Paradise gained at new development town Gva'ot Eden

For US developer Jake Leibowitz, Eden Hills represents a David vs. Goliath victory over Israel's rigid bureaucracy.

If you're reading this after Lag Ba'omer, you're too late to benefit from pre-construction prices at Eden Hills, or Gva'ot Eden, as the new Israeli housing development town is called in Hebrew. After 18 years seeking approval to build his eco-friendly community between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv but only getting stuck in Israel's legendary Levantine bureaucracy, American developer Jake Leibowitz is finally forging ahead. On Thursday, Housing and Construction Minister Zeev Boim affixed the mezuza on the project's on-site corporate offices and presentation center. The 700-square-meter red tile roof building evokes a villa nestled in the rolling hills of Tuscany. The Kfar Saba-born, New York-raised Leibowitz describes his 1,000-dunam project - for which "hundreds" of American and Canadian families, he says, have already made a $25,000 deposit and signed construction contracts - as "the Hamptons" of Israel. A closer-to-home comparison would be to Savyon or Kfar Shmaryahu. There simply is nothing comparable inside the pre-1967 Green Line near Jerusalem. Leibowitz wants those coming from Beverly Hills and Boca Raton to feel right at home. But none of these enclaves of wealth compare to Leibowitz's green vision, which incorporates the latest ecological technologies in solar power, geothermal heating and water recycling. All the project's 452 residential units and buildings will be connected by a five-meter-wide underground corridor. "Housing all infrastructure, this tunnel will allow for pneumatic rubbish removal and make garbage bins obsolete, together with the rats, feral cats and cockroaches that are associated with garbage," says Leibowitz, 56. "Historic remains scattered across the site will be landscaped into Eden Hills' archeological park. The valley below the hillside site will include an array of ornamental lakes." The model community, located in the scenic Elah Valley, where David fought Goliath and where Yehuda met Tamar, will include a boutique hotel and spa, assisted living residence, a 17,500-square-meter shopping center, winery, a medical center and a recreational facility, or "country club." Leibowitz obtained a 199-year leasehold on the site from the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) in 2002 following a public tender. Notwithstanding its bucolic name, Eden Hills drew opposition from groups like the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), which were concerned about the rapid urbanization of the country's crowded heartland. While the Interior Ministry approved the Urban Building Plan (UBP) in 2005 - likely making Eden Hills the last new town ever to be permitted in central Israel - there were further bureaucratic run-arounds before the requisite building permits were issued. The ever-patient purchasers, many of whom have been waiting years for their homes, are a mixture of olim and veteran Israelis, religious and secular Jews, says Leibowitz, who wears a knitted kippa. While the community will be closed to vehicular traffic on Shabbat and holidays, residents and visitors will be free to use a conveniently close parking lot. Though the community wasn't planned as a religious one, Orthodox buyers have dominated the market thus far, in keeping with the general increase of religious American immigration, he notes. The sheer size of the houses is rare in Israel, says Limor Benmor-Mizrahi, the project's chief architect. The Israeli-born, Canadian-raised architect's design calls for a neo-Tuscan village, with a central pedestrian-only street curving around a series of artificial ponds filled with Japanese koi (orange carp) - an aesthetic flourish that dovetails with the project's ecological vision. But most unusual will be the size of the homes - built to accommodate the purchasers' taste and budget. Some of the villa sites will measure 1.5 dunams, a building parcel rarely found in crowded Israeli cities, large enough to include a tennis court and swimming pool. Work on the first 17 houses and the infrastructure tunnel linking them is slated to begin shortly. Why did the project take so long to get approved? Leibowitz attributes part of his tribulations to being a real estate rookie in Israel who wasted considerable time learning the ropes. Several years' work were invested at a site at Har Kitron, located next to Tzur Hadassah just west of Jerusalem, only to finally determine that the state land there could not be re-zoned for residential use But Leibowitz blames much of his difficulties on capricious officials abusing their positions. He was especially irked that the opposition from the "greens" ignored his project's environmental innovations.