If you’re a baby boomer looking for housing, head west: From 55-plus communities and co-ops to nursing homes and memory care units, senior housing is booming in the west metro suburbs.

Hennepin County, the state’s most populous, has more nursing homes and assisted-living facilities than anywhere in Minnesota, according to Health Department data. And new construction isn’t slowing down.

But with limited land, developers are increasingly wedging senior housing into residential rather than commercial zones, leading to clashes with residents of single-family homes over tall, high-density buildings popping up next door.

“It’s just totally out of context,” longtime Eden Prairie resident Annette O’Connor told city leaders last month about a four-story, 138-unit building planned for her neighborhood.

“We’re not opposed to senior living at all, it’s just … the magnitude of this project going on this small piece of land.”

In Minnetonka, after a six-year lapse in new senior housing, three senior living projects under construction have raised the same questions about size and scale.

In Excelsior, some city leaders this summer unsuccessfully fought plans for a senior living facility that will be the city’s first four-story building. They say it will be out of character for the small Lake Minnetonka community.

“There’s always a natural conflict because there’s a fear of change,” said Jay Jensen, senior vice president of development for The Waters, which is developing the Excelsior project. “You want to be a good neighbor [to residents]. God willing, they’ll be there someday.”

Many suburban leaders say they do want residents to be able to age in their own community, moving to senior housing and freeing up their single-family homes for younger families. And there’s a growing need for senior housing, with the number of Minnesotans 65 and older predicted to double between 2010 and 2030.

Developers say that’s why there’s a surge in senior projects and why they’re shifting attention to senior housing.

City planners in suburbs such as Eden Prairie and Minnetonka report an uptick in inquiries about senior living projects. Because they’re largely built-out, however, development is mostly left for the random vacant lot or redevelopment of existing buildings, which can lead to further tensions with residents.

“They’re going up as fast as apartment buildings around town,” O’Connor said last week in an interview. “I know there’s a demand for it, but it doesn’t mean it should be on top of single-family homes.”

Eden Prairie’s latest project

Case in point: the Prairie Bluffs Senior Living project, which developers want to build on Hennepin Town Road near Hwy. 169 and Pioneer Trail. It would be the fourth senior living facility to go up near neighborhoods in Eden Prairie.

If the city approves a zoning change and variances among other requests for the project, the 138-unit complex would have independent living, assisted living and memory care units. The two buildings would be mostly three stories, with one portion rising four stories, or more than 50 feet.

Developers told city leaders last month that they designed the complex to blend into the neighborhood and act as a sound barrier against highway noise.

But neighbors said it would be squeezed onto a sliver of vacant land in a longtime residential district, and they’re worried it would hover over homes and draw traffic.

“The density is just too high,” resident Steve Mohn said. “If it was smaller, we wouldn’t oppose it.”

“Why is a tall building next to a road a problem? Because it affects the feel of a community ... it affects the walkability, it affects the nature of a community, of a neighborhood,” resident Eric Barton told city leaders about the building, which he would be able to see from his house.

Despite the opposition, the Planning Commission voted 5-1 to support the plans last month, saying that senior housing is needed in Eden Prairie and that it’s a quality development. The project goes to the City Council Oct. 4.

‘A huge need’

When developers this summer pitched Excelsior’s first independent senior living facility, some city leaders and critics said they supported the housing but felt the four-story, 110-unit building was oversized.

A split City Council ended up approving The Waters of Excelsior. Construction is slated to start this year near Hwy. 7 and Water Street.

The Waters met similar resistance in Edina in 2010, when residents of the Countryside neighborhood posted 400 yard signs protesting a 139-unit, three-story building they said was too big and would create too much traffic. A divided City Council approved it and now, years later, the community supports the development, Jensen said.

With commercial areas more expensive to develop than residential, Jensen said, more senior housing likely will end up near residential neighborhoods in the Twin Cities.

“The scarcity of land and the cost of land causes you to go up in the air,” he said. “You build where the land is.”

In Minnetonka, an aging suburb known for its large single-family home lots, three senior living projects are underway.

“It’s a huge need in our community,” Mayor Terry Schneider said, adding that the result will be younger families in single-family homes left by seniors. “We do see that turnover.”

But City Council Member Bob Ellingson, who voted against all three projects, said that while he supports more senior housing, the projects are too big. Developers, he said, are building with smaller setbacks and maximum density.

“The market demand is there,” he said about the buildings. “But they’re real muscular, they’re big and they’re out of scale with the lot.”


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