Institute on Aging plans for Geary
Building will provide seniors with housing, medical care,
Friday, July 8, 2005
The last time David Werdegar was at the Coronet Theater in San Francisco he and his wife took in a showing of "Million Dollar Baby," a last hurrah for the cavernous 1940s movie house that closed in March, a remnant of a bygone era of single-screen theaters.
Now when Werdegar stands in front of the boarded-up building he has a dramatically different vision.
He sees a Mediterranean style, six-story building surrounded by Sycamore, lilac and flowering plum trees. He envisions on the top four floors low-income housing for seniors who might otherwise end up in a nursing home, and a senior health care center on the bottom two floors where older adults can receive physical therapy, counseling, art classes, and meals.
After years of planning, the old theater is on the verge of becoming the new home for the Institute on Aging, a San Francisco nonprofit group that strives to help Bay Area seniors live independently while receiving medical care and a variety of other services.
It will be the first permanent home for the 20-year-old Institute, which is now scattered in rental space around the city, said Werdegar, the president and chief executive officer of the organization and a former San Francisco Director of Public Health. "This will give it a center of gravity,'' he said. "And we think it provides a tremendous community benefit.''
The twist on the project is that it combines low-income housing for the elderly with a comprehensive adult health care center, the result of a partnership between BRIDGE Housing Corporation, a prominent San Francisco development company, which will oversee 150 rental units, and the Institute, which will handle the health care services.
"There's a synergy of having housing and services in one building, a synergy to what their mission statement is and what our mission statement is, '' said Tom Earley, BRIDGE's development director. He called the combination of housing with the breadth of services unique. "It really will be a fantastic facility.''
The $60 million project -- BRIDGE is investing $35 million and the Institute is kicking in $25 million -- is currently going through the city planning department's environmental review process, which Earley said they expect to complete by the end of the year. He said they hope to begin the two- year construction by the end of next year.
The project joins two organizations that have established reputations in their respective fields.
BRIDGE is one of the largest affordable housing builders in California, having developed more than 11,000 units primarily in the Bay Area since it was formed 23 years ago.
The Institute was created 20 years ago by Lawrence Feigenbaum, M.D., a former director of professional services and medication education at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco and an expert in geriatrics.
Having seen his father institutionalized, Feigenbaum wanted to provide medical care and other services for seniors without forcing them to leave their homes. The hope of those working on the project is "to make the lives of seniors better, to make them involved as much as possible as community members rather than as institutionalized people," Feigenbaum said. "Even though people are medically frail, they are still engaged and interested in enjoying themselves.''
The Institute, which has 250 employees and an annual $20 million budget, now has three main centers in San Francisco -- two run in conjunction with On Lok senior center -- that provide a wide variety of services for older people. The group provides van service for about 350 home-bound seniors suffering from strokes, diabetes and other chronic illnesses -- including about 100 with Alzheimer's -- and brings them to a center to receive medication, exercise, art lessons and some crucial human contact and socialization. It also mobilizes social workers, nurses and finance experts to help about 850 clients who need help with everything from balancing their checkbook or fixing a meal. There's also a counseling phone line for those in distress or who feel isolated or depressed and an elder abuse prevention program.
Hoping to find a permanent home where they could consolidate their services under one roof, the Institute's board members spent two years looking for a space. They were about to give up when they learned that the landmark Coronet Theater on Geary Street was up for sale. It happened to be across the street from one of the Institute's facilities.
The group bought the theater site as well as the adjoining parking lot for $8.5 million in 2000. But those running the Institute knew they needed help building a new site so they put out a call to some developers about a joint project and chose BRIDGE.
The project has received the endorsement of several housing and planning advocacy groups who say that it provides seniors with an all-in-one facility in the Richmond District, which is easily accessible through public transportation, and has plenty of stores and shops in the area.
"The demand is very clear, especially as we have an aging population,'' said Kate White, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, a group of 50 organizations advocating well-designed housing in the city. According to a recent report from the mayor's office on housing, 14 percent of San Francisco's 776,000 residents are 65 or older.
"We are just absolutely thrilled about this project,'' she said.
The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), San Francisco's public policy think tank, also has given its stamp of approval. "SPUR feels it's a really good use of the site,'' said Jeannene Przyblyski, a SPUR board member and head of the group's project review committee. "They're much more integrated into the community.''
Some neighbors, however, have complaints about the proposed project. Jeff Hagan, who heads the Francisco Heights Civic Association, called the design "colossal," and said that it doesn't allow for enough parking. "It is entirely out of character with everything surrounding it,'' he said, adding that the developers have been unwilling to work out a smaller scale compromise with neighbors.
"We're not opposed to old people housing or with the IOA as a neighbor,'' he said. "It's a question of doing something appropriate in the community.''
But Werdegar said that they have had about a dozen meetings with the community. At the urging of neighbors, they've changed the design of the facade to a Mediterranean style and opened up the back by having terraces overlooking a courtyard.
He noted that the city's planning department requires a traffic study and will review the 67 parking spaces they have allotted. "There were numerous compromises along the way,'' Werdegar said.
The apartments, which will have carpet and appliances, will be mostly single-bedroom units with some two-bedroom apartments and studios. Rent will be between $350 and $750 a month.
"They'll have affordable housing, they'll have affordable health care services, they'll have whatever support they need,'' Werdegar said. "But they'll be living independently."
E-mail Harriet Chiang at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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