Harlan: Don't ignore current residents for sake of new ones

Over the past two weeks, Costa Mesa's seniors earned two important, but relatively silent, victories.

First, the City Council approved issuing $37 million in tax-free bonds for the renovation of the 269-unit Bethel Towers for low-income seniors. Second, the city's Planning Commission agreed to extend for another year the entitlements for a 53-unit affordable senior housing project on Baker Street near the Corona del Mar (73) Freeway.

Retaining and developing affordable senior housing in this difficult economy is no small feat. Harper's Pointe — the Baker Street project the council approved in June 2010 that already received one extension to assemble its financing — illustrates the daunting task of developing senior housing in Costa Mesa.

The primary challenges are the paucity of available land and the complex financing structures — usually a combination of low-income housing tax credits and investor capital managed by various partnerships — to pull together a project. Moreover, with the dissolution of municipal redevelopment agencies, cities are no longer sources of potential funding or other resources.

And even much-needed projects like these face community opposition. Complaints about traffic, noise, incompatibility with the adjacent uses and inconsistency with a broad neighborhood vision (SoBECA, in the case of Harper's Pointe) have been offered as possible grounds for rejecting project proposals.

But there's an incredible demand for affordable senior housing here and throughout the county. USA Properties Fund, the Harper's Pointe developer that specializes in senior and family communities, noted that turnover for affordable senior housing projects is typically only one to two units per year. Moreover, the waiting list for this type of project in Costa Mesa can be between seven and 40 years.

According to the 2012 Community Indicators report prepared by the Children & Families Commission of Orange County, the county's population is aging at a faster rate than the state and the nation. Over the last census period (2000-10), the county's median age rose from 33.3 to 36.2 years. The large generation of baby boomers (those born 1946-1964) is nearing retirement age, and account for a quarter of Orange County's population, a 5% increase since 2000.

Costa Mesa is following the county's trend. While the city's median age ticked up slightly over the last decade, from 32 to 33.6 years, our boomer population increased from 18% to 22.9%. With projections inching upward to about 115,000 residents by 2030 (we're at 110,000 now), our senior population is expected to grow even more.

Today's seniors are a different breed. Generally, they are not content to retire quietly to a golf community and merely dote on their grandchildren. These are active people, raised during a time of dramatic social change, who are often involved in their communities and engaged in civic affairs.

They are an economic force of their own, driving the development of innovative goods and services and embracing new technologies (even my mom uses an iPhone now).

The first of the baby boomers became eligible for retirement a few years ago, about the same time the country fell into the economic recession. Whether by necessity or by desire, our aging population will likely work longer than previous generations.

So how are we going to plan for our aging population in Costa Mesa?

Unfortunately, this is not a subject that claims much regular attention or serious discussion in City Hall. From the council dais, we've heard the definitive declaration that bringing more young families to Costa Mesa is the key to our future prosperity. While this narrative sounds nice — how can you object to wanting a family-friendly community? — it may not be in our best interests to focus solely on this demographic.

Sure, it's important to attract new residents (and businesses) to Costa Mesa, but we need to plan for who is here now and retain their interest and investment. As most businesspeople know, while chasing and signing a new client can be an exciting prospect, providing excellent customer service to your existing ones ultimately pays more dividends.

What about really building on what we have here already? Growing from within — leveraging our existing assets and strengthening our current human and social capital — is another proven investment strategy. In a landlocked and almost built-out urban city, we need creative land use, design and economic development strategies.

Perhaps Costa Mesa can pioneer new models of multigenerational housing, health-care delivery and alternative transportation for our seniors.

With the city's general plan update on the horizon, now is a good time to examine how to serve our growing senior population using real data, sound analysis and context. It is critical that we not only establish a solid economic foundation for planning, but also understand how regional, state, and national trends can best serve our demographics. Let's plan for our children, of course, but not forget about the grandparents.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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