A Cape Cod developer wants to come to Wenham, converting and expanding the old Penguin Hall into an independent senior living complex consisting of up to 238 two-bedroom units.
Chris Wise, owner of the development firm Wise Living that has built six similar complexes on Cape Cod and is building two more, would develop the complex in partnership with Jim Mullen. The Mullen advertising firm occupied the mansion and its 50-plus acres off Essex Street until it moved to Boston in mid-2009. Mullen still owns the property.
Wise and Mullen, along with architects from EGA Architects, met early Tuesday to present preliminary plans for a new senior living complex that would open in 2014. The meeting was attended by Board of Selectmen Chairman Molly Martins, Planning Board Chairman David Geikie, Conservation Commission Coordinator Emilie Cademartori and the heads of several town departments, including the police, fire, health and highway departments.
“I am excited about this project,” Wise said. “I am excited about being in Wenham.”
Town Administrator Jeff Chelgren called the proposed project “unique” and scheduled regular meetings of town administrators and boards to move the approval of the project along in time to present it to Town Meeting next May.
The project, which would be built in two phases, would have to win the town's approval. It would have to be approved by the Planning Board, the Conservation Commission and the Board of Selectmen before it goes before the Town Meeting.
The first phase would have approximately 150 units, including 128 in the main building and the balance in four-plex cottages. The first floor of the old mansion would be used as a dining room, kitchen and entertainment rooms for the residents. The second floor would be offices.
In the preliminary designs by EGA Architects of Newburyport, the English-style mansion would be expanded down the hill with garages below the units. There would be easy access to elevators that serve the units on the second, third and fourth floors.
The cottages will be built in a meandering line down the hill to the rear of the site. Some would be single cottages. Others will be in buildings with four units.
The large parking area on the site now would be eliminated under the plans that were presented. There will be a smaller parking area for staff and overflow parking for visitors. Wise said he is planning on building slightly more than one parking space per unit, which has proven to be sufficient at his other senior housing complexes.
The wetlands prove both a challenge and a blessing to the architects. Because much of the site is protected, it will feature considerable green space. It also limits the area that housing can be built.
Much of the design features have not been worked out yet, Wise said. He and Mullen said they are open to input from the public and town officials on the design of the project.
The Wise Living proposal is not the first time a senior living project has been proposed for this site. Three years ago, Deaconess-Abundant Life proposed a larger complex with almost 400 smaller units, as compared to the 238 two-bedroom units Wise is proposing. The previous proposal fell apart when financing dried up at the beginning of the housing market downturn.
Wise and Mullen said they believe that the housing market will rebound by 2013, in time for this project to be completed.
The units will range in size from 1,100 to 1,700 square feet on one floor. Wise said it is too early to set a firm price, but he estimated each unit would cost between $400,000 and $700,000. There will be also a condominium fee. Wise estimated construction costs at about $150 per square foot.
He described the Wise Living project as between and senior living developments in Wenham. He said the units would be designed with granite countertops and other upscale amenities. They would also be built to accomodate older residents.
The Wise Living complex would be governed by a condominium board.
Wise said his goal is to have 20 percent of the units classified as affordable units.
Wise explained that senior complexes that offer various levels of care, from independent living to nursing care, are changing to independent living only.
Driven in part by changing health insurance rules and residents' desire to stay in their own homes, the senior complexes are offering staff-supported independent living. As residents need more medical care, they stay in their homes and contract for the in-home medical care they require. Under new state laws, the in-home medical care is often covered by insurance, he said.
The complex would be staffed 24 hours a day.
Wise outlined several advantages the project offers to Wenham. When sold out, the Wise Living complex would likely generate more than $1 million a year in property taxes, as opposed to the $200,000 that Mullen currently pays.
And senior housing adds no new children to the school system, he said.
Mullen announced that the state Department of Environmental Protection has agreed to allow a septic system that would treat 40,000 gallons of waste water on the property.
The Wenham Water Department was concerned that the eight-inch water pipe that serves the property might have to be enlarged.
The Conservation Commission worried about protecting the large amount of wetlands on the property.
The feared that the new complex would increase the number of ambulance calls.
Chelgren said these issues would have to be resolved in coming months. He also said he is interested in talking with Wise about locating a senior center on or near the property.