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Baby boomers change senior housing trends

San Diego County prepares for new 'gray' rush

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At 55, local architect James Robbins isn't thinking about retiring anytime soon, but he recently made a lifestyle change with those golden years in mind.

Robbins, founder and director of design for San Diego-based Robbins Jorgensen Christopher, sold his home in Rancho Bernardo last year and purchased a two-bedroom, two-bath condominium in downtown's luxury high-rise development of The Grande at Santa Fe Station.

Woodland Village is one example of the new types of housing available to seniors.

In addition to the panoramic views and first-rate amenities, including pool and fitness center, Robbins wanted a more urban environment close to cultural and recreational facilities, as well as a "lock and go" residence for when he does reduce his work load and increase his travel and leisure schedule.

Robbins is typical of many aging boomers who are seeking a different kind of housing, one that offers maintenance-free living not far from where they've worked and lived.

As the specter of retirement and empty-nesting looms large for the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, these so-called baby boomers are hardly entering old-age homes or assisted living facilities. From downtown condos to active adult communities to age-targeted apartments, developers are scrambling to find a housing type that fits the needs of this less than stereotypical graying market.

Housing for aging baby boomers

Over the next quarter of a century, the number of people 65 and older will more than double to 70 million, or 20 percent of the U.S. population. Like the rest of the nation, California is graying at a fast clip with this unprecedented growth in the baby boomer segment likely to reach 8 million -- or 14 percent of the state's total population -- in the next decade.

"But don't call them aging, don't call them seniors and certainly don't offer them early-bird specials," said Peter Dennehy of Sullivan Group Realty Advisors. "They don't like it."

For good reasons, he added. After all, this is a generation that expects to work past the traditional retirement age. It's also a group with active, healthy lifestyles that are in turn helping them have even longer and more productive lives.

According to Dennehy and many in the real estate industry, this is the perfect time for homebuilders and community developers to target the shifting housing needs of baby boomers -- the nation's richest age group -- as they enter the slowdown and semi-retirement era. This post-World War II generation is buying property as an investment and often as their "aging-in place" home.

Gopal Ahluwalia, staff vice president of research at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), said older buyers want a home with all the goodies but none of the maintenance. They are looking for places with less lawn to mow and less floor space to carpet and clean.

"The boomer -- who can travel, see the world and play golf or tennis when he so chooses -- is seeking to cut down on the amount of time and energy they have to expend on upkeep of their castles," said Ahluwalia. "This is a step between single-family and senior housing."

Lifestyle changes are the main reasons people over 55 decide to move into a new home, said Norman Cohen, chairman of the NAHB's 50+ Housing Council. "Because they are choosing to move based on creature comforts or changing circumstances, the older buyer is often less affected by the ups and downs of the housing market."

People aren't waiting until retirement to acquire a second -- or even a third -- home, Cohen said. "Sometimes the additional home will be located in a favorite vacation spot; oftentimes the intention is to retire there eventually."

Research shows that many baby boomers want these second homes to be located near water, mountains or other recreational activities. Las Vegas, Big Bear, Tahoe and even Baja Mexico are places San Diegans are tending to gravitate toward.

On the other hand, many boomers expect to "age in place," given their active and affluent lifestyles. The number of seniors living outside of nursing homes and other assisted-living facilities in San Diego County is projected to more than double by 2030. There's also a shift of large numbers of older folks living in the suburbs. Previously, most elderly lived in cities.

Infill and redevelopment projects in Mission Valley and UTC are proving attractive addresses to the older set, as are other maturing suburban communities such as EastLake in Chula Vista, noted Dennehy.

Wherever they live, aging residents indicate that what they want from their homes and communities is the flexibility to accommodate a range of physical abilities and growing old needs -- along with other amenities, including accessibility to services, transportation and wired houses.

From Sun City to San Marcos

Area developers are chasing the 55-and-older crowd, albeit on a smaller scale than national homebuilders like giant Pulte Homes, which in 2001 acquired Del Webb, creator of the first Sun City retirement community in Arizona in the 1960s.

"That model with 3,000 to 4,000 living units doesn't work any more," explained Dennehy. "Those huge developments with tons of community and recreational facilities are too expensive to maintain and there's not enough land in desirable Sun Belt locations to build them anymore."

More importantly, he said boomers have an entirely differently mentality than their retiring parents. "Today's 55-plus segment wants to downshift but not necessarily to be shipped out to the outskirts of town into a seniors-only community."

Not everybody wants to live in a massive age-restricted community such as Sun City nor can everyone afford an upscale condominium in downtown San Diego like Robbins.

Two new senior housing developments designed by Case Group Architects of Solana Beach and recently completed in San Marcos are adding hundreds of units and "helping to provide much needed housing for the area's aging population."

"There's a growing demand for quality senior housing for local residents, who for various reasons outgrow their homes but want to stay within the community," said Graham Haines, Case Group senior association. "As more and more people reach an age where a change in lifestyle is required or desired, there needs to be a variety of living options."

Two of his firm's newest projects -- Rancho Santa Fe Village and Woodland Village -- meet this North County city's need for both affordable and market rate housing for graying boomers.

"As folks enter their golden years, we are finding that they want to remain active members of their home town and spend quality time with their children, grandchildren, friends and loved ones," said Haines. "These two developments fulfill those wishes and will provide quality residences with the latest conveniences and amenities designed specifically for seniors for years to come."

Along south Rancho Santa Fe Road across for a large city park and recreation center, a mixed-use senior apartment community for residents 55 years and older quickly filled up. According to the project's developer, Marc Gelman of Enhanced Affordable Development, the three-story residential towers are nearly all occupied and the 11,800 square feet of frontage retail space (including a grocery-deli, sandwich shop, cleaner and nail salon) is fully leased.

Detached on the first level from the commercial/retail, but just steps away are the three levels of attached residential buildings situated in a U-shape around a swimming pool and clubhouse area. Having covered corridors and secured continuous floors is essential for convenience and peace of mind of residents, explained Todd Brazzon, senior associate at the award-winning Case Group Architects.

Just across town from the affordable units, construction was recently completed on another Case Group designed senior housing project. Called Woodland Village, this community offers 204 market-rate rental units by HPC Properties and Comfort Construction.

Woodland Village, a smoke-free community, features resort-style living with oversized pool and spas, salon, massage and fitness rooms, billiards room, library, cinema, dance floor, cocktail lounge, bridge and poker rooms and scheduled day trips in a relaxed and secured environments.

Adjacent to Woodland Village is Woodland Crossing, a retail space with 10,800 square feet of leasable area housed in three buildings that ultimately will include a drug store, grocery store, coffee shop, food outlets and service shops.

"The challenge for planners, designers and builders is to create livable neighborhoods, with appropriate and affordable housing, adequate options for mobility and the community features and services that can facilitate personal independence and continued engagement in civic and social life," noted Brazzon.


Esterbrooks is a media specialist for Scribe Communications.

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