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Five-Story Assisted-Living Development Coming to Gates Street in Hartford

Five-Story Assisted-Living Facility Coming

  • An artist's rendering of The Village at White River Junction, a five-story proposed 80-unit assisted living facility on slightly less than an acre next to the Methodist Church in downtown White River Junction, Vt. (4240 Architecture - Lou Bieker)



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2016

White River Junction — It’s humble, that parking lot —not even a full acre. It’s a blank space in a streetscape that provides just a bit of breathing room between the historic United Methodist Church and Northern Stage’s newly minted Barrette Center for the Arts on Gates Street.

Developers look at an empty piece of land the same way that a painter looks at a blank canvas, or a writer a blank page — it’s potential, a space to hold dreams.

In the case of Byron Hathorn, the man who bought and restored the nearby White River Junction train station, the dream he’s seized upon is big — so big that it could transform the texture of the downtown community.

And as it wends its way through the town’s permitting process, Hathorn’s dream is moving ever closer toward reality.

With a firm handshake and gray stubble beneath his glasses, Hathorn has the kind of friendly presence that has helped him close deals and jump through hoops on his way to decades worth of development projects.

When he turns his blue-gray eyes to the Gates Street lot, characterized by an odd shape, a wooded slope that wraps around the back of the church, and weeds pushing their way up through the cracked blacktop, he sees a gleaming, five-story assisted-living facility that will employ 54 people, house more than 80 people, and has a price tag of $25 million.

If Hathorn’s plan to break ground this summer and welcome the first batch of residents in October 2017 comes through, it will inject a population of elders into a community that in recent years has acquired an increasingly youthful vibe.

A year ago, Hathorn’s project seemed like it was in trouble — discussions about buying and demolishing the church next door had gone sour, inciting passionate opposition from both church members and historic preservationists. Hartford Historic Preservation Commission members panned the project in August 2015, and Chairman Jonathan Schectman expressed concern about the potential loss of the church, as well as another Gates Street building that Hathorn would have bought and razed to clear the way for a new church as part of the deal.

“The simple fact is that they are demolishing two structures and one of them is an iconic, historic New England church,” Schectman said.

Over the last several months, Hathorn has retooled his approach. He abandoned plans to purchase the church, and instead hired architect Lou Bieker, one of six principal architects in the Colorado-based firm 4240 Architecture, to come up with a new design that would fit the irregular lot.

Bieker said it was a challenge.

“It’s less than an acre site, but it’s got four competing forces,” said Bieker. “A naturalized hillside, a very urban and civic core, a residential neighborhood and then kind of a thriving commercial district. … It’s hard to design a building that responds to four of those conditions on one small acre site. So that’s extremely unique.”

On Thursday morning, Bieker and Hathorn were in a meeting room at Town Hall, presenting the details of their new plan to the White River Junction Design Review Committee, which makes recommendations to the Planning Commission on whether a development has considered existing architecture, streetscape and site layout, among other details. One of its five members — its vice chair, in fact — is Jonathan Schectman.

The Village
At White River Junction

Hathorn’s project — officially titled The Village at White River Junction — is designed to blend with the wooded hillside and the surrounding buildings on the outside, while providing its residents with a sense of familiarity and comfort, according to a project narrative written by Bieker for Rio Blanco, Hathorn’s company.

The building, which has a  footprint of 23,000 square feet (just over half an acre) will be set well back from Gates Street, with a low retaining wall, trees and public benches that flow into an outdoor garden terrace at the intersection of Gates and Currier streets. The main entrance on the east side, set back from Currier Street, will lead to first-floor amenities including a fireplace in the lobby, administrative offices, a kitchen and a dining room. The outward-facing materials on these sides will be brick, metal panels and glass.

Looking up at the northeast corner from the Gates and Currier intersection, pedestrians will be able to see glass-walled front-facing common rooms on the second, third and fourth floors — two are for “arts and activities,” while the third-floor space will contain a demonstration kitchen that can serve as a showcase for visiting chefs, or serve residents who would like to cook for themselves.

The upper levels also have a series of outdoor terraces, some of which will be screened from the street by plantings. On the second floor, which will be devoted to memory care patients, there will be a garden; the fourth floor will have a dog park, while the terrace on the fifth floor will be located directly outside a tavern.

Plantings will be used to blend the south side of the building into the wooded hillside, while the area facing the church to the west will be “intentionally simple and unadorned in an effort to frame and complement the church as a modest architectural backdrop,” according to Bieker’s narrative.

The amenities inside the facility, which won’t be available to the larger public, include a movie screening room, an art gallery, a spa, a gym, a small auditorium and a dog grooming area. 

Hathorn said the facility will will employ 54 people, with roughly 30 on hand during the peak hours of the day shift.

It will be operated by Life Care Services, a Des Moines-based company that provides senior services to 33,000 nationwide.

After presenting these and various other details to the Design Review Committee on Thursday, Bieker and Hathorn awaited the response from commission members, including Schectman. 

Speaking on Friday, Hathorn said that, when he heard Schectman’s comments, “I almost fell to the floor.”

Critics and Supporters

“It is,” said Schectman, with Hathorn hanging on his every word, “very inspired. It does solve most of the problems that have come up. … It’s a really marvelous selection of interesting materials. I think it’s going to be an asset.”

Denise Welch-May, commission chairwoman, also praised the project design.

“I think you’ve done a terrific job of integrating all those different materials,” she said, “... to keep it from looking like a really monolithic building, like for instance, the old White River telephone building right there. … I think you’ve very successfully divided the space.”

The commission approved the project, pending the receipt of examples of materials that would be used in its construction, and some minor details requested by town staff. Subtracting the razing of the church from the equation also led to a favorable review by the State of Vermont’s Division for Historic Preservation, which found that the new project would have “no adverse impact” on historic resources, and praised it as a “site-sensitive solution” in an April 22 summary.

Hathorn said that the criticisms from the church led to a better project. “We didn’t realize until January that, ‘Oh, yeah; this is what we should be doing,’” he said. “We evolved into a better concept.”

While the project has won over some new supporters, it’s not receiving universal acclaim. Susanne Abetti, a resident of White River Junction, wrote a letter to the Design Review Committee opposing the project, which she wrote “is completely out of sync with what ... White River Junction is all about.” Though she was present at the Design Review Committee hearing, she declined to speak because, she said after the meeting, she realized that most of her complaints fell outside of the scope of design review. She said she plans to bring her concerns to the town’s Planning Commission.

Abetti, who is also a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, described the building as a “monolith,” and said that bringing a population of seniors into the downtown area would take space away from young people who were needed to keep the local creative enterprises moving forward.

She suggested that the facility would be better sited outside of downtown.

“Senior residents thrive on being able to commune with nature,” she wrote, “and to that end this small downtown parcel is remarkably inappropriate.”

Hathorn said Abetti was unaware of a move within the elder care industry to create assisted living facilities that encourage an integration with, rather than an isolation from, the broader community.

“She’s making those statements in a vacuum. She has no knowledge of the trends of senior care,” said Hathorn. “It’s not in the middle of a 30-acre cornfield. Nor should it be. I don’t share the premise that’s what people want.”

Welch-May said it has the potential to change the culture of the village, for the better.

“Having elderly people who are aging out of work, people located right in the core of the community, I think is really important because I believe in that multigenerational contact,” she said. “I think it revitalizes our whole community.”

Interest Piqued

Roberta Dubrowsky, a West Hartford resident who turns 76 this week, said she’s happy on the property she bought in 1972 with the woman who would become her wife.

“I was pretty adamant that I was going to die there,” she said.

But life has gotten more difficult in recent years — her wife was struck with dementia and has moved into a long-term care facility. The maintenance and the snow shoveling have gotten more and more difficult to keep up with. “It’s a wonderful place,” said Dubrowsky. “But it’s really not reasonable. I want a nice, cozy, small, clean, easy place.”

Dubrowsky isn’t alone. She’s part of a growing population of elders, many of whom are seeking to transition into different living situations that reflect their diminished capacity to keep up a house, or travel.

Windsor County’s population is projected to grow by as much as 6.5 percent, or about 3,700 people, by 2030, according to a population projection prepared in 2013 by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

During that same time period, the number of those aged 65 and older is expected to grow by 106 percent, or about 10,675 people, according to the same source.

When Dubrowsky read newspaper accounts about a new assisted living facility coming to White River Junction, she saw it as an opportunity, and so tracked down Hathorn’s email address.

While he’s not keeping a formal waiting list yet, Hathorn said he is keeping an unofficial list of people to contact when a waiting list becomes available. Dubrowsky is at the top of that list. “I have a calling to live in this place,” she said. “Don’t ask me why, but I just am very excited about the prospect of living in downtown White River Junction, and being near the theater and being near the pizza joint.”

While Hathorn’s development will help meet the increasing demand for senior living communities, it’s not yet clear what the price tag will be for the relatively luxurious amenities. Brooke Ciardelli, vice president of development on Hathorn’s project, said prices have yet to be determined, but they will be “competitive” with other facilities in the area.

While she did ask Hathorn if she could bring a small dog to the facility, Dubrowsky said she hadn’t yet considered the cost. “I haven’t any idea of what the financial arrangements are going to be,” she said. “I’m not a millionaire. But we’ll see.”

 

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.