WHITTIER — After two years of false starts, it appears that much-needed housing for the city's sizable elderly population will be built on the site of the former William Penn Hotel.
The owner of the now-vacant parcel, Santa Ana-based Niagara Investments Corp., has agreed to sell the 2.3-acre site on the edge of the Uptown Village shopping district to a Los Alamitos developer and a Quaker church group.
Niagara executive Gino Urbano said Abrahams Development Inc. agreed to pay $900,000 for about 1.4 acres of the Penn Hotel site on Philadelphia Street, while the development arm of the California Quaker church plans to buy the remainder of the site for $500,000.
In early August, the City Council voted to lend the Quaker group, the California Yearly Meeting, $500,000 to buy the land.
Senior Housing Complexes
Both the Quaker church and Abrahams Development officials want to construct multistory senior citizen housing complexes, with a combined total of about 200 efficiency or studio apartments, officials for the two groups said.
While the Quaker project would be aimed at low-income senior citizens over age 62, the Abrahams development would cater to senior citizens with moderate incomes. Neither project would provide 24-hour nursing care.
The Quaker group plans to build a six-story building with 75 one-bedroom units. The completed complex would be known as William Penn Manor.
Although details of Abrahams' project have not been completed, company officials said they plan to build one-room suites with private bathrooms and kitchenettes. A central dining area will serve meals for residents and shops catering to the elderly may be built on the first level of the so-called "retirement hotel," said Floree Lucas, vice president of property services for Abrahams Development.
"We are gearing the development toward active seniors who are relatively mobile," Lucas said. "We are not constructing a convalescent or nursing home."
Quaker officials agreed to buy a portion of the Penn Hotel site contingent on securing construction loans from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. If federal housing officials reject the Quakers' loan application, Urbano said, the Abrahams company has indicated it will purchase and develop the entire site, which is two blocks from Whittier College on Philadelphia between Washington and Friends avenues.
Joe Hirsch, executive director of HUD's Housing Development Division in Los Angeles, said the Quaker proposal is one of 46 housing projects competing for $33.8 million in loans in the Southern California region, which stretches from north of Santa Barbara to the Mexican border.
Based on the number of units, current construction costs and location of the development, federal officials decide how much money each applicant will receive. Groups seeking federal loans do not specify the amount needed, instead supplying specific information about the area's needs and size of the project, Hirsch said.
Construction on both complexes could begin early next year, officials for the two groups said.
Abrahams Development is nearing completion of a 71-room hotel in Seal Beach and is negotiating with Long Beach officials to build a high-rise office and hotel complex in that city's downtown redevelopment area, Lucas said.
The California Yearly Meeting also operates a senior citizen housing project in Orange County. The 285-unit Quaker Gardens in Stanton is a combination apartment and skilled nursing complex for people over 62.
In May, it appeared the Quaker group had lost a chance at the federal money. Another Orange County developer, who promised to lease land to the Quakers, failed in a bid to buy the Penn Hotel parcel. That left church officials without a guaranteed site for their complex, a prerequisite for qualifying for federal construction funds.
But Hirsch said because Niagara has agreed to sell part of the site directly to the Quaker group, the loan application has been forwarded for final review to HUD's Washington offices. An announcement of which projects will receive funding next year is expected by Sept. 30, Hirsch said.
According to the 1980 Census, nearly 19% of the city's 69,000 residents are over age 60, and city officials say that percentage has grown slightly since then. Adequate housing for the elderly has been a growing problem in Whittier. More than 300 people are on a five-year waiting list for the city's only other senior citizen housing development, Lutheran Towers.
This is the second consecutive year the Quaker group has sought federal assistance for a housing project in Whittier. In 1984, the group tried, but was unable to lease or purchase a portion of the Penn Hotel site, negating attempts to land a federal loan.
"Nobody likes to jump the gun, but I think there is an 85% chance we're going to get it this time," said Donald Pearson, a director of the William Penn Manor project. "For the first time, we're excited that it may really work."
Niagara purchased the Penn Hotel in 1964, but was forced to raze the stately structure in 1981 after a spectacular fire gutted much of the U-shaped, brick building.
"Finally, we've hit a good one, a winner," Urbano said of the Abrahams company. "Other developers we've worked with just didn't have the resources. But now we've got a builder with a solid reputation and a track record of proven performance. I think it will become a reality."