Every day, Omar Husayni drives by the deserted, sunken structure the locals mockingly call Lake Lebanon. Husayni, 27, works in marketing in Plano, and his commute takes him by where Wade Park was supposed to stand.
“I honestly thought it was some kind of landfill or a demolished parking garage,” Husayni says. “Whenever I see it, I wonder, ‘Why don’t they try to do something about that?’ It looks weird, especially in a place like Frisco.”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Located at Lebanon Road and the Dallas North Tollway, the 175-acre Wade Park development was envisioned as the crown jewel of Frisco’s vaunted “5 billion dollar mile,” the mass of developments that includes The Star and Frisco Station. As visitors turned into this collection of gleaming shops, restaurants and offices, they would be greeted by a lush lane of trees bisecting the development.
On the left, you could catch a movie at the high-end iPic Theater, enjoy some Americana grub at The Rustic, or take care of your shopping at Whole Foods. On the right, a row of luxury apartments overlooked the complex, with high-end shops occupying their bottom floors.
Yet instead of that picturesque scenery, Wade Park now resembles a cross between an abandoned dump and a bombed-out shell of a Wild West town. There are no shops, no restaurants, no high-end condos; just a gravel pit and a small smattering of half-finished buildings caked in soot.
“It’s a pretty big eyesore,” says Rebecca Clark, a Frisco resident interviewed while shopping at The Shops at Legacy. “I totally forgot it was supposed to be a shopping center, but I remember when they first started talking about it. I live about 10 minutes away, so I was excited. Now I just kinda hope they pave over it someday.”
That same day, a weekend afternoon in November, several other Shops at Legacy visitors said they have seen “Lake Lebanon” while driving on the tollway, but few of them knew it was called Wade Park or knew that it was supposed to be an addition to Frisco’s “5 billion dollar mile.”
“I thought it had something to do with the Cowboys,” says Shawn Miller, a Frisco resident. “I assumed it was something they were building or something they were tearing down to build something new.”
Those who do remember the excitement of Wade Park’s beginnings have much harsher words to share about the project’s failure.
“It is a cesspool,” Frisco’s Kathy Hill told a local news station in September 2020. “I’ve been here for over two years, and the only thing that has changed is the hole is only getting deeper and smellier and the weeds are back. We were supposed to have this great development and I thought the value of my home would skyrocket. But, instead, it’s an eyesore.”
Wade Park’s journey from prized development to much-maligned gravel pit is a story of apparent betrayal and deceit. The cast: some of the country’s most formidable developers. Stan Thomas, the project’s original developer, is currently suiting Jonathan Kalikow, president of Gamma Real Estate, who took control of this once-prized parcel of Frisco land. Among other claims, Thomas says Kalikow, who lent Thomas money, used absurdly high-interest rates to bankrupt Thomas and the project so he could take it for himself. Amidst this ongoing litigation, it’s unclear if Wade Park will ever live up to its vaunted origins.
Neither Thomas nor Kalikow commented on this story. Steve Brown, who covers real estate for The Dallas Morning News, says he hasn’t heard from Thomas in months, and that the number he has for him has stopped working. Indeed, dozens of calls to all available numbers for Thomas and his office went unanswered, and his lawyers did not return multiple voicemails and emails. Kalikow‘s attorneys declined to comment. However, Kalikow and Gamma Real Estate told Steve Brown in September that they have had “productive” conversations with the city of Frisco.
Throughout 2020, even as a global pandemic rocked the world economy, local government city leaders remained optimistic that the project would one day move forward. Ron Patterson, president of the Frisco Economic Development Corporation, referred to Wade Park as “deferred additional taxable value,” fortifying his belief that the city will be able to generate revenue from the development at some point in the future.
“We want it to develop when the time is right,” Mayor Jeff Cheney told a CBS reporter in September 2020. “This whole region is continuing to develop quickly and I think we’ll look up and see Wade Park ten years from now moving forward as a successful project.”
Some people outside of Frisco city hall share that optimism. Terrence Maiden, CEO of Russell Glen, the Dallas real estate development company, said, “Bankruptcy does not necessarily mean all is lost for real estate shopping centers.”
Indeed, Thomas has called Chapter 11—declaring bankruptcy for the sake of reorganization—“a friend,” and developers like him have emerged from bankruptcy to complete successful projects. However, as Sheinberg notes, the appearance of impropriety and the ongoing lawsuit don’t bode well for Wade Park.
“This lawsuit is like a novel,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The mood that morning was one of breathless optimism, a prideful conviction that this project proved Frisco’s prosperity. The temperature was nearing triple digits, but the assembled businessmen, press and local luminaries didn’t seem to mind.
“We think this will be the most exciting project in Texas,” Stan Thomas told the crowd. It was August 6, 2014, and Thomas and co. were breaking ground on Wade Park.
A beaming Thomas stood beside Mayor Maso and told the crowd what they could expect from the development. There will be restaurants bearing the names of celebrity chefs, he said, alongside “special places to have fun and for entertainment, for bowling, for any kind of premier movie experience. All of those are things that you will expect here.” The developer also told the groundbreaking attendees that Wade Park would include a list of all-star tenants, and court documents show he was right. Potbelly, Peloton, and others were set to join the mixed-use complex alongside 1,300 apartments, 50 condominiums, and 127 Charleston-style single-family homes complete with luxury amenities and concierge services. One of Thomas’ colleagues told the crowd, “We want Frisco to embrace this as their playground.”
Several Frisco leaders were on hand, and they were excited about the new addition to their city. At first glance, they had reason to be: Thomas was responsible for developments like The Rim, a shopping and dining center nestled in an affluent corner of San Antonio. Yet for years before and after this August groundbreaking, Thomas had spent ample time fending off lawsuits and scandals.
In 2006, Thomas paid $209 million for a building near the Tower of London, announcing that he planned to turn the building into a boutique hotel. Just two years later, he forked over $90 million in cash and loans to the government of Sarasota, Florida, simply so they would widen a road in front of one of Thomas’ new developments. It appeared Thomas was a titan of industry, securing treasure troves of cash for projects in the United States and across the pond. But in a 2012 Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview, Thomas, who the paper called “media-shy,” came clean about his company’s economic struggles: the London and Sarasota projects were both dead, and Thomas Enterprises had shrunk from 750 employees to just 50.
“We wept and cried and cried,” Thomas told the newspaper. “Some nights I go home and I’d like to crawl under the bed.”
At the time, his loss of fortune was staggering. Here was a man with a plan for five “mini cities,” and by some reports, he controlled more than 20,000 acres of developable land across the country. He had even survived two scandals. Thomas was a major donor to Gov. Sonny Perdue’s gubernatorial campaign, and when Perdue was elected, he appointed the developer to the Georgia Board of Economic Development. Years later, while Perdue was still in office, Thomas sold the Governor a plot of land.
That scandal pales in comparison to one Thomas endured years later, when a Caribbean news outlet published allegations that the developer paid Cayman premier McKeeva Bush as much as $375,000 so that the premier would force through some rezoning permits for Thomas’ new hotel. Nothing seemed to keep the Georgia developer from adding to his own real estate empire, and as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recalls, he was always willing and able to put up his own money when needed. Then, in Thomas’ words, “the world started melting down.”
The 2008 financial crisis brought an abrupt end to the so-called “cocaine era of lending,” and banks started to cut off Thomas’ credit. Court records indicate that Thomas came to rely even more on his own wealth to finance real estate projects, and when some vendors grew tired of waiting, they filed suit for breach of contract or to place liens on properties.
“To stay awake at night worrying about how to do all of it… It’s a lot of responsibility,” he told the Atlanta newspaper. “We’re just having to navigate through the treacherous waters right now to get to the smooth waters.”
It appears he has yet to make it back to smooth waters. Vendors and business partners have continued to sue Thomas, and in 2017, JPMorgan Chase filed a $5 million suit against the developer for failure to repay a loan. Earlier this year, Thomas’ long-stalled Ovation development (a Nashville development similar to Wade Park) went into foreclosure and was sold. Now, the city of Frisco has joined a long list of people owed money by Stan Thomas. According to court documents, the city is owed more than $3.5 million in outstanding fees related to Wade Park.
Patterson, president of the Frisco EDC, says his organization teamed with the city to provide a Performance Based Grant package for the proposed development. All such grants have now been terminated, as has the $122,750,00 in tax incentives City Council approved for the development.
The trouble at Wade Park seems to go all the way back to spring 2016, around the same time the development was supposed to partially open. Construction had been happening for roughly two years, but Thomas needed more financing. He turned to Gamma Real Estate, a group Scheinberg calls “a lender of last resort.”
“It’s kind of like a payday lender on a much bigger scale,” the attorney says.
The news hit Stan Thomas like a freight train. It was December 2, 2016 and the weather in Newnan, Georgia was clear and sunny, the chill of the winter still a faraway threat. But the mood inside the Thomas Enterprises office was decidedly bleak. His latest real estate development was mired in costly delays, as shown by detailed court documents, and his headaches were only just beginning.
Wade Park was already woefully behind schedule, having missed its self-imposed deadline for opening some of its shops the previous spring. According to court documents, Gamma Real Estate had already revised an agreement they made with Thomas to loan him nearly $200 million.
Court records show that Thomas secured $196 million in a bridge loan, a short-term loan used until a person or company attains permanent financing. According to Thomas’ attorneys, Gamma Real Estate intended all along to take control of the property.
“They did not intend to be passive lenders,” the attorneys wrote in a court filing. “Rather, they intended to take the Wade Park property from plaintiffs by manufacturing a default on the bridge loan and then executing a stranglehold on plaintiffs’ ability to raise capital to pay their way out of default.”
The attorneys go on to argue that Kalikow and Gamma unreasonably hiked interest rates, unreasonably objected to loan modifications (a right they were granted when they gave Thomas the bridge loan) and formed a secret coalition with the implicit goal of forcing Thomas into bankruptcy.
Gamma Real Estate has denied all wrongdoing, and Kalikow’s attorneys call Thomas’ claims “meritless.” But similar to Thomas, Kalikow has spent plenty of time in the muck of various lawsuits. Kalikow’s family is extremely well-known in New York real estate circles, yet Kalikow admits he, like Thomas, is averse to media attention.
“I tend to be a very under-the-radar person,” Kalikow told the New York publication Commercial Observer. “My family is in real estate, and everyone in the real estate business likes to have the press. But we’ve been very under the radar when it comes to lending.”
Nevertheless, Kalikow and his family have developed a brutal reputation in New York City. A former Gamma Real Estate executive is suing the company, saying they cheated him out of millions by firing him under false pretenses. Kalikow’s company recently earned headlines for a battle similar to what’s unfolding in Frisco.
In 2015, the New York company Bauhouse Group attained a $147 million loan from Gamma Real Estate. The company intended to use the loan to build an 87-story residential development at 3 Sutton Place. When Bauhouse Group defaulted on that loan, Gamma Real Estate attempted to foreclose on the property, bought the development itself, then promptly announced plans for their own 67-story tower at 3 Sutton Place. For good measure, they sued the Pilevksy brothers, a trio of investors affiliated with Bauhouse Group, for $100 million in damages.
“I believe in completely disproportionate retaliation,” Kalikow said at the time. “Like Count of Monte Cristo, but to the 10th power. As in, now you’ve fucked with the wrong person.”
Thomas was distressed, these documents say, but over the phone, Kalikow reassured the Georgia developer he had no desire to take control of the development. According to Thomas’ lawyers, this was just one of many lies.
In 2017, Thomas ran out of money and failed to secure additional financing. Contractors who worked on Wade Park filed more than $10 million in liens against the development for unpaid bills. Construction froze, and the project went into foreclosure, where it was bought in 2019 by none other than Gamma Real Estate. Even though no construction work has been done on the project since 2016, Gamma brass have indicated they plan to develop the property. Meanwhile, Thomas, whose company has filed for bankruptcy, is suing Gamma Real Estate for a litany of abuses, including usury and racketeering.
“If they have a jury trial,” Scheinberg says, “there’s no way the jury would understand what the hell happened.”
In 2019, it appeared Kalikow might lose an important case when an appeals court sided with the Pilevkys’ motion to dismiss. But Gamma Real Estate appealed that decision, and on December 3, 2020, New York’s highest court ruled that their lawsuit could continue. That same month, Thomas’ suit against Kalikow was moved to a district judge, who will decide if the case will go to a jury trial. If it does, Sheinberg is doubtful any of the racketeering or usury charges will stick.
“I think they way overplayed this thing,” he says. “[Thomas] is acting like there was some sort of mass conspiracy against him, and maybe there was, but I don’t see proof of that in this filing. Part of me is wondering, ‘What did you expect from a lender like this?’”
Scheinberg also says the case could last years, and in the meantime, it’s unlikely additional investors will want to join Wade Park.
“I don’t know if I buy any of these charges,” the attorney adds, “but I don’t see why anyone would want to be associated with such a mess, especially when the pandemic has hurt so many investors’ bottom lines.”
In other words, the once-promising addition to the $5 billion dollar mile will remain as is: two husks of abandoned, half-finished buildings with a giant gravel pit in the middle.
“I hope they do something with it,” Omar Husayni says. “I mean, they have to fix it eventually, right?”
And while Thomas and Kalikow wait for a district judge to rule whether their case can go to trial, investors in the original development are waiting for their money. One investor agreed to comment on the condition of anonymity. He said he’s not holding his breath for Wade Park to ever turn a profit. There’s a slim chance, he adds, the development will see some semblance of life within the next few years.
“That’s the best-case scenario,” he adds. “So, in the meantime, what we have is the most expensive mound of dirt.”
Originally published on December 2, 2022
In case you missed it, here’s Local Profile’s latest report on the project’s developments