Urban living doesn't appeal just to the young and hip. Developers of senior housing are starting to test the allure of walkable communities with access to city amenities.
Some are including densely populated areas as they scout for new sites, a different approach in a field long dominated by an all-inclusive, cruise ship model, where multi-acre suburban communities make everything available behind their gates.
Demographic changes are driving the search, as some developers look for new ways to satisfy the demands of a new crop of cost-conscious seniors, who seek a more independent retirement. And demand for specialized senior housing could be about to rebound strongly after waning during the years of the housing crisis. Most seniors must first sell a home to pay for the move.
"What they're looking for and what's out there, it doesn't mesh today," said Ryan Frederick, the founder of Baltimore-based Point Forward Solutions, which provides consulting services to senior housing companies across the country. "New models are going to have to be formed."
The over-65 population is expected to reach 54.8 million by 2020, up 36 percent from the start of the decade, according to U.S. Census estimates. Despite the demographic boom, an Urban Land Institute study about the senior housing market released in 2012 described an industry "virtually in crisis."
After the housing crash, move-ins slowed and occupancy rates sank, as seniors who might otherwise have moved hung on to their homes while waiting for prices to rise. The median age when people move to senior living centers has crept upward, to about 84 from the late 70s, driven by cost-consciousness, better health and changing preferences, according to the report.
More urban alternatives could help meet the desires of people who need some help, but not the range of services from independent living to nursing care offered in a traditional continuing care retirement community, Frederick said.
New generations of seniors also want to live close to younger family members or remain in their hometowns, rather than pick up for Florida, said Cynthia Shonaiya, a principal at Baltimore design firm Hord Coplan Macht, who specializes in senior living and has worked with The Shelter Group, a developer and property manager.
"When I look around Baltimore, I think it is ripe. There are a lot of people who live in the city who want to stay in the city," she said. "It's only a matter of time before somebody decides to put a market-rate, attractive senior community right here in downtown with everything it has to offer."
The Baltimore-based Shelter Group, which oversees about 27 existing communities, and has a handful in construction and about 15 more in the pipeline, has been opening new operations at a rate of five per year, growth the company expects to see continue, said David Holland, Shelter Group's vice president of development.
The current portfolio consists almost entirely of surburban sites, but projects in more densely populated areas could one day make up close to 15 percent of the total, he said. In the past few years, the company's senior-focused affiliate, Brightview Senior Living, has opened facilities in more densely packed communities including Towson, Rockville and Edgewater.
"There's a lot of development challenges … but we think it's worth pursuing," Holland said. "It will take a while for it to gain significant momentum, but I think companies like ours are clearly looking at those opportunities and assessing the feasibility more than they have in the past."
Holland said they're responding to feedback that future clients are looking for walkability and access to the communities where they already have roots. Commercial developers, still cautious in the wake of the recession, also are more interested in attracting the participation of senior housing developers, he said.
"Senior living is starting to get integrated into other uses," he said. "We're seeing an opportunity where we didn't before."
Limited land availability, as well as the higher cost of urban development, has traditionally acted as a deterrent to senior housing developers. But urban locations, with access to local services, might enable operators to save by permitting the creation of a less comprehensive product, while still offering residents plenty of options, said Glen Tipton, a Hord Coplan Macht principal.
"To be located in a more urban setting … means your building doesn't have to be as comprehensive, doesn't have to be as large, doesn't have to be as expensive to build and so doesn't have to be as expensive to staff," he said. "There are developers looking at Baltimore in a more forward-thinking way, such that I'm saying in the not-too-distant future, you'll be hearing more and more about it."
The location of Roland Park Place, close to Hampden, Johns Hopkins University and the Rotunda shopping center, has long served as a draw for new residents, said marketing director Becki Bees. The center, which opened in 1984 and has 200 apartments and 60 units in its more intensive health care center, has an occupancy rate of about 85 percent, she said. The average nationwide is about 90 percent.
Eleanor Szanton, who moved into an independent apartment unit with her husband from a townhouse in Washington after a snowy winter in 2010, said they looked at a suburban option, but were drawn by the access to Baltimore's cultural amenities, as well as her daughter's family.
"I thought when we get really elderly and old and infirm … that [my daughter] might actually visit on the way home from work instead of driving many miles out into the suburbs, which she probably would only do on weekends," said Szanton, 78.
The location has enabled her to volunteer in a city school, pick up her grandchildren from school, walk her dog on Roland Park's leafy pedestrian pathways and escort friends to waterfront cafes on the weekends.
"We're very active," she said. "It's not as bucolic … but for all these other reasons that I've just mentioned, we thought it was a no-brainer to be here."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun