Retirement complex to break ground

Merrill Gardens currently operates 66 senior housing projects in 14 states, including three in Seattle, but the Queen Anne complex is the first to be located in the middle of the city, said Bill Pettit, president and chief operating officer.

"One of the areas that has always attracted us because of its residential nature ... has been the Queen Anne area," he said. The two-building, three-story complex will be located on the east and west sides of Fourth Avenue North between Aloha and Valley streets, replacing the former Seattle School District headquarters.

An underground parking garage will be included, though zoning allows the company to build only half a stall per unit because seniors typically don't drive as much as they used to, said Pettit, who added that transportation is provided to the building's residents.

"Seniors, when they join us, can have their choice of a studio apartment, a one-bedroom [or] a two-bedroom apartment," Pettit said. "When you walk into our buildings, they look and feel like a very comfortable apartment setting with a club environment."

They won't be cheap, although the use of Washington State Housing Finance Bonds to pay for part of the $40-million project guarantees that 20 percent of the units will be set aside for residents who have relatively low incomes, he said.

Otherwise, rents vary from $1,600 to $1,700 a month for studios, all the way up to $3,000-plus a month for a two-bedroom. Renting at Merrill Gardens is on a month-to-month basis, he said, adding there's a reason for that. Residents typically have sold their own homes and are making the transition to a retirement environment, but the company wants to give them an out if they have second thoughts.

"We've never sought to make them feel like they're making an irrevocable decision," Pettit explained. In addition, the company guarantees that if residents move out within 60 days, they get a full refund, he added.

While living in a Merrill Gardens community is a pricey proposition, the rent includes utilities (except phone service), Internet hookups, access to club rooms and free meals, he said. There will also be a wine room and, of course, a coffee bar. "You gotta have that," Pettit grinned.

Merrill Gardens takes a novel approach to its meal service. Instead of set times, residents can eat from rotating menus anytime they want from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Pettit said. The arrangement mirrors what they used to do in their own homes, he said.

A goal of the company is to make sure the senior residents don't lose their sense of independence, while providing a whole new social structure. "Our social-activity programs are all based around trying to give them comfortable and interesting ways not only to meet new friends, but to interact [with them]," Pettit said.

The Merrill company traces it roots to the timber industry in Washington, when Richard Merrill set up a compa-ny in the 1890s. Innovative for its time, the company made a point of planting trees to replace the ones that were cut, and it currently owns approximately 60,000 acres of timberland in this state, Canada and New Zealand.

But the company was floundering in 1993 when fourth-generation family member Charles Wright III took over as chairman, said Pettit, who was hired the same year. The idea was to diversify the privately held company's holdings, he said.

The company picked senior housing because it was "an emerging industry," but they didn't want to follow the existing model of using an institutional setting, Pettit said. Instead, he added, the company chose to set up housing for seniors in a social setting with round-the-clock care. "We really differentiate ourselves based on our peo-ple and how they treat the residents."

In fact, employees are eligible for $100 bonuses every month a building is 100-percent occupied, according to a company press release. It's a formula that appears to work. Merrill Gardens was named Business of the Year in 2004 by the Better Business Bureau of Western Washington and Oregon.

Typical residents in Merrill Gardens buildings are 70 and older, he said, and Pettit said the company is not worried about competition: "Our buildings have a 90- to 95-percent occupancy rate." He estimated that the Queen Anne building will have 35 to 45 percent of its apartments rented out when the building opens for business in 2006. "The project will probably be full within 18 months of when we open," Pettit said.

The company plans to break ground for the project this March. "We're excited," Pettit said. "This is going to be our true headquarters community for the company. It's one we've been anxious to establish for 10 years."
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