Durable Growth, Government

Urbanism and senior living: Making downtown options happen

Downtown building in Padua, Italy

Downtown building in Padua, Italy

In recent posts, I’ve been writing about how walkable urban settings can be good places to live one’s later years.  Most recently, I offered a few insights about senior lifestylesthat might find a home in downtowns.

It’s a subject of both general and personal interest to me.  I think having more seniors living downtown will make our downtowns and our cities healthier.  Also, I’m currently assisting a family member in a search for a new senior living situation.  I’m disappointed that there aren’t more urban options for her to consider.

Lastly, I know that there is a time when my wife and I will need alternative housing.  By then, I’m hopeful that more urban options will be open to us.  In thinking about my octogenarian self, I can conceive few prospects more pleasant than the possibility of walking to a hardware store to complete a small household repair or ambling to a bookstore to spend an hour browsing the options.  (Yes, I’m confident that printed books will still exist when I’m in my eighties.)

So, the topic for today is how to facilitate more downtown senior living options.

The path to more downtown senior living options is largely the same as the path to more downtown living options for all demographic sections.  And regular readers know the litany of urbanism obstacles that I often cite.  Gasoline prices that don’t include all environmental and geopolitical costs, so effectively subsidize life at the urban fringe.  Road maintenance costs that aren’t distributed according to actual road usage.  Construction liability law and mortgage practices that make downtown development more difficult.  And many more.

But rather than returning to an abstract description of obstacles to urbanism, I’ll recount an example of a failed senior living project with which I was quite familiar.  To me, it provides a wealth of insights about how cities can do better.

This account below is simplified.  It would take far too long to cover all the nuances.  Nor do I choose to provide the location of the project or the municipality, mostly to avoid arguing over the details.  But the outline of the story is accurate and the lessons to be drawn are valid.

A developer owned an attractive parcel of land, near a viable and active downtown.  The existing pedestrian route between the parcel and downtown wasn’t pleasant, but the city had a plan for a boulevard with wide sidewalks that new residents could use to reach downtown.  The developer, working together with the intended developer of an adjoining parcel, agreed to pay for much of the boulevard construction costs.

In addition to boulevard, the city plan called for a second street to be built within the project site, extending the urban street grid and giving motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists more routes from which to choose.  And the boulevard would include a strong transit component, adding further to senior mobility options.

The developer planned for 200 residential units above sidewalk storefronts.  Eighty units were to be in a senior living facility. Nor did the developer choose to pay affordable housing fees, instead folding affordable housing into his project, side-by-side with market rate housing.

Having a mixture of seniors and others living in the new development was key to urbanism for at least three reasons.  First, it provided a range of sidewalks users, extending the daily period of urban vitality.

Second, it provided a mix of customers, leading the sidewalk businesses to more robust business models.  A café that served lunches to seniors at midday had to also please the 9-to-5 folks looking for an evening meal.

Lastly, it would provide a residential option for families split by old age.  One spouse could live in a senior facility, receiving needed assistance with daily life, while a devoted but healthier spouse could retain an independent life in a small apartment across the street.

I thought the proposal was exceptional.  The city appeared to agree and offered to help facilitate the project.  First, they agreed to help secure the land rights for the boulevard, some of which were still privately held.  Second, in exchange for a concession by the developer on a related land-use issue, they agreed to an expedited entitlement process as permitted under state law.

And then, it all came unwound.  After a year of delay, and long after the developer’s concession had been banked, the city withdrew their promise of expedited entitlement.

After an unexpected staff shakeup, the city ceased assisting with land acquisition for the boulevard.  Relieved of the city’s jawboning, one property owner promptly increased his asking price by a factor of fifty.  The land was never acquired.

After having previously set reduced impact fees for urban development, the city reversed direction and adopted a new fee schedule that more than doubled the impact fees on the project.

As project finances worsened, the developer suggested the city take a role in the boulevard construction, but the city’s resources were committed to supporting drivable development.

And then the city missed the deadline for a key entitlement step, thereby violating state law and delaying the project several more months.

Nor were lenders enamored of the mixed-use model, particularly the senior housing component, noting that the project fell outside of their lending experience.

Lastly, the economy softened, further undermining finances that were already precarious.  Eventually the project faltered and then failed.  The developer had funded his entitlement expenses by mortgaging the property, so the bank assumed ownership.

In the years since the foreclosure, several buyers have approached the bank.  But none have wanted to resurrect the previous project.  Instead, they approached the city with various alternatives for eliminating the boulevard, dropping the transit, and converting the entire project into senior housing without the sidewalk retail, effectively transforming the site into a standard drivable suburban senior facility that happened to be a few blocks from downtown, but without a real connection to downtown.

To their credit, the city has thus far refused to consider the changes.  But the only result is that the property remains vacant, a reminder of a failed plan to strengthen the urban core and to bring seniors into a walkable setting.

There are many lessons that can be drawn from this story.  The most obvious one is that opportunities must be grabbed.  There seemed to be a city attitude that this project was one of many that would be offered and that the city needn’t make an effort to facilitate the project or even to comply with commitments that they had made.  The assumption was badly wrong, especially considering the senior living element, and deprived the community of a project that would have filled a need.

But the lesson on which I’ll focus today is impact fees.  I expect that most are familiar with the impact fee concept.  They are fees charged for various types of community infrastructure, streets, wastewater treatment, schools, parks, etc., that are set so that the infrastructure can be expanded to serve the new residents.

The general concept of impact fees is unassailable.  It would be unfair if new homes didn’t bear a fair share of the cost of their services.

But there can be a couple of flaws in the calculation of impact fees.  First, the solutions to current deficiencies are often be folded into impact fees, even though the problems must be addressed even if no further homes are ever built.  This is a deceit into which most communities fall, largely because Prop 13 has limited other funding options.  Faced with municipal needs that can’t otherwise be funded, decision-makers find a way to squint and to fold costs into impact fees that shouldn’t be there.

Second is the question of the allocation of impact fees across different types of development.  Let’s consider two residential units, a 3,500 square-foot single-family home on the urban fringe, located on a quarter-acre lot and likely occupied by a family of five, and a 400 square-foot independent living market-rate apartment in an urban core, likely occupied by a senior past the age of driving or a new college graduate trying to get by with a bicycle and transit.

What should be the relative impact fees for the two examples?  My intuition is the smaller urban apartment should have impact fees that are perhaps 30 percent of the large suburban home.  Others may intuit somewhat differently, but I expect that my judgment is within the range that others may set.

But for many cities, the impact fees for the downtown unit are 80 percent or more of the fees for the suburban home.  And cities are usually unwilling to adjust the fees, even when the unreasonableness of the fees is noted.

In essence, urban development is providing a subsidy for suburban development.  And most cities are content with that subsidy because of a prevailing belief that housing starts drive economic progress.

Of course, there are three problems with that belief.  After seventy years of following that model, our cities are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.  Also, if a development form is so essential, why does it need a subsidy?  Lastly, what is the solution to the environmental issues posed by forcing everyone into cars?   Nonetheless, the belief persists and impedes urban development.

I could run further afield with this subject, but shouldn’t.  I’ve already claimed enough of your attention.  I’ll bring this back to the barn with the two key lessons I’ve tried to impart.  If we want seniors living in downtown, which I endorse heartily, we need to enthusiastically support development proposals that incorporate senior living.  Second chances may not come.  Also, we need to push cities to ensure that they’re not using urban development to subsidize drivable suburban development.

Next time, I’ll begin tackling the other half of the senior living question, how to bring beneficial elements of urbanism to seniors who remain in drivable suburban settings, either because they can’t sell their home for the price they need to live comfortably elsewhere or because their downtown offers few residential options.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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