Real Estate / High-Rises

Changing Senior Living — New Showcase Tower in The Heights Brings Innovation to a Tired Retirement Scene, Sets Stage For Future Texas Projects

Your Sneak Peek at The Watermark at Houston Heights


The seven story building quickly going up on West 18th Street looks as modern and cutting edge as any other Hines project. There is nothing stodgy or old fashioned about it. Nothing that would make you assume the now blue-shrouded structure is destined to be a senior living community.

Which is the point.

“Frankly not much has changed in senior housing since I started 35 years ago,” Watermark Retirement Communities chairman David Freshwater says. “We needed to shake it up.”

Watermark and Hines are certainly doing that with The Watermark at Houston Heights. This mid-rise instantly becomes the tallest building in the neighborhood and while its residents are expected to be 79 or 80 years old at move-in on average, this is anything but a tired old place.

In fact, the building’s been designed by Munoz + Albin, the same highly sought after architecture firm behind some of the most innovative high-rises in Houston, including The Residences at La Colombe d’Or and the Aris Market Square.

“One thing that stands out is it doesn’t look like a senior housing building,” Freshwater says. “We in the industry haven’t been very innovative with what we do. And you can sort of spot a senior building a mile away.

“This (building) is decidedly quite uncharacteristic of senior housing.”

Freshwater and senior manager director John Mooz gave PaperCity an exclusive sneak peek of what’s coming. One additional bit of interesting news? The Watermark at Houston Heights is just the first building and community that the senior living innovators and Hines will be doing together.

“We’re already working on a half dozen or so,” Freshwater tells PaperCity. “Have some very exciting Elan communities on the horizon.”

The Elan collection is Watermark’s highest level of senior living. Brooklyn, Napa, Los Angeles and Tucson, Arizona are the only cities besides Houston that have one. Though this Heights first is unlikely to be the last Elan building in Texas.

The Watermark at Houston Heights Courtyard and Pool area; Rendering Courtesy of Watermark
Watermark at Houston Heights will have something of a resort feel.

Watermark and Hines are both leaning into the Silver Tsunami that is coming. As Baby Boomers age, the population of seniors in America will dramatically increase. In fact, those 65 and over are projected to take up a whopping 21 percent of the the overall United States population by 2030.

Watermark is taking a decidedly different approach to the impending influx of new seniors. These high-end, high-dollar communities rail against the old model where older seniors are often almost warehoused, eating all their meals in one community dining room (often ones that make dorm food look good) and having little interaction with the outside world.

“When I listen to David talk, I feel like I’m listening to Yoda talk about the senior living space.” — John Mooz, Hines

In contrast, Watermark at Houston Heights will be all about letting the best of the world in. That means a showcase restaurant dubbed Seasons on the top floor with sweeping views. Mooz, who’s seen a lot of views at countless building topping offs in his time at Hines and nearly 30 years in the business overall, notes that it’s a view he’s never seen before.

“When you’re on the seventh floor in The Heights and you’re in one of these restaurants, you will not think you’re in a retirement community,” Freshwater says. “That’s for sure.”

This is a high-level restaurant, the type of place where the adult kids of Watermark at Houston Heights residents will want to eat. Still Watermark goes to great lengths to make sure this topnotch food is available to everyone.

When necessary full dishes are made into little bites.

“So you can take the Cobb salad and eat it in one bite,” Freshwater says. “So people who have trouble eating and swallowing and using utensils — whether it’s Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s — they still get to eat the things they enjoy eating.

“Like a bacon lettuce tomato sandwich. Eat these little bites and I swear it tastes like you’re eating a bacon lettuce tomato sandwich.”

In one bite.

Watermark Programming Geared Around Living

The food and real restaurants you’d actually want to eat in are important. But what helps truly set Watermark apart is its programming. Specifically Watermark University. This is where residents and staff members teach classes on everything from bridge to fly fishing to gardening. There is even an espionage class taught by a resident who worked for the CIA during the Cold War. One of the staff members teaches breakdancing.

Yes, seniors can breakdance.

It is all about keeping residents engaged and encouraging them to continue to follow their passions. Or even add new ones. After all, retirement should be all about discovery.

At the Watermark building in Tucson, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra comes once every quarter to put on a concert out of the side of an open semi-truck. Other Watermarks have opera singers or ballet dancers perform and talk about their craft.

The old stereotypical image of seniors stuck in a housing community, just staring off into space, being wheeled from meal to meal, does not exist at Watermark.

“When I listen to David talk, I feel like I’m listening to Yoda talk about the senior living space,” Mooz says. “Because of his experiences and what he brings, there’s few better.”

Watermark Houston Heights
Watermark Houston Heights is a place built around wellness.

Freshwater has compared Watermark to Tesla. The idea being that Tesla is a technology company that just happened to build a car. And Freshwater and his business partner David Barnes look at Watermark as a “whole person wellness company” that just happens to be focused on senior living.

The entire idea hinges around bringing a different perspective to the field.

Starting Over Beers

For Freshwater, it all started — or restarted — during a fateful shooting the bull session during a senior living industry trade show nearly two decades ago.

“Sitting around having a beer — lots of CEOs — just chatting about the industry and what’s going on,” Freshwater recalls. “And somebody just casually said, ‘Would any of you guys live in one of the communities you operate?’

“Everyone kind of looked at each other and said to a man, ‘No we wouldn’t.’ I left that meeting saying, ‘What are we doing?’ If we’re building or operating communities, we wouldn’t want to live in. . .”

Watermark is the answer to that quandary — building a senior living community that you’d actually want to live in. It is no coincidence that Watermark’s first Houston building is in The Heights area (it’s between T.C. Jester and Durham). Watermark and Hines want to be in one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods.

“Some say, it’s a hip neighborhood,” Freshwater says, laughing. “Well seniors want to be there too.”

Watermark and Hines are going against the old idea that senior living communities are essentially stationary cruise ships that can be located anywhere. Which usually means well outside of the city in a cheaper real estate area.

“There’s an awful lot of senior living spaces that are really on periphery,” Mooz says. “You don’t see them sitting in urban environments.

“Part of our philosophy is we would like to build urban fueled properties. We have an opportunity to build something really, really special in places these seniors called home for years.”

The seniors who move into The Watermark at Houston Heights are largely going to be affluent folks who are used to having influence in their community. They want to make their own decisions (who doesn’t?) — and Watermark recognizes that by eschewing the usual bundled model of senior living communities (all your meals being included) to an unbundled system where residents choose how to spend their money.

Whether it’s on meals at the showcase restaurant, hair salon appointments or spa treatments. There will be a full-service, salon, spa, movie screening theater, modern fitness center, golf simulator, resort-style pool, art studio and library on site. Plus, being on 18th Street in the greater Heights area provides easy access to the restaurants and shopping of one of Houston’s most vibrant neighborhoods.

“Frankly not much has changed in senior housing since I started 35 years ago. We needed to shake it up.” — David Freshwater, Watermark

While the construction on the building goes on, with a January 2022 scheduled completion date, a full sales center is already open at 1527 W. 18th Street.

“Our customer actually is almost perfect for like NPR,” Freshwater says. “The people who listen to public radio and watch public television is our perfect demographic. People who are engaged and interested in current events. People who are curious about life long learning. And reading. . .

“A lot of times we tap into university communities.”

After all, The Watermark at Houston Heights is a forward thinking place from two innovative companies that have found a shared mission. Changing the often stagnant, locked-in-its-ways world of senior living is not easy. But Watermark and Hines are determined to do it, one interesting building, and community, at a time.

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