Proposal for senior living facilities draws interest, ire of neighbors

Proposal for senior living facilities draws interest, ire of neighbors
Size, scale and concept all in question for new Planned Unit Development (PUD)

Is a high-end, luxury senior community needed in the Ortega area? The answer is yes or no, depending on who you ask.

In May, representatives from local developer Vestcor plan to make a pitch to the City for the community, which would require zoning changes to a proposed site situated next to the popular Marina at Ortega Landing – and a vocal condo community that has already made its mind up about the project. While Vestcor representatives say its studies indicate the community is needed for an aging population in the area, the condo owners and neighbors along Lakeside Drive across from the riverfront site say the building would change the sleepy character of their neighborhood and is not welcome.

Vestcor has headed up projects all over the state, and currently has already completed three senior living communities in Jacksonville and beyond: HarborChase of Mandarin on San Jose Boulevard, Tallahassee’s The Grove at Canopy and The Grove at Trelago in Maitland. Those properties provide three levels of care to seniors: independent living, assisted living and memory care, and Vestcor provides asset management services after they’re complete to maximize the property’s operating income and to maintain the communities.

Now, Vestcor executives would like to add another community at Ortega Landing, adjacent to existing condos and edging along the high-end, 192-boat-slip marina. Ortega Landing is North of the Aging True headquarters and East of Ortega Park, the former Roosevelt Square Mall, which houses Publix alongside other retail, dining, and other businesses. The proposed senior living community at Ortega Landing would be a five-story-tall building consisting of 66 independent living units and 54 assisted living units, Will Morgan, president of Vestcor Communities Inc., wrote in an email to The Resident.

Vestcor’s proposal for a luxury senior community adjacent  to the Marina at Ortega Landing and Riverhomes at Ortega Landing condos.
Vestcor’s proposal for a luxury senior community adjacent to the Marina at Ortega Landing and Riverhomes at Ortega Landing condos.

“This concept offers seniors the ability to maintain an independent lifestyle with the comfort of knowing additional care is available when needed.  Residential units are well appointed, with finish levels similar to condominiums, just on a smaller scale,” he explained. He said that amenity spaces comprise almost half of the building and include multiple dining venues, a movie theater, hair and nail salon, activity rooms and “peaceful well-landscaped courtyard areas.” Services include dining, housekeeping, transportation and organized activities.

“Our communities have a hospitality focus for residents and their families while offering a service level and resident care at a ratio that allows for personalized attention,” Morgan wrote. “This type of all-inclusive community offers a maintenance-free lifestyle to seniors.  For many, it also provides a sense of community and socialization that they might not have living at home.”

Some in the neighborhood agree that such a place is needed for aging residents in the area, but not all do. Some neighbors living along Lakeside Drive, which would front the new complex, are concerned about traffic along a corridor that has already seen an increase in the number of cars using the previously quiet residential street since a new street connecting it to Roosevelt Boulevard, by Publix, reopened a few months ago a few months ago. And the entire membership of the Riverhomes at Ortega Landing Condominium Association Inc. – which represents the condo owners in the four-story building that would be next-door to the new community – has come out against the project. The condo building is at 4238 Lakeside Drive and houses eight large units.

Keith Waldrip and Mark Ross live in a house in the 4000 block of Lakeside directly across from the marina, condos and proposed site for the assisted living facility. Keith Waldrip’s chief concern is parking and increased traffic.

“The parking is huge, with the number of marina slips and the number of cars with the slip owners,” Keith Waldrip said. “If you had a pretty day like today on a Saturday or Sunday, there is nowhere for people to park if this happens. My big concern is that they are all going to park on the street. The City has cut out some spaces already and I’m betting you any amount of money that Vestcor is pushing for on-street parking. That’s one of my concerns, the size of the building, the commercial concern and the parking that this is going to create.”

Condo owner Mitzi Kuntz said she has observed a big increase in traffic since the cut-through to Roosevelt Boulevard opened up.

“When I walk out the front door of my condo and I walk along the sidewalk to where Publix is, I start counting cars as they whip around the curve, at least 30, 40 and sometimes 45 cars use it as a cut through,” she said of the less-than-half-a-mile stretch.

Ross said he wonders why Vestcor didn’t instead choose a parcel further west on Lakeside Drive, closer to Roosevelt Square, that is already zoned for Vestcor’s intended use and is situated next to the Ortega Yacht Club condos, housed in a high-rise many stories taller than the proposed facility. “But Vestcor representatives said that site was half the size of the current parcel it has under contract, and would require a smaller footprint than is feasible for their senior living model.

Charles Johnston, one of many condo owners who spoke at a meeting in April held in opposition to the project, echoed other owners’ sentiments when he said that the proposed facility was not what he was told would be on the property when he bought his condo in 2012. Charles and his wife Barbara were one of the first owners in the building and were told that similar condos would be built on the site, not an assisted living facility.

“When Barbara and I visited these condos, the real estate agent selling these condos had renderings of what is the Ortega Landing community, established by the City of Jacksonville by passing the Planned Unit Development (PUD) in 2004,” he said.  “Barbara and I understood that just because the picture of those drawings were how they were being represented, that some changes (to the community) could be made. We understood that. But we did understand that they would be residential units and there would be no more than 67 and the architecture would be all be the same and that the buildings would be integrated into a community that is Ortega Landing. That’s how (Northbrook, Ill.-based owner) Bixby Bridge Capital LLC marketed those condos. I think Bixby Bridge was committed to the Ortega Landing development at this time and was promoting this ‘one community concept’ when we bought our condo.”

Most of the condo owners said they too invested in living in the condos with an understanding of what the property would eventually look like and are worried the property instead would be dominated by a large commercial building with round-the-clock employees and laundry and food service deliveries.

But Morgan of Vestcor said the senior living project is an improvement over what could be built there instead with the use already approved for the site.

 “When this site was marketed for sale, we understand most interested buyers were evaluating it for multifamily, either condominiums or apartments, some larger in density than the PUD currently allows,” he said.  “The site is a perfect fit for senior living given the concerns of the surrounding community.  Senior living is a very passive use with regards to traffic, parking, noise, and activity around the community.  Frankly, most of our residents do not drive much, if at all, since most of what they need is available within the community and transportation is available for the occasional appointment or errand.”

Vestcor’s proposal for a luxury senior community adjacent  to the Marina at Ortega Landing and Riverhomes at Ortega Landing condos.

Much of the parking would be underground, he added, and said a Vestcor traffic study indicated that the proposed use would result in 60 percent less traffic than the multifamily and retail currently approved for the site. Additional surface parking is also being planned on the property to accommodate the marina, he said.

He also said the proposed facility would be smaller than what would be required for condos comparable to those already built. “We are proposing to eliminate the additional retail use that was sensitive to neighbors when the PUD was originally approved,” he wrote. “Our research indicates a community of this caliber would be well-received in the market. 
We have had several meetings over the last 18 months with the condominium owners next door and other members of the community to understand the concerns over our proposed development.  We have made great strides in refining our design in response to these discussions and will continue to do so.”

A firm date for Vestcor’s presentation to the City had not been set as of press time. In the meantime, condo association member said they had retained attorney Paul M. Harden and T.R. Hainline Jr. of Rogers Towers, P.A.

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