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Why You Need to Know Fehmi Karahan

The president and CEO of the Karahan Cos. is a driving force behind Legacy West
By Karen Nielsen |

Why You Need to Know Fehmi Karahan

Because he’s playing a critical role in developing Legacy West, one of the largest and most expensive commercial developments in Texas. The $2 billion+ project on 240 acres in Plano is anchored by both the corporate headquarters for Toyota North America and FedEx Office, and a large operations center for Liberty Mutual. It is an extension of the hugely successful Legacy mixed-use development that sits just to the east.

The personable, Turkish-born developer is known in the industry for his vision, his ability to assemble talented teams, and for creating destinations with heart and soul. “Growing up in Istanbul, a city that is some 3,000 years old, and being able to travel around Europe and seeing outdoor environments and gathering places gives you intuition on how these things work and what people like,” Karahan says. “I’m fortunate to have been given the tools to create these places.”

He came to America in 1978, on a scholarship from a Turkish company to pursue a master’s degree in New  York. The cosmopolitan city was similar to Istanbul and Paris, but Karahan craved a different experience. He found it in Texas, during a holiday trip. “Texas was real America to me; the people were so friendly,” he says.

He decided to stay and get his MBA from the University of North Texas. Not long after, he was playing soccer with an international group of players when one of the guys asked if he would like to join his real estate company. Karahan went on to launch another firm with a co-worker. In 1992 he ventured out on his own with The Karahan Cos., focusing on neighborhood and grocery-anchored retail projects. 

The developer’s big break came in 1998, when EDS chose him to oversee The Shops at Legacy in Legacy Town Center off the Dallas North Tollway. Not everyone initially agreed with his vision to create an open-air, pedestrian-friendly project, but the critics have long since been silenced. The urban lifestyle center is arguably one of the most successful mixed-use developments in the country. About 60,000 people now work and live in the Legacy area, where office development stands at about 17 million square feet.

“We have been able to change the North Texas map overall with The Shops at Legacy,” Karahan says. “It has become such a regional place. Today, all big companies want to be near amenities to attract the talent and retain them.”

Karahan’s big break came in 1998, when EDS chose him to oversee the Shops at Legacy.

Even back in the early days of Legacy Town Center, Karahan had his eye on the 240 acres surrounding J.C. Penney’s corporate campus on the west side of the tollway. The retailer had acquired 360 acres when it moved from New York to Plano in 1987, but only used about a third of it for its headquarters campus. Karahan approached the company, but it wasn’t interested in selling. 

J.C. Penney changed course in 2014, and decided to leverage the value of its prime property. It invited five companies to vie for the right to develop the land. When Karahan learned he would be competing against big boys like Trammell Crow Co., he called for reinforcements, ultimately forming “Team Legacy” with  office developer KDC and multifamily developer Columbus Realty Partners. Combined, the three companies had done more than $1 billion in projects at the original Legacy. 

“When you look at those partners, Columbus Realty’s Robert Shaw is the best residential developer anywhere,” Karahan says. “The same with KDC. When you look at their corporate campuses, they are builders and developers and no one is better. It really is the dream team.”

Team Legacy quickly secured a headquarters for FedEx Office, and followed it up with a whopper: a 2.1 million-square-foot North American headquarters for Toyota North America. Things escalated from there, with a big campus for Liberty Mutual and a multitenant office tower from Gaedeke Group. 

The magnitude and velocity of office development has helped jump-start the other components of Legacy West. They include 320,000 square feet of retail space (including a market hall with several new restaurant concepts), more than 600 luxury apartments, 100 single-family homes, and a 30-story, 152-unit luxury condo tower.  

“It is very exciting to see in such a short period of time so much success achieved,” Karahan says.

Legacy West also is getting an $82 million Renaissance hotel. The 300-room property will include 26,000 square feet of conference space. Funded by the Sam Moon family, it will be adjacent to retail and residential buildings and sit along the Dallas North Tollway. Karahan is working with the city of Plano and the North Texas Tollway Authority to connect the east and west sides of Legacy by making the bridge over the tollway more pedestrian-friendly. An estimated 13,000 to 15,000 people will work at Legacy West, with annual payrolls reaching $1.8 billion. “The economic impact—not only for Plano, but North Texas and the state of Texas—is pretty mind boggling,” Karahan says. “As a development, Legacy West is like winning The Masters. These are fortunate times for Texas.”