Sunrise Senior Living’s North Old Town location moves forward

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A rendering of the front of the planned Sunrise Assisted Living location in North Old Town at 420 N. Washington St. (Photo courtesy Sunrise Assisted Living)
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By Alexa Epitropoulos | aepitropoulos@alextimes.com

Sunrise Senior Living’s planned Old Town facility passed its most significant hurdle on Nov. 18 when city council unanimously approved a development special use permit and changes to the Braddock Metro Station Small Area Plan. Sunrise also agreed to add a second “auxiliary” unit for low-income residents in addition to the one unit they had previously agreed to provide.

Plans for a 91-unit facility, which will be located on a parcel of land located along the 400 blocks of North Washington and North Columbus streets, came before city council in need of the DSUP to rezone the land located at 413 to 417 N. Columbus St. from RM to CD.

The planned Sunrise Assisted Living facility would front on North Washington, North Columbus and Princess streets (Photo courtesy Sunrise Assisted Living)

The new assisted living home has been in the works for about a year, Sunrise Senior Vice President of Investments & Development Jerry Liang said. 

Although Sunrise has an existing location at 3520 Duke St. in the middle of Alexandria, Liang said the company saw additional potential in Old Town.

“Sunrise has been in Virginia for a very long time. We were founded here 35 years ago. We’ve been servicing the Northern Virginia area for a long time and this is our hometown as well,” Liang said. “We know there is a growing need for the overall community and, in particular, we felt the Old Town community was underserved.”

Since selecting the parcel of land – which primarily fronts on North Washington Street, but also has frontages on North Columbus and Princess streets – Sunrise has been working on the logistics of the development with city staff and would-be neighbors.

“We were very fortunate that a little over a year ago the opportunity arose and we were able to take advantage. We’ve worked tirelessly with planning staff and neighbors to make this project possible in Old Town,” Liang said.

The new facility will offer both assisted living services and a memory care unit. Liang said Sunrise offers the same services at each location in order to provide consistent quality of care.

It was the facility’s affordable housing units that prompted the most debate at city council’s public hearing.

Sunrise initially agreed to provide one studio auxiliary grant-funded unit as part of its affordable housing contribution.

An auxiliary grant unit is part of a Virginia program that combines commonwealth and city funding to subsidize the rent of a low-income senior.

Virginia pays 80 percent and the city pays 20 percent of the rent up to what the senior’s income is. In this case, Sunrise would offer the auxiliary grant-funded unit for $1,400 in rent, as opposed to its market-priced units at the Old Town facility, which would rent for several times that amount, Sunrise’s attorney Ken Wire from McGuireWoods said at the meeting.

At the meeting, the city’s Director of Housing Helen McIlvain said Sunrise had offered a second auxiliary grant-funded unit. Wire said the new unit would be located on the fourth floor.

“We can have a little bit of discussion as to where that unit would go, but, in essence, somewhere that’s three stories will have to change to four stories,” Wire said at the meeting.

“By adding a unit on top, it’s a lot less cost to us. The value is still the same at $3 million. You’re not taking away one of my 90 units; you’re adding something on top.”

Though city council approved the plans, the addition of a second auxiliary grant unit will mean Sunrise will have to go back to the Old & Historic District Board of Architectural Review for approval of the 92nd unit before proceeding.

Several city councilors and Mayor Allison Silberberg praised the possibility of two auxiliary grant units in Old Town. Currently, McIlvain said there’s only one such unit in the city. In addition, Wire said Sunrise expects to draw the majority of its residents – about 80 to 90 percent – from within a mile or two of the new facility.

“We know there’s a tremendous need because DCHS has a waiting list for people to be served. We’re hopeful that this would allow someone in the city to basically be getting the care they need,” McIlvain said. “It’s close to Ladray, it’s close to Annie B. Rose. We assume there are many people who are currently neighbors who would be assisted by this project.”

Liang declined to comment further on the addition of the second auxiliary unit. Sunrise agreed to provide the two affordable units for 40 years.

Not everyone, however, was pleased with the last-minute addition of the auxiliary unit. Councilor Paul Smedberg said adding something of this magnitude at the last minute based on late night conversations with the developer, Wire and city councilors the night before the public hearing wasn’t the correct process.

“I’m not saying it’s not a worthy cause or something that we shouldn’t pursue. I’m not saying that at all, but the process of how we get there, last-minute requests coming from groups and individuals – it’s just not right,” Smedberg said.

Councilor Del Pepper was concerned about the unit’s cost to the city and asked if one of the auxiliary grant units could be reserved for memory care patients. Wire said, due to the differing needs of memory care patients, that would be difficult to do.

“The difference between memory care and assisted living is pretty great. This is not a skilled nursing facility. The majority of our clients are getting help with bathing, eating, some administration of medicine,” Wire said. “Memory care service is a heavy aspect. Some people need to be in a room where they don’t get lost, and others need people next to them at arm’s length all day long.”

In addition to the affordable housing component, other community amenities include 80,000 square feet of green space, the addition of improved brick sidewalks, the addition of trees along the sidewalks and a publicly accessible mid-block connection.

The new facility will also have an underground parking garage that can accommodate 54 spaces. During peak times, Sunrise has outlined a parking plan that increases the parking garage’s capacity by 16 extra cars. The facility plans to accommodate loading on Princess Street, with limited deliveries during the day, as well as resident pick-up and drop-off. The parking garage will also be able to accommodate those picking up or dropping off residents.

Only two residents spoke publicly at the public hearing, and the couple, Greg and Allison Ricketts, complimented Sunrise on its willingness to work with them and others.

Throughout the process of developing a plan, Sunrise said it worked to get input from neighbors who would be impacted.

“We approached folks in the area without a plan, without a specifically designed formula of how it was going to work. We just knew we wanted to put something here and we knew we wanted it to be a certain size,” Liang said. “… We had quite a few face-to-face meetings, at least four, and multiple meetings with planning staff. The idea began to coalesce of trying to restore the residential character.”

The Ricketts agreed with that characterization of the process. At the meeting, Greg Ricketts said they had provided Sunrise with a photo of the May House, a historic home that used to occupy the space the assisted living facility will eventually occupy. That home was eventually destroyed to make way for new development.

When Sunrise received the photo, it began to incorporate elements of the May House into their design. It was particularly exciting for the couple, who live at 420 N. Washington St. in one of the only remaining historic homes on that section of Alexandria’s main thoroughfare.

“We would like to compliment Sunrise in their outreach to the neighborhood, their willingness to work with the neighborhood to accomplish what is not only providing necessary care, but tremendous beautification of what we consider to be an important historic area,” Greg Ricketts said.

Most council members and the mayor praised Sunrise’s final plans.

“This is more than just generous. It’s phenomenal that we could get two. I don’t think there’s any other affordable housing or retirement facility that has more than one auxiliary grant, so to get two voluntary contributions is wonderful,” Councilor Willie Bailey said.

Councilor John Chapman said he hopes this addition opens the door for more conversations about affordable housing. “I’m grateful for their work and helping this come to fruition,” Chapman said. “I think there’s an opportunity on how FAR can work into some of the opportunities we might have, because that might be a pathway to getting more opportunities in what we know is going to be a very tough area.”

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson agreed that some changes need to be made to affordable housing conditions to avoid last minute additions.

“I think we need to modify our affordable housing conditions to reflect these kinds of situations. I think it’s right to add some kind of formula to how we approach this, so we aren’t doing it last minute,” Wilson said.

Pepper also praised the design of the facility.

“What you’re bringing to the city is very important and I love what you’re doing with the building. It’s very attractive,” Pepper said. “I think it will fill up immediately. That’s what I would anticipate for sure.”

Silberberg also was in favor of the final design with the second auxiliary unit.

“I think the design with the small modification that we discussed is truly excellent, and, to the Ricketts’ point, as neighbors, their input was critical,” Silberberg said.

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