Living in the lap of luxury

The $100 million Palace at Coral Gables is a showpiece of prestige and luxury, modeled after the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris. The $100 million Palace at Coral Gables is a showpiece of prestige and luxury, modeled after the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris.

Architects and developers reach new heights in design, comfort and enjoyment for a growing senior population.

By Susan Fishman

Wine tastings, pottery classes, and billiard rooms — a new level of luxury living is emerging for seniors. With more and more active baby boomers entering their golden years, the seniors housing industry is calling for a new living model, and owners and developers are catering to the affluent with more world-class features and services than ever before.

Architects are getting in the game, too; some are entering the market for the first time as they recognize the high demand for seniors housing in high-end markets. From environmentally conscious designs to resort-style amenities, the seniors housing communities of today are award-winning masterpieces of comfort and style. And though designing luxury facilities that satisfy both the residents and the cities where they reside does come with its share of physical and financial challenges, the rewards, say industry professionals, are equally as great.    

High demand for luxury

The demand for assisted living and memory care facilities is strong, and luxury seniors housing is growing as well, now that the real estate market has significantly improved in many markets, says Adam Rosenblum, vice president of The Palace Group, one of South Florida’s leading developers and managers of senior living communities.

“Seniors love the luxury product, though it’s still difficult for them to give up their homes, and they are often resistant to change,” he notes. “But there is a significant market out there for luxury senior living in South Florida and other areas throughout the country.”

Cory Alder, president of the Nexus Cos., a real estate development firm of all product types, agrees. “The demographic trends clearly show an aging population with advances in medicine and general overall health and well-being. We need this kind of housing, and it looks like it’s going to be strong for decades.”

In terms of luxury senior housing, with its luxury price point, targeting the right market is key. An affluent area with upper-middle to upper-class residents who have a lot of value in their homes is the ideal market, according to Alder.

Locating in dense markets near large cities is also helpful. Alder says 250,000 to 500,000 people within a five or seven-mile radius is ideal. 

“It depends on how much supply is already in the marketplace and the age of that supply,” he notes. “You really have to do your research on the demographics and the population strata.”

Partners in prestige

A high-end market expects a high level of service, and successful luxury developers Helen and Jacob Shaham have set the bar. Since 1980, the Shahams have been building The Palace Group, which owns and operates 12 independent living, assisted living and nursing and rehabilitative care residences in South Florida and Tel Aviv, Israel. They went with a high-end hotel model for The Palace at Coral Gables, a public/private venture with the city of Coral Gables, whose senior population has grown to more than 20 percent. 

“We wanted people to be able to continue to live the kind of lifestyle that they’ve worked for through their lives and provide an outstanding level of service and care along with that,” says Adam Rosenblum, vice president of The Palace Group. 

There was a void of seniors housing in general within Coral Gables, so The Palace Group jumped at the chance for a public/private development in a prime location close to the main shopping thoroughfare of Miracle Mile. 

“We wanted to provide a community that had some synergies with the city — very high-end, beautiful and elegant,” notes Rosenblum. “It fits in with the skyline and adds a lot of value to the city.”

Financing in general was a key challenge in the Coral Gables project, which broke ground in 2011, as securing construction financing shortly after the downturn in the real estate market was not an easy task. The community opened in June 2013, and occupancy is currently 50 percent. 

The Shahams hired Fullerton Diaz Architects, known for designing apartments, condominiums and high-rise buildings across South Florida. This development was the company’s first luxury seniors housing facility.

“We didn’t come to the project with any preconceived notions about what luxury senior living should or shouldn’t be,” notes founding partner John Fullerton, “so we learned a lot and succeeded beyond what I imagined.” 

Fullerton Diaz was tasked with creating something that fit well within the context of downtown Coral Gables. The city incentivizes projects built in a Mediterranean architectural style with bonus square footages and height, so the owners took advantage of the zoning to achieve building more units and a slightly taller building. 

Working with the city also had its challenges, according to Fullerton. “The City of Coral Gables is very demanding in terms of design and building requirements. The components have to be extremely well thought out, and the drawings for construction have to be very explicit,” notes Fullerton. “And since it was a joint venture between the city and the Shahams, the city was looking out for its part of the investment.” 

The magnificent Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris was the source of inspiration for the Coral Gables design. Local interior designer Jeffrey Howard created an elegant and luxurious environment with inlaid marble flooring, special wrought iron railings on monumental stairs and designer lighting. 

“It came right out of a Louis XIV catalog,” says Fullerton.

There’s a large “living room” social area with comfortable furniture and a grand piano, a bar for happy hours, a small café, activity rooms, a library, a business center, an onsite wellness center, and a million-dollar indoor pool with murals, sculptures and a mosaic tile floor. Resident Ken Fishman says it’s “like a cruise ship that never leaves the port.”

One of the unique and most challenging aspects of the project came in the planning stages. Fullerton Diaz built full-scale replicas of 14 or so units in a large warehouse to make sure the residences were as serviceable and complete as possible.

“We studied every component, with the help of the Shahams, down to where the light switches were, how you enter the closets, and the handicap potential,” says Fullerton. “There were many, many changes once we saw the units, so they were really tailored to the requirements of the program.”

But love is in the details, and The Palace at Coral Gables is an environment in which the people of Coral Gables relate to well, says Fullerton. 

“It’s at a price point that eliminates some people, but those who are able to stay there are accustomed to this kind of luxury. It meets their requirements in such a generous way.” 

Most of the residences are independent living and private pay. Rents range from $4,620 for a studio to $7,650 for a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment. Rates include utilities, weekly housekeeping service, activities and transportation to doctor’s offices and shopping. The third floor offers catered living arrangements for those with more health and medical needs. 

Breaking new ground

Nexus Cos. has developed a luxury seniors housing brand, called Vivante (a derivative of the Italian word “vivente,” meaning active or lively), for strictly high-income areas where the competing product is either dated or virtually nonexistent. 

In October 2013, the company opened Vivante on the Coast, the first new luxury retirement community in the Newport Mesa area of Orange County in 20 years. The $62 million, 185-unit development is built on seven acres and features 40 independent living units, 145 assisted living units and 40 secure memory care units for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Rents are priced around $3,500 for a studio, $4,300 for a one-bedroom and $6,500 for a two-bedroom, going all the way up to $10,000 for very unique select units. Currently, occupancy is about 40 percent.

Alder and Curtis Olson, chairman and CEO of the Nexus Cos., have been in business for 30 years but are just arriving to the world of seniors housing. Vivante made its debut immediately after the recession when there wasn’t a lot of capital available for new development

“Everybody was trying to buy existing buildings and distressed assets,” recalls Alder. “It was a difficult environment, but there wasn’t much supply in the market, and there was strong demand.”

Nexus secured financing, began construction in April 2012 and finished Vivante on time and on budget by approximately Labor Day 2013. The property features resort-quality amenities including high-end dining; a card and game room with poker table, pool table and shuffleboard; dog park; Fun Zone kids’ room, art studio, bocce court, indoor saltwater pool, country-club-style putting green, dance floor and more. 

“These people were used to living in very nice accommodations — they traveled well, stayed in the nicest hotels, and belonged to country clubs,” notes Alder. “We wanted to make sure we were emulating, maybe on a slightly smaller scale, those venues that our target market was used to.”

Nexus Cos. is pursuing more locations for its Vivante brand, with the second, slightly smaller development, scheduled to open in Palm Springs at the end of 2015.

In May 2013, Perkins Eastman, an architectural firm that focuses mostly on not-for-profits, completed a luxury repositioning for Moorings Park in Naples, Florida, a nationally accredited, nonprofit, Medicare-certified community with a reputation as the premier continuing care community in Southwest Florida. The 83-acre site offers independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing. 

“We’ve always tried to push the envelope on luxury seniors housing because we think it’s scalable,” says Dan Cinelli, executive director and design principal “If we test something out in the luxury market, and it works, we think we can import some of that methodology or design uniqueness into even middle-income properties.”

Perkins Eastman was hired to lead an overall campus repositioning of Moorings Park in 2006, and recently created the master plan for an additional 20 acres on the far south end of the property.  

The goal was to make it active-adult luxury housing, so the team created a new separate entry that would allow residents to come and go as they please versus going through the main gate of the community. The plan also included 32 residences, a new dining concept and a town square for events involving the broader public. The cost of the overall redesign per square foot was about $210. 

“We wanted to create more of a town center so it wasn’t looking like a retirement community, but more like a new urbanism concept,” says Cinelli.

To create a new dining venue, the company interviewed residents about their dining preferences, which resulted in “The Trio,” a three-in-one restaurant concept with a beautiful outside space, a more contemporary space and a wine-tasting area. 

Other luxury amenities include underground parking, one elevator per two units, one lobby to every six units and two parking spaces per unit (most senior living facilities are one-to-one). There is also golf-cart parking for two golf courses that are adjacent to the community, a rooftop deck, a party room with a catering kitchen, and a TV and game room.

Residents also have access to the Center for Healthy Living wellness center, a 150,000-square-foot facility that follows a medical concierge operational model that allows visitors to customize their experience. Amenities include an aquatic center, spa, exercise studios, fitness/weight rooms and a rehabilitation center. To encourage wellness dimensions beyond the physical, the center also offers a meditation room, zen garden, creative arts studios and classroom space for visiting lecturers. 

Another high-end architecture and interior design firm, Meyer Design, made a splash in the luxury space with Brandywine Senior Living, a 110-room assisted living facility in Voorhees, N.J. 

The first LEED-certified assisted living facility in South Jersey, Brandywine was designed with a focus on creating more sustainable building standards. The Meyer Design Team incorporated these standards into the architecture and interior design to help the client achieve energy reductions and water con-sumption, as well as to create a healthier interior environment for residents. 

“The number one goal was to create the direct opposite of anything “nursing home,” says Meyer Design Principal George Wilson. “No shiny floors, no overhead fluorescent lighting, no straight, long halls. Our client wanted a place that felt like home to their residents.” 

The client also wanted the project to connect to the environment with a maximum of two stories, so residents always feel close to the outdoors. The community was designed so that the terraces, walkways, natural fire lane and courtyard feel like an extension of the park, ball fields and the wetlands that it borders. Every step of the design and construction was thought about holistically with the residents’ health and environment in mind by reclaiming spaces and making them useful.

Residents can stroll around the 95,000-square-foot community, sit on one of four outdoor patios or three interior courts, enjoy a raised deck with a view of the community baseball right field or walk down a path that leads directly to retail facilities down the street. 

The facility was also designed with hospitality-inspired amenity areas. The second floor provides a beautiful social space with a pub, salon, theater and spa, as well as an activities room, community room, wellness care center, cafe and billiards area. 

An octagonal music room with a Steinway piano centerpiece sits just off a well-appointed lobby, complete with a saltwater aquarium. Around the corner is a state-of-the-art, resort-styled, indoor therapy pool. And as part of its partnership with Virtua hospital, the vir tu spa offers residents their exclusive and luxurious spa services in-house.

Returns and rewards

Though luxury living doesn’t come cheap, Alder says Nexus never goes into a market expecting to charge more than the current market rate.

“The rates we’re charging are very close to what the much older product is charging,” he points out. “You can’t charge 30 to 50 percent more than your competition and expect to be successful long term. You have to have a value proposition for the residents.” 

As far as value for the owners, these high-end communities generally enjoy higher occupancies and higher returns, says Rosenblum. 

“The returns are more lucrative in this segment, but your costs go up, too,” he explains. “But with high occupancy, the return is definitely more lucrative. People are willing to pay for the best.”

Alder says the returns are generally pretty similar across all of seniors housing — somewhere between 10 and 12 percent. But along with healthy returns and plenty of awards, they are experiencing another kind of reward. 

“We’re giving the people who built our community a really good experience for the last years of their lives, which is not always easy but it’s very rewarding,” he says. “We sold the residents on this vision for a long time, and they are extremely happy. That to us is success.”