David Banta headshot
David Banta
David Banta headshot
David Banta

The influx of baby boomers approaching the age where they are ready for a new phase of life is not about size alone; it’s also about influence, including that generation’s widening effect on senior housing as a keystone of urban design.

Today’s senior housing developments are being molded by several characteristics that are unique to this age cohort:

1. Baby boomers want to stay engaged in their communities and with their professions and pursuits.

This generation has been redefining retirement since the oldest members hit their mid-60s approximately 10 years ago. Today, baby boomers are aged 57 to 76. Many want to stay connected to their social and/or professional communities and plan to remain both active and productive, whether by volunteering or working part-time.

Because location is pivotal to affording boomers an opportunity to stay active, how a building relates to and connects residents with its surroundings is a key factor in urban senior living design. That’s why co-located developments — those that place complementary uses either in the same building or near each other —  have become an increasingly popular approach.

At Newman Lofts, the 91-unit active-adult development that my firm, BKV Group, designed for Harbor Bay Advisors, the energy of Michigan State University campus life is right at residents’ doorsteps. The neighborhood offers plentiful cultural, recreational and educational options, and within the building, residents find — as an extension of their homes — a suite of lifestyle-oriented amenities. Co-located with the adjacent 273-unit Landmark on Grand River, student housing also designed by BKV Group and built simultaneously, the development offers intergenerational fusion while fully serving each distinct demographic.

2. Boomers have a longer life expectancy, and wellness will enhance those extra years.

This generation views wellness through a holistic lens, including community connection, lifelong learning and social engagement.

Access to a wide variety of activities is one benefit of an urban setting, but senior living developments can take this community integration a step or two further with innovative, design-supported amenities.

At Abiitan Mill City, a BKV Group-designed Ecumen community in Minneapolis’ Mill District offering independent living, assisted living and memory care, neighbors are beckoned into the building through ground-floor retail and outdoor recreational space. Public offerings include a fitness center where personal trainers work with residents and non-residents alike, a restaurant that doubles as the development’s dining hall, a music center and a parkway along the Mississippi River.

The mixed-use design at Abiitan Mill City lends itself to community engagement, but let’s consider other ways to create similar connections through existing spaces. An indoor pool might be used for exercise classes and therapy contracted with a third-party provider in the community. The barber/beauty shop could deliver spa-inspired services such as manicures, pedicures and massages facilitated by local businesses. Peer-led educational programming or courses taught by local colleges can be held in lounges or other larger spaces.

3. Per Pew Research, almost 40% of boomers are in the lower-income tier, making housing affordability essential.

Although urban land tends to be more expensive, cities and suburban downtowns can be ideal for affordable senior development. Access to public transportation can lessen or even eliminate the developer expense of providing parking, as well as residents’ need for cars.

There are ways to offset the additional expense for more attainably priced market-rate communities, which offer less expensive units without income thresholds, and subsidized developments with defined income requirements.

Design that maximizes units and minimizes parking is, again, one option. Another space-efficient solution: keeping amenity offerings practical to ensure that every square foot is being used, either as shared space or private residences. The ability to build taller structures in urban locations also helps to offset land costs.

Co-location within mixed-income developments is another strategy for creating lower-cost senior housing. Bren Road Station, a 262-unit affordable senior community that BKV Group designed in Minnetonka, MN, is part of a larger mixed-income/mixed-age development just two blocks from a new light rail station. Senior residents at Bren Road Station have access to comfortable, well-appointed residences in a building with interior amenities as well as easy access to downtown offerings.

4. Through their desire to age in place, the influence of baby boomers will reach far into the future.

Right now, strategies such as mixed-income, mixed-age and mixed-use are most prevalent in active-adult communities. But given their undeniable advantages, we anticipate more developments offering varied levels of care and services will follow suit. We are seeing some developers already planning their facilities to accommodate older adults who want the option to age in place with higher levels of care by incorporating flexible shell space or anticipating a secondary build-out for independent living and memory care.

David Banta is associate partner and senior design leader of BKV Group.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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