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BUILD Talks: A Conversation with Griffin Living

This article is brought to you by Griffin Living. The article is based on an interview that took place during a live Q&A session with Paul Griffin, CEO of Calabasas, Calif.-based Griffin Living. The interview took place at the Senior Housing News BUILD event in Chicago held on November 18, 2021. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Senior Housing News: I’d like to introduce Paul Griffin from Griffin Living. Paul, can you tell us a little bit about your company and how you got into senior living development?

Griffin: Griffin Living is a multi-generational family business which started in 1903, and I am the fifth generation of our business. My kids, nieces, and nephews are the sixth generation and they are already trying to get me out of the saddle as quickly as they can. [Laughs.]

In the early 1900s, the company didn’t have big housing master plans. After the second World War my grandfather started building bigger communities, and my dad started into real big communities. I bought the company from my dad about 28 years ago now. The business was not small, and it was quite active in master-planned communities.

Griffin: I started to expand from California, which was huge. It certainly was plenty of room for us, but I started to expand east with an office and projects in Atlanta. We also expanded to Connecticut and lately we were thinking about Florida and Washington, D.C. because they are markets more at ease than California, which I think is important as we are transitioning to senior housing. We transitioned to senior housing about eight or nine years ago from master-planned communities. I did it because that was the only capital with a big enough size for development ($30 to $50 million) that I could find back in 2012 was from Chinese investors, who insisted that we work on senior housing.

SHN: What is the development process like for these projects?

Griffin: Our first project was a 55-plus apartment complex. It was 204 units that included spas and other amenities. It was such a success that we decided it was a better direction for our development business. As we started to study it, we came to the conclusion that our value add is in elevating needs-based housing, including assisted living and memory care.

After traveling the country, knocking on doors to look at projects and see what the state-of-the-art communities looked like, we found that there were developing projects that had more life in them that were a little brighter and more upscale. A lot of it was really just a hot meal and a warm bed that was affordable to families.

In family housing, people don’t wake up one day and say, “Gosh, I’m really thinking about buying a house that has a living room over here and this master bathroom or kitchen.” Instead, they wake up one day and say, “Gosh, we’d like to live in a suburb. We’d like to have a good school nearby. We want to have it close enough to our jobs, and have friends around.” It was all about lifestyle and that’s how we approach the business.

Then families start to compare options at that level. We’d ask people to tell us about the family and then we’d design the community for family life, with the individual product lines that we would design into a master plan. Questions we consider are, “What does this family envision? What’s their dream? What can they afford? What are they looking for?” We would always bring the design back to the lifestyle needs.

SHN: What makes the senior housing consumer different from these younger families?

Griffin: Seniors have had a life and they don’t want to be warehoused. They don’t really want to be moved into a retirement home, or what they think of as a home for their generation. They want to move into something that affords them as much independence and joy in their lifestyle as possible. As we come about it, we’re really trying to think of how we can use the technology, the architecture, the design for that lifestyle. We ask how we can have our operators work for the activities to have them not be, bingo, people slumped over in a chair or cafeteria-style restaurants. All of that together is really about lifestyle, isn’t it?

SHN: One of the things that struck me during our conversation earlier is your experience developing in California, where it’s notoriously challenging to get entitlements and get things done especially when it comes to senior living. Talk to us about some of that experience with the handful of properties you’ve gotten in Southern California.

Griffin: [Chuckles] Well,I can tell you some stories. In California, there’s such a ‘NIMBY’ or no growth attitude. We would go out to exurb areas with proposals for 2,000 or 3,000 units, so big projects, and get them done. Everybody wants to fight you until, of course, they need a house and they want to be first in line to get their name in.

I’ll give you an example I have of a success story and actually I’ll give you one that was a failure too. Extreme examples were out in a community that was between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, a nice farming community; I think there are 1,400 houses, and we spent about seven years and about $32 million in the project, and before we got our first approval. We were just sweating. After anxiously waiting, we got it entitled and sold it to the Teachers’ Union for $210 million.

I had another one that we did more recently up in Monterey, California and I didn’t get in as deep on that one. It was a big project again. We had about $13 or $14 million in it. The city council approved of it, but it was a three-to-two vote. I had lawsuits coming at us from Carmel and Monterey and all the wealthy people there and I just said, “Look, I can’t continue to put more money in and get another $30 million deal and not know where we’re going.” I wrote it off and walked away from it. It’s not that they always work, it goes both ways. Our value that Griffin adds to projects is really our entitlement ability.

In senior housing, you think that senior housing would be something that the city fathers and community would really like: it’s their own families. We found that we get told “no more” and forcefully told no not to come to communities when we propose senior housing. We’re just finishing one in Thousand Oaks, California. There were two really great senior housing developers that came in ahead of us and both got turned down at city council. They walked away from their money and their investment.

The city council told us no also. We had been building thousands of houses for 50 years. We got them to be a little bit kinder about this. “”Fine, Griffin,” they said, “One project, one time. Don’t get around where anybody can see you and don’t get in any of our constituent’s way. By the way, don’t come back and ask for another one.” That’s what we face in communities.

But where we do get the projects entitled, they are so worth the effort. From the vision of providing a better lifestyle that we were talking about earlier, we work with our architects and our designers to create a building that has the vibrancy they want. We then use third-party operators or developers, not senior housing operators, to bring our operators in and bring it to life.

SHN: Paul, one of the things that I know you’re passionate about is staying away from enclosed spaces and really focusing on things that open up in terms of your communities. Talk to us about your vision behind that.

Griffin: Yes, I’m claustrophobic. [Laughter]

Griffin: One of the early lessons I had when I was just coming into my father’s business was with a major architect. He walked me into a nice hotel that was in the area. He walked in and it was closed down and dark as you came in. I remember, he said, “This is really poor architecture. This is a big building, it’s a major hotel line flag, and this is a really poor building.”

What he was explaining is that when you walk into a building, the front door of any building, you want to look up and out as much as you can. You want light and distance. That’s just true if you’re building a house. It’s especially true in a hotel, and I believe it’s true in senior living. It is just the feeling of energy and being positive that you get from walking in the front door. In our buildings, we’re trying to design a central living space that has all of the activity – people eating, visiting, painting, listening to a piano — so it doesn’t seem quiet and dying.

I want activity in the front but then I also want to look straight through it and up maybe 30 or 35 feet of glass that you could look straight through from your grand room. In California and in Atlanta, we put fountains outside and the idea is because water is the animation. When the sun comes through, so you have the light beaming off the water. You always walk in the front door and it’s like looking at little diamonds, your eye just comes out and up.

The idea with the architecture in the building is just that they’re not going out into the courtyards in the common area. They’ll go sometimes, but most of the time, they’re uncomfortable, they want to be inside. So we brought the outdoors inside. Then, of course, with restaurants we’re trying to learn from all of the people in the industry by creating smaller venues, more varied kinds of menus. We do the same thing with activities and speakers.

The idea is when seniors can’t really live their life out in the world anymore, you can bring the world to them.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Griffin Living collaborates with both community leaders and capital partners in a diverse portfolio of properties. To learn more, visit griffinliving.com.

The post BUILD Talks: A Conversation with Griffin Living appeared first on Senior Housing News.

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