A developer whose plan to build hundreds of apartments near the former J.C. Penney headquarters in Plano was denied has said he is working to reach a compromise with nearby property owners by the end of the year.

Sam Ware of Dreien Opportunity Partners said he was optimistic he could address the concerns of nearby corporate property owners, some of whom came out publicly against his 795-unit proposal, arguing that it was inconsistent with their overall vision for the Legacy business park.

The city of Plano’s comprehensive development plan outlines two types of development that are desirable in the Legacy business area: employment centers with little to no proximity to residential buildings, and denser areas near the tollways that feature high-rise office and multifamily developments.

The J.C. Penney property straddles the line between the two. Part of the property falls in the denser designation, while the other part is on land set aside for an employment center. The result of this ambiguity has been a series of competing priorities for what the property should look like.

Ware purchased the J.C. Penney property in late 2016. He renamed it the Campus at Legacy West and pledged to fill its grassy slopes with restaurants, retail stores and apartment buildings.

But the residential components of the project attracted opposition from an unusual source: nearby corporations whose new office buildings now line the Dallas North and Sam Rayburn tollways.

Fehmi Karahan, master developer of Legacy West and president of the Legacy Association board of directors, has spoken out several times against Ware’s apartment proposal, most recently in October, just before the Plano City Council denied the plan in a 4-2 vote.

Karahan said allowing apartments at the Campus at Legacy West would be the start of slippery slope that could encourage more residential buildings springing up in the city’s corporate business park.

“[With] those companies, my role was to sell the land,” Karahan said. “I sat at the table with Toyota, JPMorgan Chase, Liberty Mutual and FedEx, and I told them what a great place Legacy business park is. And they chose it to be in the premier corporate park—not to be across from a residential development.”

‘A balancing act’

Ware said he sees his plan as an extension of what has been going on in the corridor for years.

The Legacy business area—which is bordered to the north by Sam Rayburn Tollway, to the east by Preston Road and to the south and west by Spring Creek Parkway—has been defined by a flurry of mixed-use developments in recent decades.

Plano’s Granite Park and The Shops at Legacy developments paved the way on the east side of the Dallas North Tollway. From 2015 to 2018, most of the massive, $3 billion Legacy West development came online, bringing more than 10,000 new employees to an increasingly busy corridor.

In that same time frame, developers have built nearly 2,000 new residential units in the area, according to records provided by the city planning department.

Apartment units, which consist primarily of multifamily apartments and condominiums, can serve the growing workforce and provide regular foot traffic for the nearby retail stores and restaurants that have accompanied all of the new office developments, Ware said.

The city has anticipated this path for years, Plano Director of Planning Christina Day said.

“It’s been intentional and planned that way as part of the business center development, dating back to Perot’s vision for the Legacy business park,” Day said. “It was always intended as a walkable, mixed-use center along the Dallas North Tollway—from the original design that was implemented in the late ‘90s, and with the initial Shops at Legacy that started east of the Dallas North Tollway and south of Legacy.”

But what the city staff found appropriate for the areas nearest the Dallas North Tollway and Sam Rayburn was not necessarily what it thought was right for the entire Legacy business park, Day said. Since 2015, parts of the business park farther from the tollways have been earmarked to become employment centers free of residential development.

Part of the former J.C. Penney property is currently considered an employment center, leaving only a portion to the northern side of the property eligible for zoning changes that would allow for apartment buildings like the ones Ware has proposed. That side of the property is where he has proposed building the 795 units.

In an effort to block Ware’s apartment proposal, Karahan warned Plano City Council members that these apartments being built would send a message to other developers who might want to build apartments on or near land designated as an employment center.

Karahan also questioned whether the former J.C. Penney campus could support new restaurants and retail stores, given that heavy development in Legacy West has brought economic pressure to businesses on the east side of the tollway.

“Jasper’s restaurant on the Legacy Town Center closed,” Karahan told council members. “Nicola’s closed. Gordon Biersch closed. Cafe Express closed. We have a lot of vacancies. So to say that they are going to get retailers and restaurants and say that they are going to create some sort of [mixed-use development] is just—well, you know what it is.”

But Ware said he believes all the new corporate employees descending on the Legacy area in recent years means there is a growing and unmet demand for housing nearby.

“There’s this vast movement to dissuade more multifamily [development], and the reality is we lead the country in multifamily [project] starts because of our job growth,” Ware said. “They go hand-in-hand. There’s a very distinct correlation between occupancy, job growth and multifamily [project] starts.”

As Ware continues to work with nearby property owners to address their specific concerns, which he said amount mostly to minor standards issues that would be simple to address, he plans to move forward with construction on the other portions of the property.

“We’re still having dialogue with everyone that had concerns,” Ware said. “We have actually been asked to make a few concessions, which we are going to do because the concessions are negligible.”

The grassy hills in front of the J.C. Penney offices have already received city approval for hotel, retail and restaurant uses. As of this paper’s Nov. 15 press deadline, crews were expected to begin draining the property’s pond before the end of the month in preparation for some of the construction, Ware said.

This project, including the apartments and other uses, has been more difficult to navigate than most, Day said, due to the differing land-use guidelines and the limited amount of space with which to work on the north side of the property.

However, the idea of dense development with residential is already largely in effect near the tollways and is likely to continue as the remaining land in that corridor is built out or redeveloped, Day said.

The Plano Tomorrow guidelines that prompted the city’s decisions when Legacy West was being proposed were based on community feedback for that part of town, she said.

“Overall, the Legacy West development was largely supported by the community,” Day said. “Again, it’s always a balancing act on these things where you’re trying to look at layers of information and make the most of what you’re given.”

This article ran in the November 2019 edition of Community Impact Newspaper in Plano. Read the full e-edition here.