July 18, 2012
At Okanagan Lake, Wilden development comes to life
Project location: Kelowna
Project Size/Scope: 2,000 acres, with 1,000 acres dedicated to wilderness and nature preservation
Total build out: 2,800 homes with a wide range of styles from townhomes to carriage homes to unobstructed view lots with custom-built homes
Prices: Building lots starting from $134,900 — $529,900. Over 30 pre-priced home/lot packages from $381,400 for 1,499 sq. ft main level (1,400 unfinished lower level); 3,200 sq. ft main and second storey (1,500 unfinished); Townhomes of 2,700 sq. ft ready to move into from $444,900
Contact: Brent Couves, marketing manager
Telephone: Toll Free 1-866-762-2906 or 1-250-717-7966
Developer: Blenk Development Corporation; Russ Foster, project manager
Select Builders: Edgecombe Builders, Rykon Construction, Fawdry Homes, Authentech Homes, Meadow Ridge Homes
Occupancy: Immediate, or seven to eight months for custom-built homes
BY MICHAEL BERNARD
The last thing you’d expect to receive while interviewing a developer building one of B.C.’s largest residential projects is a book on flora and fauna in the neighbourhood he is developing. Gerhard Blenk, of Blenk Developments Ltd., commissioned a local wildlife enthusiast to write the Guide to the Wild Side of your Neighbourhood at Wilden: A Friendly Invitation to Explore Your Natural Surroundings, a little coil-bound book handed out to new residents who have bought up some of the 450 east Kelowna single-detached and townhouse homes.
Blenk, a former Liechtenstein gun manufacturer and biathlon team member, is not your typical developer. His 2,000-acre, $1.1-billion Wilden Development — touted as one of the largest master-planned communities between Vancouver and Calgary — is a model for environmentally and socially sensible residential development. Standing on a deck overlooking a large pond, he talks proudly but modestly about how his company has reversed much of the damage caused by people who don’t share his passion for preserving nature.
“First of all, we cleaned the ponds out. We got the mud out. We got the old vehicles out and the trash out. And now many of the birds are returning.” People who work with him say this is classic Blenk: a man with patient money who is willing to take the time to do it right. While some developers see their time horizon in weeks and months, Blenk’s vision for Wilden could stretch over the next 40 years with the plan calling for 2,800 homes. Now in his 70s, Blenk probably won’t be around to see his vision completed.
After “walking it, hiking it and cycling it,” he began in 1996 to methodically assemble Wilden piece by piece. In 2000, he took the critical Area Structure Plan for creating several neighbourhoods to the city of Kelowna. After countless public hearings and discussions with city planning and engineering staff, he obtained council approval, with then-mayor Walter Gray casting a tiebreaking vote.
With Wilden’s complex mix of mountain ridges and valleys carved out of wilderness and bedrock, Blenk says coming up with a master plan was no exercise for amateurs. He engaged respected Vancouver-based community planning firm Ekistics to help convert his vision into a workable plan. “I really couldn’t have done it without their help,” he says. Ekistics partner Paul Fenske says his firm focuses on “creating a sense of place” with large projects like Wilden.
“The prospect of having such a rich palette was quite exciting. This was a significant area in the city of Kelowna, a vibrant hub town and immediately on its northern doorstep this wilderness. Gerhard really applied his European sensibility to it. In Europe, this would have been the best place to live: you’re up high off the valley floor, cool winds, big views and you’re in the midst of nature. He [Blenk] asked: ‘Why has no one ever developed here?’”
Fenske says that with Wilden, the greatest challenge — and opportunity — was its natural landscape. “If you had started with prairie and built up this landscape, creating the exposed ridges and the wetlands you would be spending tens of millions of dollars. The approach then was to try and tread as lightly on the land as possible.” Far from pushing to cut costs and corners, Fenske said Blenk urged Ekistics to explore new possibilities for creating standards that would preserve and enhance the setting. He urged the development of new hillside residential road standards to minimize intrusion and impact of roadways at Wilden. To do that, special car parks were created to accommodate visiting vehicles and permit an overall reduction in road widths. And rather than taking the easier (and cheaper) route of bulldozing lots flat, the parcels were developed only to the point necessary to provide a suitable building site.
Overall, about half of the 2,000 acres will remain undeveloped, partly by default because some steep grades were unsuitable for lots or wetlands were preserved. About 23 per cent of the land, including park dedication, will be handed over to the city. Included in the land is space for an elementary school, seven neighbourhood parks and three larger parks, playgrounds, and a “village concept” town centre, featuring a mix of commercial properties, townhouses, four-storey-high condo buildings and some single-family homes built on narrow lots. Winding through Wilden are about 50 kilometres of walking trails.
Patient money also means that Blenk is able to undertake major projects during the current quieter sales cycle. In what is said to be the largest infrastructure project in the Okanagan this year, Blenk’s company is building a 2.3-kilometre road that, when finished in November, will join the two separate parts that make up Wilden. The sale of 73 lots that the road opens up will help Blenk recover the $7 million spent on road construction. Another feature that is environmentally friendly and saves homeowners significant dollars over the long run is the pre-drilling of every lot site to tap into geo-thermal heating and cooling.
The initial cost of heating and cooling equipment to take advantage of the system is about $2,500 higher than conventional heating and cooling, but the average home saves about $386 a year, almost three times the interest charges the borrower pays to install geothermal. To construct the homes, Blenk invited five of the valley’s builders to construct homes on the lots he has developed, permitting him to maintain quality control over the building process and a symbiotic relationship where everyone takes the longer-term view of things. The arrangement looks like it has worked. The same five builders — Authentech Homes, Meadowridge Homes, Fawdry Homes, Rykon Construction and Edgecombe Builders — are still on board nine years and 450 homes later.
Buyers can select from 32 pre-priced basement home plans created by Jenish House Design Ltd., or have the builder provide a custom design. Possibilities range from the more affordable — 2,700-square-foot townhomes for $444,900 — to the luxurious 4,700-square-foot and larger “Parade of Homes” custom showpieces at $1 million plus. While Craftsman-style touches are a popular feature, the designs offered are as varied as Wilden’s topography, with sites ranging from backyards backing onto forest land to homes perched on the top of mountains with 360-degree panoramas that feature Okanagan Lake, picturesque patchworks of vineyards and orchards to the twinkling lights of the city below.
Brent Couves, Wilden’s sales and marketing manager, says sales have been slower in the past four years but says continuing low interest rates, this year’s resolution of uncertainly over HST and low building costs mean Wilden is well positioned to take advantage of pent-up demand when markets improve.
Special to The Sun