CLEARWATER — When retired social worker Marvin Zwiebach and his wife of 60 years, Evelyn, moved into a retirement community here called Bayview Gardens, they believed it would be the home of their last hurrah.
Former New Yorkers, they found a two-bedroom apartment on the shore of Old Tampa Bay, with a yard of live oaks and a patio for their orchids. Evelyn, 85, hung her needlepoint artwork. Marvin, 84, unpacked 40 large cartons of books.
"This was our home," Zwiebach said. "My wife and I thought we would be here until the end."
So last Thursday, when they found a note in their mailbox alerting them to an important meeting in the community's high-rise, they didn't expect this: The community they had waited to move into for one year, and had lived in for six, was closing. They and all their neighbors had to be out in 45 days.
The Zwiebachs are just two of the 140 seniors who are being evicted from what may be Pinellas County's first retirement community. Half of the residents need daily assistance and cannot live on their own.
The community's 75 nurses, housekeepers, cooks, drivers and other employees will also be out of a job.
Troy Hart, president of Bayview Gardens and of SantaFe Senior Living, which owns the property, said the facility never recovered after a failed plan to redevelop the rental apartments into condominiums.
Residents and their relatives are left to worry about how to find new living arrangements and move within 45 days, the state's minimum for notice at assisted-living facilities. They fear dangerous levels of stress on those who just wanted to retire in peace.
"People with cognitive impairments, who are doing well now because they're oriented, could be totally set back having a forced move put on them," said the Zwiebachs' daughter, Mona Haymes. "Some people might never regain the level of stability they have right now."
Built for seniors by a Congregational church in 1965, Bayview Gardens provided a then-unconventional mix of assisted and independent living. Residents needing extensive assistance live in a six-story high-rise, visible from Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. Seniors who are more able live in a collection of one-story apartment homes, visiting the tower for meals at a dining hall called the Garden Cafe.
Hospital chain Morton Plant Mease bought the 32-acre community in 1985, elevating it to one of Clearwater's best-known retirement spots. By 2006, Bayview Gardens had 300 residents.
However, Morton Plant Mease, wanting to focus its business on hospitals, sold the site for $17 million to SantaFe, a Gainesville not-for-profit that owns retirement communities in Gainesville and Miami and has one under construction in Bonita Springs.
Officials from both companies heralded the sale, saying it would ensure the property would "continue to serve seniors for decades to come." Morton Plant Mease asked that Bayview Gardens remain a not-for-profit community for seniors for two years. SantaFe obliged.
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Then, in 2008, SantaFe announced a new plan to "refresh" the 43-year-old community by bulldozing units and building new Tuscan-themed villas in a project called Bella Terra on the Bay.
The plan was for residents to buy the units, rather than rent them, Hart said, through "entrance fees" costing about as much as a home. Rental units there now cost $1,000 to $3,000 a month, depending on the level of care needed. Marvin Zwiebach said Bella Terra apartments would have cost up to $300,000.
"I had never seen such a mass exodus out of here," Zwiebach said. "It was like someone had yelled 'Fire.' "
Residents fled, Hart said, with occupancy dropping from 80 to 20 percent. Even as SantaFe poured millions into renovations, not enough residents returned to keep the community running.
Bayview Gardens showed no deficiencies during its last three inspections, Florida Agency for Health Care Administration records show.
Hart said the company would help seniors find new residences by giving out lists of other facilities. The 45-day window, he said, would be "emotionally challenging" for residents but allow for quicker moves to other facilities.
"The sooner we can get them from here to somewhere they're content and happy and well cared for," Hart said, "the better it will be for everyone."
Though some relatives of Bayview residents think SantaFe plans to sell the waterfront real estate to a developer, Hart said they have no one lined up to buy the site. He added he didn't know what the next phase would be: "Frankly, I don't know if it will be a senior living facility."
In the meantime, residents will be packing for another move. Denise Lang, whose mother, Marjorie DeJohn, 79, has lived there for two years, said finding a new home that quickly "seems unimaginable."
But one of her bigger worries is about her mother and her loss of social interaction. How will residents like her deal with losing their friends? "These people are so upset," Lang said. "The people they sit with (during meals) are like family."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.