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Urban Developments

Bill and Marie Cross spent their working years in Wooster, Ohio, the kind of idyllic not-too-big, not-too-small town that many people dream of calling home. But when it was time to retire, the Crosses knew it was time to get out.

“It was a great town to have a business in,” says Bill Cross, who owned a car dealership in the college town of 25,000. “But there isn’t a lot of activity after you go home from work. There’s not a great restaurant base or a big art center.” So when Bill, 65, was ready to sell the dealership and Marie, 67, was ready to step away from her career as a high school art teacher, the two went looking for a city home.

They checked out Chicago and Charleston, but ended up just 90 minutes away in up-and-coming Columbus. Living in Short North, a hip and artsy enclave in the city of more than 800,000, means the couple can now walk to galleries and jazz concerts and hit a restaurant, get gourmet takeout, or buy fresh ingredients for dinner each night. And the affordability of their Columbus home — a renovated 1,700-square-foot house dating from the 1800s — means they have been able to build a second, bigger home for winter enjoyment in Sarasota, Florida.

“We made the decision to move here in a day,” Marie says of their place just off Columbus’s bustling High Street. And, she says, they have not regretted it a day since.

Downtown retirees such as the Crosses were once considered oddities, says their neighbor Kyle Ezell, a city planner who is an associate professor at The Ohio State University. A decade ago, Ezell wrote a guidebook for what were then pioneers of urban aging called Retire Downtown: The Lifestyle Destination for Active Retirees and Empty Nesters.

“These days, it’s not a novelty, it’s a norm,” he says, and it’s happening in cities of all sizes, from New York to Little Rock — especially those where planners and developers have had the good sense to create the housing and amenities that urban empty nesters and retirees crave. Often, he says, that means building bigger, pricier condos that appeal to incoming suburbanites. These city digs have high-end kitchens, luxury baths, grill-ready outdoor spaces, and locations within walking distance of all kinds of food, fun, and necessities. They also include the transit and healthcare services that become more important as people age.

Affluent Bethesda, Maryland, right outside Washington, D.C., offers just that mix in the densely populated shopping and restaurant district near the city’s main Metro station. Right now, the demand from retirees and empty nesters for homes in that neighborhood “is so great it’s almost manic,” says realtor Jane Fairweather, a broker with Coldwell Banker. That’s despite the fact that some of these folks are replacing 10,000-square-foot suburban houses with 1,500-square-foot condos — and paying more for the privilege, she says.

It’s worth it, Fairweather says, because “what they are getting is a new lifestyle. A life they can walk to.”

Karen Mitchell, 59, a long-divorced university administrator with two grown daughters, recently traded in a five-bedroom house in Potomac, Maryland, for a two-bedroom condo in downtown Bethesda. She says she broke even financially and could not be happier: “I am right in the middle of everything. I can walk to two movie theaters and I don’t even know how many restaurants and shops.” She also loves that she can reverse commute to her job in further-out Rockville and use the Metro on weekends to enjoy museums in Washington.

The same kinds of buyers are clamoring to move into popular downtown Dallas neighborhoods such as Turtle Creek, says realtor Keith Head, a Coldwell Banker branch manager. “We are seeing empty nesters and others over 55 who are buying smaller condos in urban areas just to come in for the weekend” and get a taste of city living, he says. Others, he says, want to ditch their sprawling suburban homesteads without giving up multiple bedrooms and baths and are demanding 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot city residences. Builders are scrambling to meet that demand, he says.

Head himself moved into a smaller high-rise condo from a big suburban house and, at 59, he says he does not miss driving everywhere or devoting his weekends to lawn work and other home maintenance chores. “I will never go back to a single-family residence again,” he says. “They’ll have to roll me out on a gurney.”

Of course, city life is not for everyone — and it’s not the choice of all retirees and near retirees. In surveys for AARP, most baby boomers say they want to age in place in their current homes or communities, most of which are in suburban and rural areas, says Jana Lynott, a senior strategic policy advisor for the nonprofit group’s Livable Communities project. That project encourages communities of all sizes to become more livable for people of all ages, with accessible housing, health care, walkability, and other features.

Research by the Urban Land Use Institute shows that more than half of boomers would like to live in a small town, about 24 percent would prefer the suburbs, and just 22 percent would choose a city — fewer than live there now.

“One thing that really stands out to me is that boomers are generally saying they want to live in small towns and rural settings, but many want the amenities we associate with urban communities,” Lynott says.

Rachel MacCleery, a senior vice president at the Land Use Institute, says: “People are looking for a holistic package that is going to support every aspect of their lives.” Some communities and developers are trying to create those packages in more rural and suburban settings by building homes in denser neighborhoods near compact village centers and, “hopefully, we’ll see more of this kind of development as the country ages,” she says. Right now, she says, many cities do have more to offer, but at a price just a few people can afford.

Still, empty nesters and retirees who choose to move into cities are distinguished by more than their pocketbooks, says John Brady, founder of TopRetirements.com, a website offering advice on relocating for retirement. “I think the people who are interested in urban retirement are quite different,” he says. “A lot of the time, they have lived in the suburbs, and now they are interested in the intellectual stimulation, restaurants, museums, culture, and being in the thick of things.”

And being in the thick of things — not just restaurants and theaters, but hospitals, transportation and, most importantly, other people — can be a very smart way to age, Brady says. “You retire at 65 and you are fine in that house; at 75 less so, and by 85 you are living the wrong place. Let’s say you can’t drive anymore. Now you are isolated. You lose your social life.”

Ezell says: “The older you get in the city, the more thankful you are to be in the city.”

One advantage of city living, he says, is the daily opportunity to mingle at will with people of all ages, something you can miss out on if you move into a traditional retirement community or stay in many aging suburban neighborhoods. “You have friends who are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s,” Ezell says. And some of those young people may look very familiar; they could be your children and grandchildren, if they are part of the wave of young families now staying in cities instead of fleeing to the suburbs. The New York Times recently reported growing numbers of grandparents are moving into Manhattan to care for their grandchildren, easing the loads of their harried young-professional children.

But nanny is not the only job luring older adults to cities, which, after all, is where many jobs are. Today, many people of traditional retirement age are working, both for financial security and personal fulfillment. “These days, someone who is 65 is not the same as a 65-year-old even 20 years ago,” Ezell says. “They are extraordinarily active, and many are starting new businesses or careers.” 

Charlene Zellmer, 67, an interfaith chaplain who recently moved into a two-bedroom Bethesda condo with her 71-year-old husband, Bill, a healthcare consultant, says she is looking for a new job. She will work that new job from her home office — one that, for the first time, she needs to share with her husband, a former nonprofit executive. “My biggest challenge so far is being a compassionate desk mate,” she says.

She says that she and her husband, parents of two adults, do not miss their large colonial home, their yard, or the many things they gave away to make the move. They still have enough room to host big dinner parties, although it is sometimes a challenge for their guests to find parking. They love living in a neighborhood where their own car can stay parked most of the time, and where Bill is mere blocks from his favorite bike trail. And the freedom from big-home maintenance means they now can travel together for weeks at a time with little worry about the home front.

“It’s a good move for the quality of our lives and our family life,” Charlene says. “We made an informed decision to make a lifestyle change, which I think will keep us healthier and keep us focused on what’s important in our lives instead of what’s obligatory.” 

About the Author

Kim Painter is a freelance writer specializing in health and lifestyle issues. She was a USA TODAY staffer for many years and has continued to contribute to the newspaper for many additional years as a reporter, columnist, and blogger. She lives in in McLean, VA, where she practices what she preaches: wearing sunscreen, eating broccoli, and getting at least 10,000 steps a day.