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From Drab to Vibrant: Restoring the Bloom With Pocket Neighborhoods

LeadingAge Magazine

July 1st 2014

In 2006, I accepted the job of CEO at Rose Villa Senior Living, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Portland, OR. After extensive rounds of interviews, which were-interestingly-held off-site, I enthusiastically arrived for my first day on a hot July morning.

I was somewhat dismayed. Though I had visited the campus during the interview process, I had not fully appreciated its condition. The 50-year-old community-a sprawl of compact one-story apartment homes that could be more accurately described as bunkers-had not aged well. Amidst the apartments were larger, utilitarian common-use buildings that housed the community's recreation programs, a cafeteria, a 24/7 health center with highly skilled nursing staff, and other services. Once perhaps a charming respite for its time, even if only for its coveted 22 acres of real estate overlooking the Willamette River, Rose Villa had clearly become a victim of many years of deferred maintenance.

Rose Villa was founded in 1957 and built over the following two years, opening its doors in 1960 as Oregon Senior Citizens, Inc., and becoming Rose Villa in 1962. The intention behind it was to create a community unlike any others of that era: one in which residents could have ready access to the outdoors, freely commune with neighbors and live life on their terms. Individual apartments for the residents fostered these values, which to this day emphasize Rose Villa's understanding that no two retirement experiences are the same. Not everyone needs or wants the same level of care, if they need care at all.

Indeed, Rose Villa had for all of these years thrived on its commitment to providing residents with a customized retirement experience. Even so, the current appearance of Rose Villa was my first clue that there was work to be done. This was further underscored by the fact that staff and resident morale was low very low.

The community was also in distress. Technology had not made its way to the organization; very few staff used computers. Timecards were handed in on pieces of paper. Almost all systems were manual.

Most concerning of all was that Rose Villa was spending its entrance fee revenue, rather than saving it. This was largely due to the fact that there was little fiscal or operational discipline, and an unwieldy pattern of service creep. As an economist, I feared I had arrived too late, and that we might already be past the point of financial rebound.

Revitalizing Rose Villa was going to require more than simple cosmetics. It would require an organizational overhaul.

I hired an actual accountant (there were none in the business office at the time), gathered the department managers, and together we took the first steps forward. We built a comprehensive budget that allowed each department the authority to allocate resources as needed. Computers then made their way throughout the organization, from reception to the dining room, arming everyone with consistent and accurate information, as well as a way to communicate more effectively.

A mindset took hold that became a mantra: "We are running a business, and we are building a community."

Dreaming Big

Armed with a fresh business perspective, we then honed in on our mission to become an even stronger and more person-directed community. Our immediate challenge was in assuring that the design of our community embody this mission. Initially, we envisioned a facelift: at a minimum, freshening the exterior and improving the curb appeal.

When Bob Boileau of Myhre Group Architects and I first canvassed the campus, dreaming of the improvements we could make, we realized that a facelift, no matter how comprehensive, would be temporary and, worse, ineffective. Competitively, I knew Rose Villa was set up to fail if it did not raise its standards to meet the growing demands of today's vital and active seniors, not to mention the increasingly competitive senior housing landscape in Portland.

We needed a bigger dream. What was Rose Villa destined to be? How great could we make it?

The Pocket Neighborhood

Boileau's enthusiasm for our campus caught my own, and we began sketching out our vision: a pocket neighborhood community. It would capitalize on the expanse of acreage and build a community anchored in a fundamental core value, that of the strength of a shared community of people. It wasn't about making Rose Villa different, it was about re-imagining it to be better and truer to its original character. The new design would increase green space, consist of eco-friendly buildings, and capitalize on the small house movement taking hold in both urban neighborhoods and retirement communities today.

The new development would continue to reflect the attributes of an independent living community, while also allowing for person-directed and more intensive care, as the needs of the individual resident evolved. Rose Villa allows for continuing care right at home, in the resident's apartment, with 24-hour nursing living space available as needs may change.

The "pocket neighborhood" concept was pioneered by Washington-based architect Ross Chapin, who defines it as "a pattern of housing that fosters a strong sense of community among nearby neighbors, while preserving their need for privacy." We felt this approach uniquely captured the essence of Rose Villa. Not "style in a box," but a neighborhood that encourages conversations and connections.

"Main Street" Living in a Suburban Setting

In partnership with our architect, we were resolute in our vision to design a walkable, safe, friendly and diverse community within a community, where people could enjoy lots of different activities at any given time.

Renowned for its unique neighborhoods, Portland boasts many diverse pockets of vibrant shopping, cozy book stores and intimate cafes. We wanted these same amenities for Rose Villa. But because we are in a suburban setting on the outskirts of Portland, we are not situated to capitalize on pre-existing urban amenities. This furthered our ambition to build our own "Main Street"-one that would provide the same urban feel within our own neighborhood.

Thus, "Main Street" is part of the new development-a cobblestoned thoroughfare with restaurants, a coffee and wine bar, a performing arts center, wellness and aquatic center and more, all owned and operated by Rose Villa and open to both residents and the surrounding community. Two and three-story mixed-use buildings will frame both sides of the street, creating outdoor rooms and fostering an active pedestrian street life. Even more exciting, our Main Street can be partitioned off for private events such as summer concerts, our own farmers market or other celebrations.

Nuts and Bolts

Now allow me to backtrack to just after the dream stage for the new Rose Villa. This is when we realized that a key trick in seeing the redevelopment to fruition would be finding a way to build the community while minimizing the displacement of our current residents. As part of the planning process, our director of facility services and I plotted out a two-year minimum-impact relocation plan for residents residing in the areas where construction would be slated. (Clearly, our redevelopment project has been driven with a long lead time!)

During the two years leading up to the beginning of actual demolition and construction, we relocated about 25 residents (while also moving in a similar number of new residents). I have the utmost respect for the people who embraced this project and their new homes to make way for this work to be completed. They embody the true spirit of Rose Villa because they understand that the community cannot thrive and survive for the long term without their sacrifice. No one wants to move, but these Rose Villa "voyagers" did it because community means something to them.

New cottage homes, which make up the pocket neighborhoods, will accommodate approximately 80 residents, be out of street view, and will be situated to fetch a scenic view across the Willamette River. Along the street leading to Rose Villa and at our new main entrance to the community, two and three-story mixed-use-style buildings will provide ground level Main Street amenities. The upper levels of these mixed-use buildings will contain approximately 35 additional apartment homes. As these homes are completed and ready for occupancy, our charter members (those that participated in the pre-construction opportunity to purchase) will begin moving into their new homes.

Financing the Dream

Having worked to position Rose Villa as a strong, financially independent nonprofit, and armed with an innovative plan to take the community into the future, we set about the task of securing financing for the project. When the financial feasibility evaluation of the project first began, the assumption was that the most likely option for financing the project would be fixed-rate tax-exempt bonds. There was some discussion about variable-rate bonds with an underlying bank letter of credit. Some kind of combination of bank borrowing (short-term during construction) and then bond financing for the longer term was also discussed.

The greatest challenge in bank financing is that many banks (particularly those that are not large national organizations) are not familiar with the CCRC model, particularly the entrance-fee component. In addition, bank capital is typically allocated to seasoned or smaller-scale projects rather than major campus repositionings or start-up transactions.

With tax-exempt bond financing unfolding as the most likely and available source of financing for our project, our next step was to locate an issuer. Our county Hospital Facility Authority had been allowed to lapse and could not be reconstituted in time for us to maintain our financing and construction time frame. We actually set up a HFA with the city of Milwaukie, OR, as we wanted to partner locally if at all possible, but we ran up against a local election that required us to delay our application. Ultimately, the Wisconsin-based Public Finance Authority approved our application to issue tax-exempt bonds. We are now in the process of marketing the bonds nationally with Ziegler and have every expectation of success.

Healthy Living-and Eating!

As all of us continue to live longer and healthier lives, more emphasis is being placed on designing healthier and more sustainable senior living communities. Wellness programs introduce an opportunity to socialize and meet other residents, while they also happen to encourage a healthy lifestyle. And, community gardens give seniors easy access to more affordable fresh organic produce.

Rose Villa's new design will feature a rooftop garden two floors above the Main Street restaurant, maximizing our executive chef's ability to incorporate fresh, organic ingredients into daily menus. The new community will also feature many outdoor opportunities residents' recreation and leisure, and paved paths that wend their way throughout the neighborhood and meander down to the two-acre community garden. With a focus on senior health and longevity, the design boasts a fully equipped wellness center with fitness equipment, spa, pool and spaces for classes such as yoga and Tai Chi. These aspects of the new community design are specifically built to encourage healthy activity among all residents, regardless of mobility.

Transforming Senior Care

Creating a retirement experience that emphasizes person-directed care is a core personal value for me. It gives me great to pride to acknowledge Rose Villa as a leader in senior housing trends. Our redevelopment will innovate the way older adults interact with, and within, their entire community.
Rose Villa is an example of how today's retirement communities can be just like the neighborhoods where seniors grew up or raised their own families, but with modern amenities that make life easier and allow for more time to enjoy an active and healthy retirement.