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Fehmi Karahan on Legacy West and the American Dream

Fehmi Karahan is the master developer of Legacy West, Plano’s hot, new mixed-use development. With stores such as Pocket’s Menswear, Filson, Fabletics and Credo Beauty and restaurants such as Tommy Bahama, Taverna, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse and Earls as well as Legacy Hall, Legacy West is the place to shop, dine and party in Collin County. They even have a WeWork and are home to the headquarters of Boeing Global Services. Read Full Story

Here’s the story of Fehmi Karahan and how Legacy West became an incredible reality.

In pursuit of the American Dream, Fehmi Karahan transformed the face of Collin County

At the grand opening of Williams Sonoma Home Store at The Shops at Legacy in 2009, Mayor LaRosiliere turned to Fehmi Karahan and joked, “How great would it be if you built up the other side?” Today that land is being built up as the future home of Toyota North America, Liberty Mutual, FedEx Office, JPMorgan Chase and Legacy West. It’s an American Dream come true for a Turkish immigrant who arrived to the U.S. with $100 in his pocket.

In the beginning there was nothing but grassy fields roamed by buffalo and herds of cattle moving north on the Shawnee Trail. Today, 19 bronzed longhorns and three cowboys are all that remain of this recent, yet long-forgotten, past. The corporate campuses of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Capital One, Hewlett Packard, Pizza Hut, Ericsson, Frito-Lay and Toyota North America make this former wilderness one of the country’s top economic centers. Otherwise known as Legacy Business Park, the area also encompasses two mixed-use developments: Legacy West and The Shops at Legacy.

Such a transformation does not happen by chance.

The beginning: Legacy Business Park, Plano

In the late 1970s, EDS found itself in need of larger headquarters. The solution was simple; build a new one. The location was revolutionary. Having discovered that most of his employees were living in Plano, Ross Perot, founder of EDS, made the decision to move the company to what was then the middle of nowhere. The company purchased 2,665 acres (four square miles) of land immediately south of State Highway 121 and stretching across both sides of the Dallas North Tollway.

“He realized that by putting his corporation there, he could attract a city of corporations, that would pay EDS for the cost of the land to build their own HQs. It would be a win-win,” explains Robbie Robinson, a naval engineer with experience building military bases and the man Perot brought in to masterplan the mega-campus. Today, 60,000 people live and work in Legacy Business Park and by the time new additions Toyota North America, Liberty Mutual, JPMorgan Chase and FedEx Office are fully operational that number will be closer to 100,000.

Working with the City of Plano, EDS planned roads and utilities, as well as residential and commercial properties. Just as soon as they broke ground on the new headquarters, the boom started. Frito-Lay was first, quickly followed by JCPenney.

But something was missing. There were no restaurants or shops. There was nowhere for people to go.

Enter Fehmi Karahan.

In 1999 Fehmi signed an agreement with EDS to purchase land to build what is now Legacy Town Center, the 150-acre mixed-use development which encompasses The Shops at Legacy.

Fehmi Karahan: An American Dream

A visionary, a dreamer, a perfectionist, a fearless businessman—a success. Fehmi Karahan is all of these things; he is proud to declare, “I am [the] American Dream.”

He came to America in 1978 with a scholarship to Columbia University. His English was so bad—“and still is,” he jokes—that he couldn’t even get a job at a Turkish restaurant; instead he worked for $3 an hour handing out flyers on the corner of 5th and 55th.

Six months later he came to Texas and never looked back. “It was America to me,” he says. “I loved the people—Texans are very friendly, they don’t care [that] I speak with [an] accent or make me feel like a foreigner. I was welcomed.”

He finished his graduate degree at the University of North Texas and was offered a job by a fellow Turk who worked in real estate. “I started with him in 1980 and in 1984 I started my own business.”

Since then, Fehmi’s career and success can be defined by one word: confidence. In his own words, “extreme belief in myself, in what I do.”

He completed his first development in 1985, an 8,000-square-foot neighborhood center, and in 1993 made a name for himself in Dallas with the construction of MacArthur Crossing, a large retail development at the southeast corner of LBJ and MacArthur.

The project earned him a reputation as the crazy Turk. “I was one of the very early pioneers in 1993 to build around the LBJ in Las Colinas…A lot of people said it wasn’t going to work.” He faced the same kind of negative response when it came to the development of Legacy Town Center (which includes The Shops at Legacy).

Legacy Town Center and The Shops at Legacy

“We started at a time when mixed-use developments were not widely accepted in the U.S. At that time no one believed that we could do it. Willow Bend had just been announced and Stonebriar was being built. People were saying, ‘This guy is crazy, out of his mind trying to do that.’ But we did it; we prove[d] everybody wrong.”

This April, their first tenant, Starbucks, will celebrate 15 years at The Shops at Legacy. “I believed in it and worked hard. I don’t listen, necessarily, to people saying why it’s not going to happen; I focus on how I can make it happen.”

When asked if he ever has a fear of losing, he quotes Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis: “Never start a business, a battle, or a love affair if the fear of losing overshadows the joy of winning.”

Of course, confidence alone is not a recipe for success. That, coupled with passion, perfectionism and an unwavering commitment to doing things the right way—that is Fehmi’s recipe for success.

As the New Urbanism movement sweeps the nation, Legacy Town Center stands out as the gold standard. “Legacy was the showcase for people coming from all over the U.S., and other places too, because it was an example of what workability/walkability and modern urban lifestyle was supposed to be,” says Pat Evans, who served as the Mayor of Plano from 2002-2009.

Located within Legacy Business Park, the 168-acre center includes a community of townhouses—home to 7,000 people—which is centered around The Shops at Legacy; 900,000 square feet of retail, 46 restaurants and a hotel.

“This combination of office space, residential, entertainment, restaurants and bars all truly mixed together, having those not only mixed within the development, but also mixed within one building, that was really a radical notion,” says Phil Dyer, Mayor of Plano from 2009-2013.

But it wasn’t just that it was done; it was how it was done that made Legacy Town Center special. “There’s mixed-use development like Fehmi Karahan has done it and there’s mixed-use development…in other places,” says Dyer. He adds, “Fehmi never lowered the bar on excellence; he’s an absolute stickler for detail. He knew that the big things mattered but that the little things mattered too.” Conserving the history of the area was one of those things, and the reason why a cemetery is nestled between a parking garage, stores, restaurants and a line of townhouses.

“Mr. Karahan is one of the most innovative, creative entrepreneurs that I have ever met. He had a vision for Plano, he very methodically carried out that vision and literally created one of the most important parts of the Plano community. He saw a need that was not being met and he expanded on that need to include not only retail, but housing too,” says former City Manager Tom Muehlenbeck.

Fehmi Karahan had just one fear

Fehmi did have one fear. “While we were building Legacy Town Center, I would look across the street, at this massive piece of vacant land surrounding JCPenney, and I’d think, ‘What will happen if someone builds something over there to compete?’”

So he decided to be that person.

Legacy West is born

The land belonged to JCPenney, purchased from EDS in 1985 for the relocation of their corporate headquarters from New York. Of the 355 acres purchased, only 110 had been developed.

Within a year of completing Legacy Town Center, Fehmi was able to get an audience with Mike Ullman, then CEO of JCPenney. Although Ullman was receptive, nothing happened.

Two years passed and Fehmi went back to Ullman, this time joined by his partner and co-developer of Legacy Town Center, Robert Shaw who brought with him his partner, Roger Staubach. Again, nothing happened.

The turning point came when Mike Ullman announced his retirement and replaced by Ron Johnson, former president of Apple, whose radical changes cost JCPenney billions. It was the perfect time to do something with the unused land.

“JCPenney did an RFP [Request For Proposal] from four other large companies in addition to me,” says Fehmi. Going up against the likes of Trammell Crow Co., Hines and Lincoln, Fehmi enlisted the expertise of KDC, one of the largest premium office developers in the country. “Initially, we called ourselves the Dream Team, and then we thought that sounded a little bit arrogant, so we changed it to Team Legacy.”

Team Legacy won, but it was another year and a half before they got the green light from JCPenney. “On February 4, 2014, we signed the partnership agreement. It wasn’t a land purchase, but all the land, the excess 240 acres, was transferred into a new partnership that I led as a master developer.”

The Emerald Necklace

Fehmi envisioned a place with a strong identity and clear value to the community. Among the businesses, he planned out a series of linked public spaces: fountains, parks and little squares to add beauty and create a sense of continuity. His team called this extension of Legacy Business Park “the Emerald Necklace.”

The Emerald Necklace ran in a circle around the JCPenney campus and divided the surrounding land into four parcels. Fehmi’s plan was simple: sell properties and make money.

No sooner was the plan finished than a project code-named “NAI” came along. “They told me it was a Global 100 company…turned out [to be a] Global 8 company.” It was Toyota North America.

But there was a problem: FedEx Office. “Our partner, KDC, had been working with FedEx for a long time, they had a contract to purchase 20 acres [within Toyota’s slice of land]. So when Toyota came, they said they will take 50 acres, but they also wanted FedEx’s 20. It took me a lot of stressful nights to move FedEx from the west corner to the east.” In total, Toyota North America purchased 100 acres including an additional 30 from the adjacent land owner.

With the momentum of Toyota North America and FedEx Office, the project snowballed. Liberty Mutual purchased 13 acres, the Sam Moon Group took four acres to build a hotel, and JPMorgan Chase committed to building a one-million-square-foot development to serve as their regional headquarters. “Of the [original] 240 acres, we’re down to 17 acres—of which six are under contract,” says Fehmi.

Location was a key component to the success. “At the intersection of two major highways, our corner is the best circulating corner,” he explains. “We have many exits along the tollway: Spring Creek, Tennyson, Legacy and Headquarters. They all bring you into the development.”

Just as the eastside of Legacy Business Park has Legacy Town Center, and within that The Shops at Legacy, this new west side of the Business Park needed its own mixed-use development—Legacy West. “People want to be where the amenities are—great restaurants, great gathering places—they want to leave work, go downstairs and have fun.”

Legacy West, Plano: “Our Rodeo Drive”

Legacy West, the $400 million, 38-acre mixed-use extension of Legacy Town Center is anchored by Windrose Avenue—affectionately referred to by Fehmi Karahan as “our Rodeo Drive.”

The 415,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space buzzes with the very best stores and dining options Collin County has to offer. “I have not chosen a restaurant or signed a lease if I did not believe they would be successful,” says Fehmi.

The lineup of stores includes: Bonobos, Coach, Fabletics, Filson, Frontgate, Johnny Was, Peter Millar, Planet Blue, Pockets Menswear, Suitsupply, Tommy Bahama, Tumi, Venetian Nail Spa, Warby Parker, West Elm and the new Barnes & Noble concept store, to name just a few.

Meanwhile foodies can enjoy: Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, Earls Kitchen + Bar, Fogo de Chão (coming soon), Haywire, Mesero, North Italia, Shake Shack, Sprinkles, True Food Kitchen, Tommy Bahama Restaurant, Taverna and Toulouse Café and Bar (coming soon).

The pinnacle, however, is Legacy Hall. Presented by Front Burner Restaurants, the 55,000-square-foot venue boasts more than 20 artisanal food stalls, a full-service bar, on-site brewery, as well as the Box Garden, a huge beer garden with and live music stage (coming spring 2018). “It reminds me of Grand Central Station,” Fehmi says.

Fehmi has paid meticulous attention to every detail. Not only does every restaurant have a terrace—even Sprinkles—but the sidewalks are be lined with trees rehomed from the original land. “We spent millions, seriously, taking out the trees and saving them for two years, so that we could replant them.”

The $4 million dancing fountain—complete with lights—serves as a meeting place at the heart of the development.

Even the parking garage is a masterpiece. “It’s the safest garage in Texas,” Fehmi boasts. With one security camera for every four spaces, the brightest possible lighting and “park assist”—which uses the cameras to help you locate your car from a kiosk—it’s also be the most technologically advanced.

Just like Legacy Town Center, Legacy West has residential and office space; 1,000 apartments and 330,000 square feet of office space, as well as a 303-room luxury hotel—the Renaissance at Plano Legacy West Hotel.

Today, Fehmi Karahan has a different dream. He dreams of sitting on the balcony of his south-facing Windrose Apartment, opening a nice bottle of wine—Italian white wine—raising a toast and saying, “Wow, we made it.”

When I ask, “What’s next?”, he replies, “Once you play and you win the Masters—twice—or you win [the] Super Bowl, why not just enjoy it?”

Originally published in Plano Profile‘s March 2017 issue under the title “His Legacy”

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