When Whistlestop CEO Joe O’Hehir returned to Brooklyn, New York, where he was born and raised, he noticed something besides the much-talked about gentrification of a formerly gritty area he left in 1978. He noticed elderly people, even those in their 80s or 90s, still living at home in the neighborhood.
“Older adults particularly do better in that urban setting because they have social connections,” said O’Hehir, a former boss of Brown & Toland Medical Group.
Now, as the leader of a nonprofit aimed at supporting the independence of older adults, O’Hehir hopes to replicate that type of urban social support network in less-urban San Rafael in Marin County.
A proposed $32 million senior housing project and healthy aging center right in downtown San Rafael is central to that vision.
Whistlestop — the 65-year-old nonprofit’s official name is Marin Senior Coordinating Council — submitted a formal application for the new development Oct. 5 along with Novato-based BioMarin Pharmaceutical Inc., which owns the former PG&E lot at 999 Third St., and with Hayward’s Eden Housing.
MEDICAL CARE ISN’T THE ONLY NEED
O’Hehir, a 20-year veteran of the health care industry who worked at big businesses and tiny startups, with physicians and insurance companies, has led 175-employee Whistlestop for a decade. During his long career, he’d noticed something lacking from the traditional model of care for the elderly — a focus on social connections and support in a lively environment.
“We worked a lot with the Medicare population,” said O’Hehir. “A lot of older adults struggle. Older adults would be hospitalized because they hadn’t been cared for.”
Some of that missing care, O’Hehir felt, was social, rather than strictly medical. Whistlestop already had a strong track record in supporting older adults in the area through meal and transportation assistance programs at its location at the SMART train terminus beside busy Highway 101 in San Rafael.
The nonprofit delivers between 1,600 and 1,700 meals per week through its Meals on Wheels and Whistlestop Nourish programs, according to spokesman Gus Nodal. Its Jackson Café serves lunch to 50 or 60 people every day, charging just $6 for those over age 60. And through various transportation assistance programs, Whistlestop provides 275,000 one-way rides per year.
But the physical limitations of its cramped, crowded space by the train tracks and freeway on-ramps prevented Whistlestop from adding something O’Hehir thought essential — affordable housing. And the area was getting even busier.
“The voters had just passed SMART train and we realized they were quickly going to be our neighbor here,” said O’Hehir. “Our first idea was to redevelop our existing building. We own it. We decided to see if we could build housing here.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
In 2015, Whistlestop turned in an application to the city for a new healthy aging center at the current location, including a housing element of about 40 apartments.
The city’s response was both positive and negative.
“They liked the project but thought we should find a better location,” said O’Hehir.
Easy to say, but not easy to do, especially in crowded San Rafael where property prices are high. Whistlestop started searching though.
“We’d been looking for a number of years. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit so we don’t generate tax revenues for a city,” O’Hehir said.