trees.
Chapman says Belmont Village takes a low-key, high-touch approach to winning community support. There is no big PR campaign or social media messaging involved. Rather, it is usually Chapman himself or Belmont’s development manager who knocks on the doors of all the neighbors contiguous to a new site.
He also takes the initiative to get on the docket of neighborhood associations, generally without those groups asking first, as a way of introduction.
A meeting at one neighbor’s house, in fact, led Belmont to tweak its lighting design in West Lake Hills. A few neighbors wanted the new community to comply with Dark Sky protocols, even though they weren’t required by code. This meant installing recessed exterior lighting fixtures that minimize light pollution.
“We assured them we’d be glad to address that,” recalls Chapman. “I don’t think anyone had ever asked us about that before. We try very hard in our neighborhood outreach to listen to specific concerns of people. It is an ongoing effort. It’s not just something you do during development. We continue to remain active in neighborhood associations long after our communities open.”