Most real estate developers ease into the business at the bottom of the pecking order. Maybe a couple of small houses or a duplex here and there. Later, if they've managed to keep their head above water, they take on a modest subdivision of a half-dozen two and three-bedroom houses aimed at the middle of the market.
But Ken Keller isn't most developers. At age 28, Keller has launched his Comerica real estate and construction company into a market niche that is so demographically small in terms of Wasatch Front housing that it almost doesn't exist.The project is Shenandoah, a subdivision of 20 houses on half-acre lots at 1765 East 6400 South in which the homes begin at $425,000 and run to $600,000 or more.
Is this a wise move in an area where the average house sells in the $80,000 range, and with the winds of recession blowing across the land?
No problem, says Keller. The project is only four months old and he already has 10 lots sold and several homes under construction. More importantly, he notes, the land is paid for, a fact that tends to take the pressure off. Keller is so sure of Shenandoah that he will complete his own home in the complex sometime next month - a 6,000-square-foot red-brick traditional that would sell in the $500,000 range.
"It's where I've always wanted to do business, in the high end of the market," said Keller, formerly a commercial agent for Salt Lake developer The Boyer Co. "I saw the opportunity with the land and I knew the demand was there. It was the right place at the right time."
Keller acknowledged that the Watts Group and Eagar & Co. who have pioneered upscale housing in the area in recent years, helped pave the way for Shenandoah. Their Tall Oaks single-unit condominium complex and Oak Lane housing development immediately to the east of Shenandoah and New Haven to the north and west have created luxury housing all around Keller's project.
Except for two huge cottonwoods at the entry on 6400 South, Shenandoah - named after the legendary valley in Virginia - does not have the mature native trees enjoyed by his neighbor, Oak Lane. But give him time. Keller recently traveled to Oregon where he visited a number of tree farms. From there, he bought and shipped back to Shenandoah 250 well-developed shade trees - sugar maples, red oak, sweet gum, sycamore and purple ash - that now line Shenandoah Park Avenue.
"As the years pass by and the trees mature, this will become one of Salt Lake City's most beautiful streets," said Keller. "I wanted to hit the Harvard, Yale, Princeton look of the tree-lined streets."
Keller did not leap into the housing business unprepared. His father, Preston Keller, is a retired residential builder in Box Elder County. "He taught me the trade," said Keller. "Keller Bros. Construction built over 250 homes in Brigham City and Northern Utah."
The 11 acres that Shenandoah comprises were originally owned by George W. Smith, a young farmer from Eatonbray, England who came to Utah in 1854. He acquired the land in 1874 from the federal government and his family farmed it for 116 years. Keller bought the land from a family estate comprised of several of Smith's heirs living across the country.
With half the lots sold and the land debt paid, Keller said he will hang on to the rest for development by Comerica. He said of the 10 lots sold, homes will be under construction on all of them by February. A small park will go into the north end of the project.
The street has been dedicated to the county. A homeowners association will take care of the three large street planters and the red brick wall that fronts the property.
Covenants on the project restrict the exterior to 100 percent wood-molded brick that Keller buys from Beehive Brick. The brick comes from Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky & Texas and has an uneven, hand-made look. All-wood windows must also be used and all garages must be side-entry. Each home must have a minimum of 4,000 square feet finished on two above-ground floors.
Comerica is a Scholz Master Builder. Scholz is a Toledo, Ohio-based company that holds numerous awards for housing design for custom home builders. Scholz specializes in designs that "capture the spirit and pulse of today yet are rooted in the timeless principles of classic architecture."
Keller said buyers at Shenandoah have a choice of some 350 stock plans and more than 600 with variations.