Arizona’s 55+ communities are facing challenges from new generations of retirees looking for neighborhoods more engaged than isolated. Can the industry adapt?
Mary and John Cooper, both in their late 70s, are finally downsizing, after living for years in a 7,000-square-foot home in Silverleaf, the luxury home community in North Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
They’re not retiring; the Coopers passed that phase when they moved to Phoenix 20 years ago, originally settling in Desert Mountain, the private community in the desert northeast of Carefree. But all that peace and quiet quickly grew too sedate for Mary. “That’s in the middle of nowhere, as far as I’m concerned,” she says.
They moved about 15 miles south to Silverleaf, into a sprawling home that eventually became too big. “With all the maintenance and the landscaping,” Cooper says, “it was just a little much.”
Finally the couple heard about Optima Kierland, a $300 million, 12-story, four-tower condo going up just across from Kierland Commons in the Scottsdale Airpark area.
“We got very excited about it,” Mary says. “We got in very early, so we were able to get up on the 11th floor. We combined four units, so it’s about 4,000 square feet – still pretty big. But we still want that big expanse. And we’re going to be facing west, toward the Westin Kierland golf course. We want to see the sunsets from up there.”
They may both be nearing 80, but the active couple has little interest in moving into an age-restricted retirement community.
“We like to be around younger people,” Cooper explains. “We like to walk and see the young kids splashing in the pool. It makes us feel younger.”
Cooper says the Optima’s location, overlooking both Kierland Commons and the Scottsdale Quarter shopping districts, as well as the Westin Kierland golf course, puts all the amenities of your average 55+ community within easy walking distance, even if none of those restaurants and leisure activities are on the property’s grounds.
“We’re going to join a golf club over at the Westin Kierland, and it won’t take us long to get to the golf course,” she says, with a shrug. ”And we eat out every night of the week, so we can just go downstairs, walk across the street and have our choice of restaurants.”
The Coopers are a prime example of a new type of retirees that experts who study senior issues are seeing: older adults who, instead of relocating to age-restricted master-planned communities, are flocking to highdensity urban areas surrounded by plenty of amenities and activities, along with a multi-generational mix of neighbors for human contact. The generation is seeking the same livework-play environment trending with N1illennials and young professionals.
Not far from the Optima Kierland, another mid-rise luxury Condo tower, the Overture Kierland, by developer Greystar, is being built specifically for the 55 and older demographic, with its marketing materials targeting “older adults seeking a resort-style living environment within close proximity to the retail and dining opportunities of Kierland Commons.”
Neither the Overture nor Optima will offer the medical-type services residents “would find at a continuing care retirement community that features independent and assisted living sections to serve residents’ changing health and social needs as they age. However, the Overture’s plans call for ”resident-focused health services” such as a fitness center and classes on healthy living, and may also feature “limited medical.”
But the new stripe of retirees seeking out the urban condo life exhibit little concern over that. “We’re not worried about assistive care yet,” Cooper says. “We figure we’ll get that when we need it. And a lot of times you can just get your own care. You don’t need to liv1e in a place where there’s nurses and doctors and healthcare facilities all around. We don’t need that – not yet. And if we do, we’ll just move on.”
Traditional still thrives
Arizona has a rich history as a retirement destination, largely due to its year-round warm climate and relatively low cost of living. The ironically named Youngtown, developed in 1955 on a 320-acre desert ranch west of Phoenix, is said to be the nation’s first masterplanned community specifically £or older adults (the town retained an age restriction until 1999). In 1959, a Mesa developer named Ross Farnsworth opened Dreamland Villa, the first in a line of retirement communities the Farnsworth Development Company would later build under the Sunland Village name.
A year later, Del Webb would build Sun City, which solidified the image of the 55+ community for the rest of the world: blankets of glued-down pea gravel front yards that simulated lawns without the maintenance, and quiet streets driven by cardigan-doffed residents in slow-moving golf carts. The Sun City brand, now part of Pulte Homes, expanded to all corners of the Greater Phoenix area: Sun City West was built in the late ’70s, Sun City Grand was added in the late ’90s, followed by Sun City Anthem in 1999 and Sun City Festival in 2006. Other developers launched their own variations on the concept, eventually growing the number of retirement communities in Arizona to nearly 70.
Now it appears tastes are changing, with many retiring Boomers exhibiting a rejection of the isolated masterplanned community concept that was, in itself, a “rejection of the outer world,” as LIFE magazine described Sun City in a 1970 article.
Are traditional 55+ communities facing obsolescence, confronted by these new preferences among older adults for living environments more plugged into the walkable, energetic surroundings favored by the youth? Another trend threatening the future of master-planned retirement communities is the growing phenomenon of naturally occurring retirement communities (NORC’s, for short) – neighborhoods where residents simply stay put long enough that eventually everyone on the block is in their 70s and older, prompting a need for healthcare-related services that pop up around the neighborhood in the form of CVS MinuteClinics and more specialized walk-in treatment centers.
But representatives for Arizona’s top master-planned community developers
Robson, Pulte, Shea Homes, Statesman Group and DMB, among others – each insist the future of 55+ communities in Arizona continues to look healthy.
“We’re seeing that trend [toward walkable urban centers],” acknowledges Carolyn Morrison, senior VP of sales for Robson Resort Communities, which owns and operates five 55+ developments between the Phoenix and Tucson areas. “But our communities offer a unique lifestyle component, a little more exclusive, where it’s ‘for them.’ Where the residents are not sharing those amenities with everyone around them. So when they’re going to the fitness center, they’re not sharing that with everybody else. Which is the very reason they move to our neighborhoods: because it’s ‘their’ time. The reason why people like country club living is they enjoy the social aspect of living around neighbors of a similar age with similar interests.”
Paul Fuchs, an 82-year-old resident of SaddleBrooke One north of Tucson, agrees that the best thing about living in an age-restricted community is being around others Who’ve arrived at the same station in life. “People here come from different parts of the country and the world, and from all walks of life,” he says. “But here we’re all on equal footing. Everybody seems to blend. The one thing we all have in common is that virtually everyone who lives here was successful in their life at some point in time, and they’ve all relocated. It’s a community feeling you get that you don’t get if you just move into a city or town by yourself.”
Fuchs, a former lab worker for 3M in Minnesota who considers himself a handyman and mechanical troubleshooter, says residents of 55+ communities benefit from their neighbors’ years of experience. “They’ve been successful in their own careers, and their careers are very diverse – from medical doctors to plumbers. So you have a lot of seasoned experts in a lot of fields.”
Some residents of active adult enclaves still enjoy the quieter, more relaxed lifestyle the concept has always promised.
“Where we’re located, we’re a bit out of the way, so we’re away from all of the traffic and noise,” says Rebekah Sundin, a resident of Robson Ranch Arizona in Eloy, between Tucson and Phoenix. “It’s quiet, and just more geared toward adults.”
Sundin and her husband, a pastor, moved from Washington state about three years ago to start a church in the area, and they enjoy being among like-aged adults who share certain oldfashioned values.
“If you want to be around family and maintain a busy lifestyle, that’s great,” Sundin says. “But if you like a little quiet and the feeling of being outside of the big cities, this is the place.”
Some 55+ communities, like the popular Victory at Verrado agerestricted district within the all-ages community of Verrado near Buckeye, intentionally recreate a kind of Mayberry feel with a small Main Street and home architecture based on early 20th-century design.
But many more stick with a luxury resort environment and let the residents themselves create that neighborly vibe through the many social interactions, from pickleball to pottery making, that all 55+ communities foster.
“It’s kind of a return to that home town feeling, but with an upscale lifestyle,” Morrison says. “They get to know the folks that they>re in the community with, so that they’re not just residents, they’re neighbors. And it’s a great feeling when they can say hello to each other and wave to each other. They get to know their neighbors again.”
Not every older adult needs to move into a multi-generational urban center to experience the energy and dynamism of a more youthful environment. Deb Chiaramonte, a resident of Trilogy at Encanterra, the 55+ district that’s part of the all-ages Encanterra development in San Tan Valley, says she and her husband Bob, both in their 60s, find plenty of what she calls “pulse” in their community.
‘We’re originally from New York, and we moved out to Fountain Hills about 18 years ago,” says the ebullient Italian from Long Island’s south shore. “But Bob and I both wanted to be more active.” When their son and daughter-in-law moved from Chandler to Power Ranch, the Chiaramontes found a nearby adult community in Encanterra.
Immediately they hit it off with the other residents, who seemed constantly engaged in social activities. “This community is just fabulous,” Chiaramonte says. ‘We’ve made more friends here in a year and a half than we did in 17 years in Fountain Hills. This shouldn’t be called a 55- plus community. It should be called the party district! I mean, it’s crazy. Every night there’s something going on} or someone’s having a party. Just to celebrate nothing. ‘Oh, today’s Thursday. Let’s have a party!”
It helps that the properties offer tons of social activities along with fitness centers, walking trails and, lately, more patio bars and gathering places.
“We just put about $448,000 into our patio, which now has an outdoor bar and grill,” says Vivian Timian, general manager of SaddleBrooke One, whose 2,061 home sites overlook the Santa Catalina Mountains. Since the property holds the unique distinction of being run by the residents with seven volunteer board members, Timian says they can satisfy their neighborhood’s \\-1shes faster. “If we want to have a project, we can move on it right away. We don’t have to run things through a corporate office.”
Encanterra even stages concerts with top-tier musical acts Boomers know from their wilder days. This year the community hosts its seventh annual Good Life Festival headlining Lynyrd Skynyrd in March and Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald in April.
“The festival is open to the public, and we usually get about 5,500 people attending,” says Encanterra’s general manager, Brian Beard. “But the largest segment is usually our residents who are in their mid-50s into their 60s.”
For the residents, the concerts are clearly one more excuse to party.
“Our idea is that life doesn’t wind down after 55,” Beard says. “It gets better.”