Burnsville council debates wisdom of adding more senior housing

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHERSPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: April 19, 2012 - 9:59 AM

Some members and the mayor say the city should stick to its plan to limit rentals — including senior housing — to 30 percent of homes. But others say the city should be willing to make exceptions.

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The Valley Ridge housing redevelopment project will add 140 senior rentals.

Photo: , Dakota County Community Development Agency

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The city of Burnsville has 681 senior apartments -- the most in Dakota County, according to 2011 figures. An additional 200 are in the works.

That's enough, according to the mayor and a City Council member.

Senior apartments, including assisted and independent living, may fill an important niche in the housing continuum as Minnesota ages. But the cold, hard reality is that they're still rentals, and that's something Burnsville doesn't need more of, they say.

To achieve the city's desired balance of 70 percent owner-occupied residences and 30 percent rentals, proposed senior apartment projects may get the same cool reception as all other proposed apartment developments have gotten for years, said Council Member Mary Sherry and Mayor Elizabeth Kautz during a recent work session. Currently, Burnsville is 66 percent owner-occupied and 34 percent rentals.

"The buildings look to me like an apartment. If it looks like an apartment and quacks like an apartment, it's an apartment," Sherry said. "Some communities have no rentals at all. ... We don't want to be that community. But I don't think we want to be a community that is dominated by rentals, either. I don't want to see that tipping point reached," Sherry said.

Until now, the council has been more lenient when approached with projects for seniors. The city approved Valley Ridge, a joint venture between the Dakota County Community Development Agency and Presbyterian Homes & Services, which will add 140 senior-living rentals. In March, the council approved the construction of Arbors Addition, with 63 units of senior housing at the Fairview Ridges campus.

What prompted the new hard line on senior rentals? Council Member Dan Gustafson wants the city to rethink its longstanding goal of a 70-30 split between owner-occupied and rental residences. He wants the city to consider the possibility of building some luxury apartments in its Heart of the City. He pointed to the recent exemptions the city has made for senior rentals. That plan may have backfired, as both Kautz and Sherry seemed to dig in their heels opposing all exceptions.

"I would like our council to be a little more open," Gustafson said after the work session. "I am not sure why they totally want to shut the doors on seniors, either. Are we going to lose our seniors in Burnsville? Will they go somewhere else because we don't have the housing they want?"

Gustafson said he started second-guessing the 70-30 goal when he heard that developers inquired about building luxury apartments next to the Burnsville Performing Arts Center but may have been dissuaded from even proposing a plan. The city sent out a request for proposals for commercial or mixed-use development for that parcel last winter and received no applications, Gustafson said.

"In theory, I supported [the 70-30 goal] years ago when it was realistic. I am not sure it's a realistic number any longer. Those numbers were created in a different world. We don't live in that world any longer. ... We can't be closed-minded, and we should at least be open to presentations by developers who may have something very special to bring to us. I want to at least hear the ideas."

The city adopted the 70-30 goal in 2000, according to staff members. It predates everyone on the council except Kautz, who was elected in 1994.

Council Member Dan Kealey said he supports the 70-30 goal but believes senior housing proposals need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Kealey said he is also open to hearing from developers about luxury apartments, but that the threshold is very high. Panoramic views of the Minnesota River make Burnsville an ideal location for luxury rentals.

"I am talking about a product that doesn't exist in Burnsville and may only exist in a few places," Kealey said.

No exceptions

At last week's work session, Kautz seemed to resist any exceptions to the 70-30 policy.

She said luxury apartments can quickly slide as they age and rents decline. Kautz also pointed out that senior apartments come with additional costs to the city. At the request of the council, the city's fire chief compiled numbers about emergency calls from senior apartments.

Emergency and medical calls are much higher at senior rentals, compared with residences overall. Burnsville's 517 assisted-living apartments had 360 calls for service in 2011. That's 0.72 calls per unit, compared with the city's overall rate of 0.06 calls per residence.

Also, most of the emergency calls for seniors are covered by Medicare and Medicaid, which only pay about $340 of the $1,300 bill, according to Burnsville Fire Chief B.J. Jungmann. The city must cover the difference.

"I am concerned about the cost of service and how we sustain that long-term," Kautz said. "At the end of the day what happens is when we are writing off $1,000 a call, that comes off the property axes."

The need for senior housing is great in Dakota County. The county's Community Development Agency, which has 26 senior housing complexes, has a waiting list of nearly 1,500, and about 500 of those are seeking rentals in Burnsville.

"We have a strong demand for senior housing programs in Burnsville," said Mark Ulfers, CDA executive director. "The people who apply have roots in the community. They are from the community or they generally have family that lives in the area."

Ulfers praised Burnsville as one of its best partners.

"We hope we can continue to have the kind of partnership we've had in the past," Ulfers said.

The City Council isn't done discussing the 70-30 policy. Council members asked employees to draft some possible exceptions to the 70-30 policy to make room for luxury rental apartments.

Shannon Prather is a Roseville freelance writer.

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