Hong Kong billionaire Henry Cheng blasted away a Henderson mountaintop during the real estate bubble, with plans for mansions overlooking the valley from street names such as Heavens Edge, Stonecutter and Epic View.
He tabled the project after the economy collapsed, leaving dozens of cake-layered pads carved into the mountain without a single house. But now, with the economy on the mend, he wants to finish the job.
Cheng’s group is gearing up again to develop the project, known as Ascaya. After years of silence that led some locals to assume the land was seized through foreclosure, the developers, who spent at least $200 million building the site, recently listed some lots for sale, gave a broker a tour of the property and hired a public relations firm to promote it.
An announcement that Ascaya is open for business is expected next week, but for now, people involved in the project are staying mum on prices, development timelines and other details.
“It’s exciting, I can tell you that,” listing broker Florence Shapiro said.
Marketing materials say the project, more than a square mile in size and almost 1,000 feet above the valley floor in the McCullough Range, will offer sweeping views; big swaths of open space, proving Ascaya is “sensitive to sustainable practices without sacrificing beauty or luxury”; and a clubhouse with concierge service, an artist studio, fitness center, tennis pavilion and spa with private treatment rooms.
“Where stone rises up to meet the sky, there is a place called Ascaya,” marketing materials say.
The revived sales efforts come as other builders push ahead with plans for luxury housing tracts. In Summerlin, for instance, Howard Hughes Corp. and Discovery Land Co. are planning a 555-acre high-end community, with sales of lots and homes starting next year.
But luxury-home sales are slowing valleywide, and real estate pros are split on whether buyers will step up at Ascaya.
Cameron DeAngelo, owner of All Vegas Valley Realty, toured the site last month and said the project, south of Horizon Ridge Parkway off Roma Hills Drive, will be the “most prestigious luxury community in the valley.”
She expects wealthy foreigners to buy lots as second or third homes. The developers are imposing design restrictions to ensure buyers put up desert-themed, contemporary homes, and they want to prevent builders from buying up lots to flood the place with cookie-cutter mansions, DeAngelo said.
Developers on Aug. 1 listed for sale 11 of Ascaya’s 313 lots, according to DeAngelo. They are about a half-acre and cost $800,000 to $1 million each.
“To have the vision that (Cheng) did and assemble the land, and over the years chisel out this community, is remarkable,” she said.
Robyn Yates, owner of Windermere Prestige Properties, said she’s happy to hear Ascaya is back in business. But with the economy fragile, she is surprised the developers want to sell now.
Las Vegas’ luxury housing market improved dramatically last year, with 341 previously owned homes selling for at least $1 million each, almost double from 2012, according to the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors. But business is down this year, with 187 used million-dollar homes sold through mid-August, a pace of about 300 deals for 2014.
In the meantime, there are plenty of lots available where people can build their own mansions, according to Yates.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s strong demand right now,” she said.
Developers might sell eight or 10 lots at Ascaya, but not 300, said architect Bob Fielden, of RAFI Architecture in Henderson.
“I don’t think so. Not until things really turn around,” he said.
Ascaya has been in the works for decades and long been controversial. Neighbors complained that the blasting shook their homes and cracked windows and foundations. Today, locals point to the empty lots as a painful reminder of Las Vegas’ building bust, the excesses of the boom years and a disregard of the valley’s natural beauty, as local mountain ranges are largely untouched.
“I thought it was rape and pillage when it was going on, and I don’t know that my perspective has changed,” Fielden said.
Cheng, the 67-year-old chairman of NWS Holdings Ltd., oversees an empire of tolls roads, power plants, water-treatment plants and container terminals, with investments in Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China.
Through their company W.L. of Nevada, Cheng's family began buying land in the Henderson mountains by 1990. Henderson city officials granted his group a zoning change in 1995, allowing two units per acre on the roughly 630-acre development, and other zoning changes in 2004. At that time, the developers planned to build 472 single-family lots at the project, then called Crystal Ridge.
Cheng’s group reportedly drilled, blasted and hauled away 15 million cubic yards of solid rock, cutting at least 140 feet deep. It opened a sales office around 2008, after the economy began slowing, with plans to have the first homes built in 2009.
However, the group reportedly suspended sales efforts that year, and since then, the project has sat untouched.
Building a home on a mountain is safe, as long as the rock beneath it isn’t layered with weaker soil and the slope isn’t too steep, said Neil Opfer, an associate professor of construction management at UNLV.
He would have preferred the mountains be left alone, but Opfer said mansions there will have incredible views, satiating homeowners’ cravings for “height might.”
“You get up high enough, you really don’t have to worry about anyone building in front of you,” he said.