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Not Your Father's Old Folks' Home
New urbanism and the new retirees

As anyone who has not been hiding under a rock lately knows, one of the great public policy challenges facing the United States is the aging of its 75 million-plus baby boomers.

Many observers see new urbanism as having a significant role to play here. Many core principles of new urbanism speak directly to the needs of older people, such as architectural elements that foster neighborly sociability, and retail shops within easy walking distance.

And if new urbanism is good for seniors, seniors may prove to be very good for new urbanism, too. Journalist and consultant Ben Brown forecasts a "bonanza" for new urbanism as boomers retire. In a listserv post in April he predicted two kinds of impacts. Those who move out of state when they retire are likely to avoid age-restricted community in favor of new urbanist developments, where many already have second homes. And those who "age in place," as the expression goes, will demand the remodeling of homes and whole neighborhoods to make them more senior-friendly, Brown predicted.

"For once," he noted, "the Boomer mantra - 'it's all about me' - will work in favor of the community at large."

Seniors make their way in Kentlands in Maryland, cited as a new urbanist development mature
enough to have a full complement of services. Older people can maintain their independence
longer when stores, restaurants, and other facilities are within walking distance.
Kentlands Manor, for residents “62 years and better,” is at right. Credit: Steve Wright

Gene Warren has some similar observations. He is a partner in Thomas, Warren and Associates, a Phoenix firm that consults with communities to help them attract retirees. "Our models show that demand for the traditional age-restricted active adult retirement communities will be in decline," at least in relative terms, he said in a recent phone interview. "The baby boomers typically don't want that..That's their parents' idea of retirement."

As an indication of shifts in the winds, Warren noted that even Del Webb, whom he refers to as the "800-pound gorilla" in the retirement-community industry, is offering a new development, an "all-ages community" called "Fireside."

Some of the very features that make traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs) so appealing to seniors, however, have downsides, too. The sociable density so characteristic of new urbanism often comes at a literally steep price: steps. Many seniors want life all on one level.

And insofar as most large-scale greenfield TNDs tend to be on the periphery of a metropolitan area, residents will still need auto transportation. The neighborhood may be walkable, but the larger built environment is still scaled to the car.

Of course, older people are not all alike. This may be the moment to distinguish between the affluent baby boomers, whom analysts like Brown see as ready for the adventure of new urbanism, and the older crowd. "The real old folks tend not to go to these places," said Nathan Norris, director of marketing and sales for The Waters, a TND outside Montgomery, Ala., in a recent interview. "They tend to like to stay where they are."

He added, "We're not getting the typical 75-year-old." Moving to a place like The Waters requires that someone be "open to new relationships; it's not for everyone."

But for the right seniors - a minority, Norris acknowledged, a TND is just the right place. "What they find at The Waters, they can't get any place else. And they've thrived."

One clear plus for seniors in TNDs: the variety of sizes and types of housing that they offer. Norris observed that his own mother-in-law has just moved to The Waters from Dallas. Her new digs are a 762-square-foot cottage near him and his wife.

"This is not something she could get anywhere else," said Norris, adding that she would otherwise have had to choose between a bigger house than she needed and someplace "not in a great neighborhood."

Norris noted that the plan at The Waters includes provision - designed but not yet built - for senior housing, both independent and assisted living.

But, he added, The Waters is 16 miles from the center of Montgomery. "We're still tied to a car in this community."

"It's better for the general public if older people don't drive," John Norquist, president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, said flatly in an interview. He remembers his own experience of getting his father to give up his car and relocate close to a bus line. But seniors aren't always as willing to give up their car keys as their children - and as planners and policymakers - would wish.

In the auto-scaled environments of the Sunbelt, mass transit isn't an option anyway. And the automobile is a symbol of personal autonomy. "You almost have to pry the car keys out of their hands," Warren commented of the older people he talks with.

Faris and Bill Taylor have been, since 1999, enthusiastic residents of Issaquah Highlands, a TND outside Seattle. They are into their 70s, but sound like the kind of adventuresome baby boomers journalist Ben Brown talks about. The Taylors find they "absolutely" need two cars, in fact, to get to all their different activities. They joke that their 2,800-square-foot tri-level house has a built-in sports club, because of the exercise they get climbing up and down stairs - "although we belong to an athletics club, too, because it gives us more complete exercise," Mrs. Taylor said in a brief phone interview.

They've enjoyed the multigenerational living, "rather than being one of those senior communities." They look forward to the further development of Issaquah Highlands' commercial district.

Reed and Denise Jarvis are another of what they estimate to be about a dozen senior couples in Issaquah Highlands. They've found much they've enjoyed, but are planning to leave in a few months. Concerns about Mr. Jarvis's health have prompted them to move to a seniors' complex nearby offering a continuing-care option.

They've loved the diversity - of age and ethnicity - of Issaquah Highlands. With so many young "techies" in the neighborhood, help is never far away when the Jarvises have computer problems. But they have some reservations, too. "I have to be honest," Mrs. Jarvis said in a phone interview. "It's not quite there - but it's getting there."

The hilly terrain, high land values, and new urbanist density all make for multistory houses, Not enough houses have been built with ground-floor master bedrooms, the Jarvises say. (The developer insists that that's changing.)

And development of the community's commercial sector is clearly taking longer than they had hoped. The grocery store they've looked forward to for years is now set for the end of 2009, they say.

The retail/commercial sector of a TND is "the hardest nut to crack," according to Jeff Speck. But the state of its development determines the usefulness of a development's walkability. And that, in turn, determines how suitable it is for car-free seniors.

Speaking of developers generally, rather than of Issaquah Highlands, he cautioned that not all developers are willing to provide the full mix that makes something a true TND.. Some are advised by market analysts who want them to focus on the "one thing that's selling best" instead of developing the full range of housing types and really working to put the "mixed" into "mixed use."

"You've got to provide EVERYTHING, that's all capital letters," he stressed. This makes for a better community, one that takes root better and faster, because with a range of housing types, a developer can meet the needs of a variety of buyers. "The key is to give communities good bones."

Speck cited Kentlands, near Gaithersburg, Md. (and home of New Towns, by the way) as an example of a TND mature enough to offer a full complement of stores and services.

"I loved Kentlands," said Nora Caplan, a longtime senior resident there who has just recently had to sell her condo and move to a retirement home for health reasons. "It was just a year old when I moved in. I watched it grow."

She had shops directly across the street from her condo, and she could walk to many activities. She also had good connections to greater Washington's Metro system.

"I loved being in a multigenerational community. It gave you a sense of vitality, which really inspires you," she said.