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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.

Most downtown parcels were “earmarked for hotels and other businesses,” he said.

When it seemed unlikely the nonprofit would find a suitable spot, O’Hehir hit on the idea of a partnership with another — profit- and tax-generating — business, in this case BioMarin.

“When I heard they were going to buy the PG&E property, I approached them. They were skeptical,” he said.

The BioMarin project, at a former PG&E space, proposes two buildings for office and laboratory work, plus a gym, retail and restaurant space, said company spokeswoman Debra Charlesworth. Overall, it will encompass 207,000 square feet of new development in two phases, expanding on an existing research facility in San Rafael run by the pharmaceutical company.

O’Hehir and Whistlestop floated the idea of including the 18,000-square-foot healthy aging center and 67 units of affordable housing for seniors in the project. To close the deal, O’Hehir’s team made a pitch familiar to many developers: Projects are more likely to win approval from regulators if they benefit a neighborhood directly.

“We said it would be helpful for them to show community benefit,” O’Hehir said. The proposal eventually convinced BioMarin, which signed an unofficial memorandum of understanding with Whistlestop. It is an unlikely partnership but the incentives have been aligned,” said O’Hehir.

GROWING OLD TOGETHER

After working with BioMarin, Eden Housing and San Rafael intensively for 18 months or so, Whistlestop and its partners now have to wait to see whether, and in what form, the project will be approved. All that work with city planners in advance should help get the project through the process, O’Hehir said, but there are no guarantees.

“One never knows,” he said. “The city planning staff takes about 30 days to have all the various departments look at it. Then there will be a formal review beginning of this coming year, and an environmental study. It takes basically a year to get through it so the city council can vote on it.”

Part of the process involves cleaning up the former PG&E site — but that bit of the deal is between BioMarin and PG&E, said O’Hehir. About 75 percent of the lot has already been cleaned up, he said.

“They get regulatory approvals. They have to deliver our portion of the site clean and we are confident they will,” he said.

Once all this is done and the project is formally approved, he said, then Eden Housing will go to work to raise money for it “to build their stack of money,” as O’Hehir described it, putting together financing from various sources including low-income tax credits. That should take about six to nine months, and then construction itself should last from a year and a half to two years.

All in all, O’Hehir said the project could be finished in three to three and a half years.

When it’s done, Whistlestop will operate the healthy aging center on the lower two floors — an operation similar to its current one — while Eden will oversee the 67 housing units on the four floors overhead.

It can’t happen too soon, said O’Hehir, pointing to statistics showing that a third of Marin County’s people will be over 60 by 2030.

Whistlestop won’t just be sitting around waiting for the project to be finished, either. O’Hehir said educating the community about the need for this development – and others like it — will be an important effort for the nonprofit in the next few years. He also hopes to change some misconceptions about growing old.

“Most people think of aging as an individual rather than community issue. But that’s not true where you’ve got more old people than children. They need to age within the community,” O’Hehir said.

Marin County’s economics also make growing old a different experience than in poorer places.

“In Marin there are more middle-income older adults who can’t continue to live here,” he said. “Typically, when I was young, you always lived near grandma and grandpa and you took care of them. That’s not true so much now because of the cost of living in Marin where the children of older adults can’t afford to stay here.” That’s the message O’Hehir and Whistlestop plan to keep promoting.

“We do a lot of community speaking,” he said. “The majority of individuals want older adults to be able to stay in the communities they raised their children in. We are really their voice.”