“This place should be like your home”

With life expectancies increasing and 76 million baby boomers retired or retiring, the Engel Burman Group is creating upscale, enduring environments that put the elderly at ease

The Engel Burman Group’s senior-living facilities, including this one in Sayville, NY, are rich with community spaces such as bistros (pictured), libraries, movie theaters, and more. (Photo: Brenner Photo)
Jan Burman got his company into the senior-housing market in 1997, and he’s now overseeing the build of its first all-memory-care facility. (Photo: Brenner Photo)
Jan Burman got his company into the senior-housing market in 1997, and he’s now overseeing the build of its first all-memory-care facility. (Photo: Brenner Photo)

Baby boomers are navigating their golden years, and developer Jan Burman is paving the way. His Garden City, New York-based development firm, the Engel Burman Group, has an estimated $1 billion portfolio of US and Canadian prime properties, including assisted-living facilities and luxury condominiums as well as commercial/retail and industrial ventures. The company first saw the future of senior housing more than 15 years ago when it noticed a dearth of high-end assisted-living communities in the Tri-State area.

“Most of the assisted-living properties on Long Island were not first-class and not really that nice,” Burman says, recalling his company’s test of the market in 1997. Fortunately, they found a diamond in the rough: a fact-finding mission brought him and partner Steven Krieger to a Marriott-owned senior facility in Friendship, Maryland, which, Burman says, they quickly emulated.

Citing its timeless façade, which he compares to that of New York’s iconic Pierre hotel, Burman says the Maryland property had a “this place should be like your-home” feel that his firm adopted when developing its own Bristal Assisted Living Communities soon after. It built the first one in East Meadow, New York, from 1999 to 2000, and it was at full capacity within four or five months. Engel Burman subsequently constructed five more complexes, and it later sold all six to a joint venture between ING Group–Australia and Chartwell Senior Housing.

Though not in the market to sell (the bidding started with an unsolicited offer his firm leveraged), Burman remembered a powerful lesson learned from his father, a former retail-store owner in Syracuse, New York: you sell things when you can, not necessarily when you want to. He didn’t forget about the properties either, though, so when ING and Chartwell sought to divest themselves of the complexes five years later, Engel Burman bought them back, and it followed up with six additional 120- to 130-unit upscale properties. It has three more sites in Nassau and Suffolk Counties currently in various stages of development, 10 more sites on Long Island and in New Jersey in various stages of entitlement, and it’s anticipating expansion into DC’s senior-living market soon.

According to Burman, a primary concern for all his firm’s senior properties is how to deliver optimal service to residents. “We’ve gotten much better at flow: how people move from point A to point B in the building and how we can better serve those sorts of needs,” he says. “I’m more concerned about function than anything else.”

A key to Burman’s formula for signature residences is the dedication of 40 percent of each space toward common areas—places where people can sit and watch television or participate in different activities. “You sleep in your bedroom, but you use your dining room and library and family room,” he says. “We try to create the same [spaces] in our buildings. We build them to feel like your home.”

Each of Engel Burman’s communities is part of the Bristal Assisted Living brand. There are 12 in all, and the company has plans for several more in the next few years. (Photo: Brenner Photo)
Each of Engel Burman’s communities is part of the Bristal Assisted Living brand. There are 12 in all, and the company has plans for several more in the next few years. (Photo: Brenner Photo)

Born and raised in Syracuse, Burman learned the meaning of hard work in his
father’s dress shop. An MBA in finance from Syracuse University led him to a subsequent position as a CPA at New York City’s Touche Ross & Co. and an eventual foray into real estate, where he purchased foreclosed and corporate-surplus properties. In 1997, he sold four million square feet of industrial buildings to First Industrial Realty Trust, Inc., with a noncompete agreement for industrial properties on Long Island.

“I started buying properties in Montreal and Massachusetts and Florida,” Burman says. He also developed residential housing on Long Island, meeting future partners Krieger and Sydney Engel while vying for a piece of property. Their union initially resulted in the construction of Fulton Commons: a 270-bed skilled-nursing facility and the Bel Air, a 100-unit condominium complex in East Meadow, New York.

Recently named the Ernst & Young 2014 Family Business Industry Entrepreneur of the Year for the New York Region (his sons Scott and David are now partners in the Engel Burman Group), Burman was specifically recognized for his record and leadership—he’d been named Developer of the Year by the Commercial Industrial Brokers Society of Long Island and was elected to multiple terms as president of the business advocacy group Association for a Better Long Island—and his prescience in identifying the current senior-housing trend.  Also, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has appointed Burman to the board of the United Nations Development Corporation, which facilitates the UN’s office and real estate needs in Manhattan.

“The [senior-housing] business is maturing and growing very rapidly as baby boomers come of age,” Burman says. “People are living longer because there are a lot of cancers that can be controlled and cured and heart issues which don’t really occur anymore.” As a result of extended lifespans, he says, residents entering senior housing are much more frail than they used to be, with incidents of dementia increasing by five percent each year after age 85. To account for such evolving circumstances, Engel Burman’s expanding portfolio will include all-memory-care senior-housing models, with the first 88-unit facility under way in Lake Success, New York.

With 1,500 employees and holdings all along the East Coast from Montreal to Florida, Engel Burman’s work extends beyond senior-living facilities, too, but Burman particularly appreciates the unique challenges that the complexes bring. “With assisted living, we construct, own, and manage,” he says. He hasn’t been able to convince his 92-year-old father, living in Florida with his girlfriend, to come home and try a Bristal community yet, but maybe soon, as his company expands, he can bring the experience far enough south.