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Changes Coming to North Hill

Senior community looks to add independent apartments, renovate skilled nursing area for a less institutional feel.

Needham’s is looking to move into the 21st century.

In many ways, the senior living community is already up with the times—with modern workout equipment, a new restaurant-style dining room and even their own “Wii suite” where teams compete for top ranking in digital bowling. But physically, North Hill has not changed a lot from the original idea conceived in 1979 and opened to residents in 1984.

“We’re about 30 years old and buildings need to be renovated. That’s No. 1. All the HVAC units, the elevators, the windows, the doors—that’s normal,” said Kevin Burke, president and CEO of North Hill. “In addition to that, the industry we’re in has changed and become much more responsive to residents’ needs.”

North Hill was started as a “unique partnership” with in Wellesley, leasing college land that stretched into Needham, according to Burke. The nonprofit senior living community was the first of its kind in the country, with a 90 percent refundable life care contract—meaning residents receive care for the duration of their lives, with 90 percent of their initial investment refundable to the resident’s estate upon resale of their apartment after their death or if they leave.

The property, located on about 59 acres at 865 Central Avenue, now features 308 independent senior apartments and a separate skilled nursing area for rehabilitation and long-term care with space for 72 beds.

Residents pay an entrance fee based on the size of their apartment and a monthly service fee that together pay for their room and board, meals, property maintenance, health insurance, medical services and other needs, Burke said.

Though run as a nonprofit, North Hill does compete with many for-profit senior living facilities, and the upgrade will help them “maintain our relevance in the senior living market,” Burke said.

Burke and his design team recently brought plans for a multi-phase renovation project, dubbed “Project True North,” before the Needham Planning Board. After two public hearings, the board approved the plans and a special permit.

The plans call for two main phases. The first involves the renovation of about 53,000 square feet of shared space in the independent living area including a new main entrance and a more open indoor atrium in the main building that will allow residents to have better visual and physical access to services on lower floors. The first phase also includes the construction of a new three-story, 70,815 sq. ft. addition to the independent apartments, adding about 45 new apartments and a basement parking area, according to plans.

The apartments will be more intermingled with dining areas and other services to better accommodate residents, Burke said. In the end, the site will feature a total of 375 apartments, as permitted under the original plans.

The new apartments are part of North Hill’s efforts to prepare now for an anticipated growth in the number of residents looking for senior communities, as the “Baby Boom” generation retires and looks to the next step.

This phase also involves development of a campus-like green space that would better direct visitors to North Hill’s main entrance and provide an outdoor space for residents to gather, according to Burke.

The second phase of North Hill’s project will involve renovation of the skilled nursing area, maintaining the 72 beds but moving from an institutional style “ward” to seven small, independent “homes” with all private suites, according to Burke.

For the second phase, the developers require a zoning change, which has been proposed for the .

North Hill is located in Needham’s “Apartment 2” zoning district, with a limited building height of 3 stories. Because North Hill is limited by conservation restrictions and can’t expand outward, the design team is looking to build upward to accommodate the changes. However, because the first floor will be on a lower elevation, the top of the building will never actually exceed the current height—in fact, the four-story building would be lower than the three-story building is now, Burke said.

The zoning change allows for a maximum of four stories or 50 feet and limits the use to “a convalescent or nursing home,” according to the bylaw language. The Planning Board will hold a public hearing on this zoning change at 8:45 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at the .

As part of the Planning Board’s approval of the first phase of Project True North, the board asked North Hill to maintain at least 10 studio apartments in an attempt to keep what they felt were more affordable units available, although Burke argued that the studio units had not been selling for some time.

However, if within a year of becoming available a studio apartment still has not sold, North Hill representatives may appear before the board to discuss alterations, according to the Planning Board decision.

With town approval, major construction for the first phase of the project is expected to begin in October. Small renovations have been ongoing for some time, Burke said.

About 70 percent of North Hill’s population comes from Needham and Wellesley, with more than half of that number local. Of the remaining 30 percent, many used to live in Needham and are returning after retirement or have family living nearby, Burke said.

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