Thumbs down to age-restricted communities

  • Windermere Village

    Windermere Village

    A green is at the center of Windermere Village, an Ellington, Connecticut, development that was initially restricted to buyers at least 55 years old. The development has now been freed from age limits.

    Photo: George Ruhe for The New York Times

Philip Langdon, New Urban Network

Over the past several years, I watched as LeylandAlliance's proposed Madison Landing development in Madison, Connecticut, was tortured to death. 

When New Haven architect Robert Orr created a handsome design for the project, on the site of a former private airport next to Long Island Sound, the idea was that Madison Landing would be a community for all ages. Its 42 acres would have a variety of housing, plus enough other uses to make it a lively little place. 

But in Connecticut and some other states, suburban municipalities often oppose developments that are likely to add to their school costs. So Leyland eventually was pushed to alter its proposal — eliminating house sales to anyone under age 55.

That's been a common story. Well-off communities — at least in portions of the Northeast — have focused on avoiding public costs, even when the result is development that leaves out much of the population.

Ultimately, Madison Landing was killed, mainly by a combination of NIMBYism and environmentalism. There was a long-running local debate over whether there should be any development at all on the waterfront. Last year, after nearly a decade of planning and consultation, LeylandAlliance agreed to sell the land to the town — for natural habitat and recreation space.

Now, however, development conditions are changing in another way. Madison Landing's fate is sealed, but across Connecticut and elsewhere, it looks as though there will be fewer projects that shut out the under-55 population.  The New York Times says that given today's difficult real estate market, developers are deciding that the 55-plus market may simply be too small to make a project feasible.

As an example, The Times cites Windermere Village, a 123-house development in Ellington, a suburbanizing town northeast of Hartford. After failing to sell even one house last year, William Coons Jr., the developer of Windermere Village, negotiated with the town to switch the project from 55-plus to buyers of all ages. 

Says The Times: "Age-restricted housing, once chosen by developers because it put them on a faster track through the approvals process, is no longer so appealing to them in this much-diminished market. The empty nesters who, when the market was high, were expected to downsize en masse into so-called 55-plus or 'active adult' communities did not materialize. As it turned out, many in this age group are unwilling or unable to sell their houses."

As the difficulties of the 55-plus market sink in, municipalities increasingly are freeing developers from age restrictions that were previously agreed upon. That's a positive move.

Age-restricted developments that encompass dozens — or hundreds or even thousands — of acres have always struck me as having serious flaws. Though some older people enjoy living solely with their own age group, and though these developments can offer specialized amenities — as I learned years ago when visiting Sun City West in Arizona, and other seniors-only developments in Florida and California — rigid segmentation runs the risk of making a place less flexible than it will ultimately need to be.

Personally and politically, there are consequences. How readily can you form friendships and associations outside your own age cohort if younger people aren't allowed to live on your block or on the next block or on the one after that? What incentive is there for you to make common cause with people in a different stage of life (let alone in a different economic bracket)? How likely is it that you'll gain first-hand knowledge of civic matters such as local public education? 

I'm sure there are age-restricted communities where residents involve themselves in civic issues, but there's always a disadvantage in being purposely segregated from the rest of your town. So I'm glad to see such restrictions waning. I hope this trend gathers momentum.

Making communities for a broad range of people is what New Urbanism should be about.