Manny Gonzalez – Best Affordable Senior Housing Design 2016: High Style for Today and Tomorrow

Senior Housing News

January 19, 2017

Proving that senior living can be innovative even without catering to high-end consumers, one affordable housing in the Denver area is pushing the needle on what affordable housing can be with multiple amenities and contemporary, sustainable design.

Cityscape at Belmar is in the walkable urban shopping area, Belmar, in the Lakewood suburb of Denver. The area was begging for an affordable senior housing solution, says Brendalee Connors, director of development at Metro West Housing Solutions, which owns and operates Cityscape at Belmar.

“The community is situated in the larger context of the Belmar area and we thought why not essentially bring the seniors to all the services the area has to offer,” she tells Senior Housing News.

Cityscape at Belmar is in walking distance to retail, medical offices, restaurants and plenty of activities to stay busy—perfect for older adults who may not want to drive anymore—and is also the first affordable housing community in Belmar.

Lakewood, Colorado-based Metro West Housing Solutions serves the greater Denver area as a non-profit property developer and operator of apartment complexes. Metro West’s focus is on properties that include affordable and income-restricted housing.

The key when looking for great affordable senior housing is to be surprised that it is affordable, says Manny Gonzalez, Senior Housing News Design Awards judge and principal at KTGY Architecture and Planning.

“You’re looking for something that doesn’t feel affordable when you see it,” he says. “You would never think this community was done for lower-income residents. It curates a really true feeling of home, somewhere residents would be proud to say they live.”

The concept

The idea behind Cityscape at Belmar was to have the look of a modern, innovative apartment building that could be appealing to all ages, even millennials, but would be accessible to older adults at an affordable price, Connors shared.

The building has 130 units with a mixture of affordable housing as well as market-rate housing. About 71% of the units are affordable housing.

The landscape of older adults is changing every year and baby boomers don’t want the same things in senior housing as their parents and grandparents did, Studio Completiva’s Yong Cho, principal architect of the Cityscape at Belmar project, tells SHN.

“The project was an effort to create a resilient, active and healthy community,” he says. “We thought a lot about not only the baby boomers, but the seniors who will be moving into the community in 10 years and what their needs and desires will be. Because being in Colorado, many seniors are very health conscious but at the same time they want a sense of community.”

Cityscape at Belmar does its part when it comes to being green. The community has the largest solar array of any residential building in Colorado and is LEED Gold certified, which can be a deciding factor for potential residents who are seeking an environmentally-friendly community.

One of the main goals of Cityscape at Belmar was to create a cohesive environment that gave off a strong sense of community among residents, Cho adds.

“We wanted to create an environment where people could rely on each other regardless of if they lived in an affordable unit or a market-rate unit, be vulnerable and ask for help from those around them,” he says. “That’s why there’s a courtyard, multiple gathering spaces as well as community gardens outside.”

In addition to the feel of the community, the physical look of the community played an important role in attracting potential residents on first glance.

“We didn’t approach the building with preconceptions of what a senior housing community should be,” Cho says. “We tried to break from the past idea of senior housing, architecturally. We tried to bring new aesthetics of the colors, scaling and massing that millennials really like.”

The architectural aspects of the structure are what made the community stand out among other affordable communities, says Elisabeth Borden, SHN Awards judge and principal of The Highland Group, Inc.

“The design is very contemporary. From the materials and colors on the exterior and the interior— no one would ever think it was a senior living building,” she says. “The design makes the building blend in as part of the neighborhood rather than looking like a tired senior apartment building.”

The construction

Cityscape at Belmar has been a work in progress for the last 12 years, Connors shares. It took that long to purchase the land and secure the building tax credits to do construction. What ultimately helped Metro West Housing Solutions purchase the land was the Great Recession, which brought the price of the land down and enabled the sale in 2010.

The property of Cityscape at Belmar was previously a mall. Once the land was secured, the community ended up costing around $30 million and took about five years from purchase to finished construction.

There were hold ups along the way, however, which included the builders discovering ground water two feet higher than they anticipated, despite all of the best testing prior to construction. The issue forced the construction of an extra two feet to the foundation of the building, which set the project back about three months and increased the amount of funding needed.

Other funds for the project came from a bank loan and some grant money, in addition to the housing tax credits.

Of the 130 units, there is a mix of one- and two-bedroom units ranging in size from around 659 square feet to 824 square feet.

Aside from the physical look of the community, the small details that were integrated into Cityscape at Belmar are what make it unique, Gonzalez says.

“There may not be anything really cutting edge, but the little things like raised planter beds so residents can grow their own fruits and vegetables, and outdoor fireplaces, really set this community apart from its competition,” he says. “It works for seniors, but doesn’t necessarily look like it would be just for seniors. The thoughtful design gives them a place to socialize in an environment that meets their changing needs.”

The way each of the individual units were constructed also made the community stand out, explains Borden.

“Sometimes the affordable senior housing properties have too much of a focus on common spaces and less on individual units,” she says. “They [Cityscape at Belmar] did a great job on both. The units are well-configured with a lot of storage and are very liveable.”

To be able to keep prices low, it took a lot of creativity on the side of the architects, Cho says.

The architects at Studio Completiva had to give up the old excuses that are commonly used when designing affordable housing.

“We really wanted the community to be the pride of the neighborhood and work together with the wider community to craft something that is a real asset to the area,” he says. “It took courage on our team to push the colors and break away from the idea of what senior housing should look like. We were really trying to push the needle for this project.”

The completion

The community was opened in November 2015, and 2016 was its first full year in operation. Each unit boasts tall ceilings, air conditioning, balconies, walk-in closets, in-unit laundry and large refrigerators.

Residents can enjoy community rooms, a fitness center, billiards room, large outdoor community spaces including an outdoor kitchen and fire pit, free Wi-Fi and a private dining room for special occasions.

Cityscape at Belmar took the amenities so seriously that Metro West Housing Solutions held different focus groups at existing communities to determine which ones to include.

Another draw for current residents was that all of the community’s common areas are available to the neighborhood, so residents from Cityscape at Belmar as well as the surrounding community can host monthly meetings and gatherings.

“The private dining room is also a huge hit because people can reserve it if they have a big family gathering,” Connors says. “This allows the residents to have their own private space within the larger community without being out in the open in one of the community areas.”

Within three months of opening, all of the affordable units in the community were full, and currently, there is a waiting list of about 500 people, Connors says. The market-rate units took about nine months to fill completely.

The return on investment for affordable senior housing is a bit different than your typical senior housing community, Connors adds.

“We basically broke even in 2016 and were in lease up,” she said. “This year will show what we are made of, but for us it’s about being able to make the payments we would make each month and have some amount of cash flow.”

With a waiting list of 500 people, it’s no secret that Cityscape at Belmar is doing something right.

“The fact that Cityscape at Belmar houses people with a mix of incomes is really unique,” Gonzalez adds. “It isn’t just for those who are low-income, it allows people of all means and ages to interact and coexist.”