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Retired and the living is easy – on campus

No noisy nights or beer-fueled brawls at this residence


Betting on the actual completion date of a new residential development can be a high-stakes game. But if all goes according to plan, the University of British Columbia will be home to a 180-unit seniors’ residence within two years, making it only the second Canadian university to jump on a trend that’s been making waves in the U.S. for two decades.

And there’s no shortage of interested parties ready to move in, starting with members of UBC’s retired faculty association, who have first right of refusal on the units.

“We put a notice in our newsletter last year about a community meeting with the developer,” says Thelma Sharp Cook, immediate past president of the university’s Association of Professors Emeriti. “The meeting hall held about 100 people. We had 10 empty seats.”

Since then the association’s list of members and UBC alumni interested in buying or becoming tenants in the building has grown beyond 100. Dr. Cook, who at 71 thinks she’ll be moving in with her husband within a decade, expects inquiries from other retired university professors elsewhere in Canada whose universities either can’t or won’t get involved in such a project.

UBC’s proposed residence won’t be a first. It takes its place behind the Village by the Arboretum at the University of Guelph. Regarded by some real estate professionals as one of Canada’s best retirement communities, Guelph’s 14-year-old Village by the Arboretum has progressed through phases, starting with single-family bungalows, then adding town houses and luxury condominium buildings, and now assisted living units are under development. Despite its success, no other Canadian university had followed suit until now.

UBC’s residence will be called Tapestry at Wesbrook Village UBC and be built by Concert Properties, a Vancouver-based real estate company owned by Canadian union and management pension funds. Leisure Care, a U.S.-based retirement community operator, will run the residence. Proponents of this type of development say it’s important that a third party operate the facility so that the university does not get pulled away from its core business of research and teaching.

The Tapestry facility will offer 134 rental apartments and 46 condominium units. Fees will include utilities, some meals, recreational and fitness activities and shuttle services – a set-up that Concert likens to the all-inclusive nature of a cruise vacation. Residents will have the option of adding limited personal support or nursing care services. It’s expected the units won’t come cheap, and Dr. Cook says it’s only because of her university pension that she can consider this kind of living arrangement.

The whole thing will be built on land leased to Concert by UBC Properties Trust for $16 million for a 99-year pre-paid lease. Every penny of that will be plunked into UBC’s endowment fund. The residence is designed to be another asset in UBC’s University Town, a multi-neighbourhood development plan underway for 20 years at the extensive Point Grey campus.

“A key part of our neighbourhood plan was to have a seniors’ residence,” says Matthew Carter, vice-president of development for UBC Properties Trust. “We are of the belief that the university community is inherently an attractive place for a senior to live. We have all sorts of facilities. There’s lots of events, lots of activities, book readings, lectures, cultural activities, volunteer opportunities [and] a prevalence of young people.”

Many retirees want to run as far away as possible from their work lives once they’ve left their offices for the last time. But it’s often a different case with retired faculty, says Dr. Cook, because of “the longing for the community people had when they were actively involved in UBC, [and] the stimulation – primarily the intellectual stimulation.” Dr. Cook, who used to teach in the faculty of education, continues to take credit courses. “I feel I’ve spent most of my life there,” she says.

Right behind UBC are two other potential university land development projects with housing geared to seniors. Trent University has talked with U.S. developers about creating a seniors residence on its campus in Peterborough. And retired faculty at Université Laval in Quebec City say they’re making headway with both university and municipal officials to establish a mixed rental apartment building with up to 1,500 units that would house students and include up to 170 units for retirees. Concert Properties, the UBC builders, say they are pursuing similar opportunities elsewhere in Canada.

“Many of our retired faculty members still work at the university as volunteers,” explains Jacques Parent, head of a sub-committee of the Association of Retirees of Université Laval. “We enjoy the milieu, the university life and the fact of being with 38,000 young people – it’s great.”

The concept seems a natural fit – and not just for aging faculty who miss the academic milieu. For one thing, the demand for appropriate housing for older Canadians to “age in place” safely and relatively pleasantly will only grow. Some 13 percent of Canadians were older than 65 in 2006; that percentage is projected to reach 22.5 percent within 20 years. They are also the best-educated group of seniors this country has ever seen, with 14.7 percent of them holding university degrees in 2006, more than double the 6.3 percent level in 1991. Never mind the bingo hall, give these folks a lecture hall.

“The universities take it to a whole other level,” says Andrew Carle, director of the program in assisted living and senior housing administration at George Mason University, just outside Washington, D.C. “No traditional retirement community can compete resource-wise with what a university has to offer. It’s game, set, match.”

In the United States, more than 100 retirement communities have opened or gone into development with ties to a university or college in the last 20 years. Some have run into trouble, typically when the university has taken too large a role in the financing and management of a project. Based on what he sees as a reasonable, 10-percent participation rate by American colleges and universities, Professor Carle figures the U.S. could have more than 400 university-affiliated retirement communities within 20 years.

The concept is obviously attractive to universities for its potential revenue generation. And Professor Carle points out that contributions to university endowments may come not only from leasing fees – the way most universities choose to get their revenue from these projects – but also from residents who decide to leave something in their wills for the campus that ends up hosting their last years.

The University of Guelph has generated some $14 million in dividends from its nearly $60-million Heritage Trust endowment fund since 1991, much of it from leasing fees from the Village by the Arboretum.

Nancy Sullivan, the university’s vice-president, finance and administration, says that without those proceeds, some “really key initiatives” couldn’t have proceeded. One example is the university’s campus-wide Voice Over Internet Protocol telephone and computer system, funded straight out of the endowment fund.

More than 900 residents living in the Village by the Arboretum have access to an elegant club house and medical centre besides several housing options. The range of single-family homes, town houses and condos was designed to create a continuum of choices to accommodate residents’ changing needs as they age. The development’s highly anticipated fifth and final phase will include assisted living units with meals and limited medical and personal-care support services.

Guelph alumni and retired faculty form a significant base, but many other retirees have found their way there, including a large contingent of retired Air Canada pilots.

To build the community, U of Guelph partnered with Reid’s Heritage Homes, an Ontario housing developer that came up with its own financing for construction and continues to manage the 110-acre property, as well as new housing sales. Houses offered for resale by owners are fetching prices between $282,000 and $365,000, while condos range from $259,000 to $459,000. Under the leased land scheme, the homes and condo units are owned and resold by their purchasers, but the land underneath them is not. Residents also pay fees of $430 to $740 a month for land leasing, maintenance and upkeep of the clubhouse.

“Most of us just went out and looked around at different retirement communities. We all liked the fact this one is in a university town,” says one resident who moved to the Village from Toronto 10 years ago on a recommendation from friends. She and her husband made a list of what they wanted in their new community, including proximity to family in Toronto, a single-level home with few steps to climb and someone to take care of the grounds. Of the communities they looked at, Village by the Arboretum had the most ticks in the “yes” column.

Ken Murray, an 83-year-old condo resident, says, “It has exceeded all our expectations.” Mr. Murray moved to the two-bedroom condo nearly three years ago with his wife Marilyn, 75. From one end of their tastefully decorated living room, the Murrays have a view of the medical centre. Mrs. Murray jokes that this gives her an advantage in deciding when to go for lab tests, based on the number of cars in the parking lot. At the other end of their living room, the window looks onto the serene 160-hectare arboretum.

The Murrays are both Guelph alumni and Mrs. Murray is a former university staff member, now mostly retired from university governance and staff duties. “I never thought I would own property that sits on land I don’t own,” says Mr. Murray. “But it works. What gives me comfort is that the university is the owner.”

Residents are welcome and do take part in the university’s continuing education program. But they also help run a weekly lecture series specific to retirees and presented by Guelph professors, called Third Age Learning. Meanwhile, the community’s Village Centre competes for attention with a 2,500 square-metre private clubhouse that hosts 80 different residents’ clubs and has a grand ballroom for dinners, dances and concerts that are often open to the public. Other amenities include a posh lounge and library, exercise room, billiards room and 22-metre pool heated to 86 degrees with a special “water wheel” wheelchair to get less-abled residents in and out of the water. Village residents who like the outdoors can stroll in the university arboretum, just outside many of their doors.

The most successful university-based retirement communities are those where the interactions and benefits are two-way, says Professor Carle of George Mason University. Having a seniors’ community on campus affords a prime research and learning opportunity for students, he notes.

UBC’s project is exploring the possibility of delivering an existing fitness outreach program for older adults by its human kinetics undergraduate students right in the Tapestry residence. Don O’Leary, vice-president of administration for Trent University, says an assisted-living facility on that university’s campus could provide training opportunities for the university’s nursing students.

The advantages also extend to the community at large. When the Village by the Arboretum opened its medical centre four years ago, other residents in Guelph benefited from the arrival of four new family doctors into their city, which continues to experience a physician shortage. The centre has 10 doctors in all.

Despite the pluses, interest in university-based retirement communities in Canada is outstripping supply. Universities such as UBC and Guelph have substantial land resources to draw from, but many do not. A survey three years ago of members of the Retired Academics and Librarians of the University of Toronto (or RALUT) showed significant interest in a university-affiliated retirement facility. But the university failed to bite. “We’re crowded here, so we don’t see it as a feasible option,” says Catherine Riggall, U of T’s vice-president of business affairs.

A disappointed Doug Creelman, RALUT’s president, says, “We’re very envious of the UBC project.”

University of Saskatchewan also pitched the idea of a seniors’ complex in its mixed housing College Quarter plan nearly two years ago. But officials quickly decided that their more immediate focus has to be relieving a severe shortage of affordable student housing, financed through other sources such as government grants.

Tied up in the whole process is the fact that university land development involves many stakeholders – students, faculty and the local municipality – and they sometimes have competing visions for what to do with hundreds of hectares of unused space.

“There’s a real balancing act to bringing this all together,” says Richard Florizone, University of Saskatchewan’s vice-president, finance and resources. Nevertheless, the idea lingers that one day his institution will have a place for its emeriti and others to retire. And interest remains strong from those staring down their golden years and thinking about where they’d like to spend them.

“I’ve had several faculty approach me already, saying, ‘Hey, can I get my name in on one of those condos?’” says Dr. Florizone.

Moira MacDonald
Moira MacDonald is a Toronto-based journalist.
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  1. ARTHUR & BARBARA WHISTLER / October 10, 2010 at 12:42

    We are graduates of U.B.C. in 1949 & 1950 and we would appreciate receiving complete information on Tapestry Development at U.B.C.

    We retired to the District of Sechelt in 1988.


    Barbara & Arthur Whistler