When times were flush, Atlanta real estate investor Lee Najjar lived like a rock star, enjoying a lavish lifestyle.
Actor Woody Harrelson and filmmakers Bobby and Peter Farrelly shot movie scenes at Najjar’s Buckhead mansion. Hip-hop producer Dallas Austin was a regular at his parties. MTV filmed a reality episode displaying his home’s opulence. His pool was highlighted by HGTV’s “Million Dollar Rooms.” Entertainment media organizations attempted to link Najjar to yet another reality TV show, and slap a catchy nickname on him.
Then the economy tanked. Najjar lost Union Station Mall in south Fulton County to foreclosure in January, other holdings went a similar route, and one of the city’s most flamboyant characters came crashing down — facing a bitter, off-camera reality.
“He’s lost his empire,” said Linda Johnson, Union City zoning commission co-chairwoman and Green Manor restaurant manager.
Najjar, one of several local real estate investors tested by the changing economic times, has defaulted on at least $45 million in bank loans, according to court records and other public documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In the past two years, he’s lost a half-dozen shopping centers to foreclosure, including Union Station Mall, which was one of his largest assets.
Commercial loans to him were tied to the failure of Integrity Bank in Alpharetta, which lent Najjar $60 million, $12 million of which went unpaid when the bank failed. The bank more than doubled its legal lending limit in granting him those loans, federal regulators said. Integrity Bank’s directors were sued this year by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for an alleged lack of oversight in lending Najjar, among others, so much money. When the bank failed in August 2008, it cost the FDIC about $211 million.
Gone, too, is Najjar’s 14,000-square-foot mansion in St. Marlo Country Club, featured by the AJC in 2005 for its interior decor; and his share of a Gulfstream 200 through NetJets, after he defaulted on a $1 million aircraft mortgage from Bank of America, according to foreclosure notices in Forsyth County and court records in Gwinnett County.
Investor with celebrity
For sale — at $19.9 million — is his sprawling 24,000-square-foot home on West Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead, just down the street from the governor’s mansion.
Najjar, 54, declined to be interviewed after considering the request. While little is known about his past, the developer previously has described himself as an Israeli native, and he remains an Atlanta curiosity.
He still owns multiple metro area shopping centers. Among his holdings: Loehmann’s Plaza Shopping Center, located on Roswell Road and appraised for $5.4 million this year; Bella Palazzo, which he developed near St. Ives Country Club and recently appraised for $6.1 million, and Buckhead’s Andrews Square, which recently appraised for $5.35 million.
And Najjar continues to mix with celebrities and throw well-attended parties. He’ll soon host a bash for Jaden’s Ladder, a group that helps survivors of domestic violence.
“[Najjar] is an intelligent business man with a huge heart, a genuinely nice guy,” said Nicole Jones, philanthropist, entrepreneur and wife of baseball player Andruw Jones. The Joneses met Najjar through a mutual friend.
Although other Atlanta real estate moguls have lost sizable fortunes after the real estate bubble burst, Najjar is different for his ability to connect with the rich and famous, to draw celebrity attention to himself. His Buckhead home was featured on MTV’s project “Teen Cribs,” which showed his driveway typically filled with Rolls Royces, Range Rovers and a souped-up Mercedes.
While embracing his widespread fame, Lee Najjar has shied, sometimes angrily, from the “Big Poppa” label that entertainment media outlets such as TMZ have affixed to him. Big Poppa was the reality TV name used in 2008 to identify the supposed benefactor for “Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast member Kim Zolciak, who recently became engaged to Atlanta Falcons football player Kroy Biermann.
Najjar, married for about 30 years and the father of four, wouldn’t confirm or deny the connection when quizzed about it by the AJC earlier this year. However, TMZ offered a photo of Najjar and Zolciak together at the Atlantis hotel in the Bahamas in 2009. And an Atlanta judge, in a 2009 temporary restraining order involving Zolciak and a publicist, prohibited them from contacting each other, and wrote in the order that any contact by Najjar would be considered contact by Zolciak.
First signs of trouble
Najjar started investing in metro Atlanta properties in the 1990s, particularly in Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties, real estate records show. In the 2000s, he built up his portfolio by securing bank loans at a feverish rate and buying up mostly older shopping centers, Florida land and luxury homes in Atlanta and Los Angeles, according to bank records filed in the foreclosure cases and county property records.
“Everybody was enjoying the benefits of the fact that the market was growing so rapidly,” said David Walmsley, executive vice president of The Jordan Co., a commercial brokerage firm. “Developers were making money, real estate owners were seeing increases in their net worth and banks were able to issue new loans. It’s not so different from what many homeowners did during the boom by refinancing or taking second mortgages for cash for discretionary purposes.”
As late as 2007, Integrity Bank of Alpharetta lent Najjar millions of dollars, based on the belief that his real estate portfolio had an estimated value of $223 million, with net annual operating income of $20.4 million, court records showed.
Najjar’s troubles began after the markets crashed in 2008 and banking scrutiny increased, cutting off his ability to pay off loans by refinancing them with larger ones, according to records filed in Gwinnett and Fulton counties by lenders and as laid out in the FDIC suit against Integrity Bank.
Court records for Union Station Mall showed that Najjar received a mortgage from Integrity for $7.2 million in 2004, followed by a $2.5 million promissory note that same year. In 2005, he received a credit line of $6.1 million that Integrity later increased to $9.1 million, with the loan balance due in 2008. By the time the mall was foreclosed in January, Najjar owed $15.5 million in debt, late fees and penalties.
He bought the aging Union Station Mall in 2004 for $9 million, telling the AJC at the time, “I have no risk in there. With my price, there is no risk.”
When he lost the mall, Najjar blamed external factors such as tenants who wouldn’t pay, a power bill that was too high and city officials who wouldn’t cooperate. Najjar told the AJC in January he was overly frustrated by officials who wouldn’t give him approval for a tax allocation district to help redevelop the area.
“It not only hindered my improvement process right away, they don’t help us attract retailers over there either,” Najjar said. “You’d think this is the anchor of the city. I was running solo.”
The Union Station foreclosure left other victims. Marcus Hardy, owner of Lucky Stars Tattoo, had to relocate his business down the street, costing him an estimated $4,000 and walk-in foot traffic. “I was just one of the lucky ones that got out of it with my head above water,” Hardy said. “It was definitely a stressful situation.”
Another former tenant at a different property took a harsher view of Najjar. “He was a greedy guy,” said Adrian Urtus, owner of Jeronimo!, an indoor children’s playground in Roswell.
Urtus has his business at Holcomb Woods Village, which Najjar owned and was foreclosed. Urtus alleged that Najjar didn’t properly maintain the center, a claim heard elsewhere. Lenders who repossessed retail centers in Douglasville and Cairo from Najjar made similar observations in court documents, citing leaking roofs and piles of garbage at those properties.
Yet another tenant said Najjar’s care of Holcomb Bridge Village was no better or worse than previous owners. “He did as much as other landlords have done,” said hair salon owner Joseph Golshani of Joseph and Friends, a tenant for two decades and five owners.
A common struggle
Atlanta real estate developer Charlie Hendon said he understands how Najjar might have landed in his predicament. Hendon said the same thing has happened to him and countless others. While he hasn’t lost anything yet, Hendon has struggled to keep his Greenbriar Mall from getting foreclosed.
“I’m in the same boat,” Hendon said. “Lenders were happy to throw the money at you then, but it is difficult for them to go to bat for you now.”
Najjar, who once sought the eye of reality TV cameras, was left to deal with unwanted attention after he lost Union Station Mall and listed his palatial home for sale.
As Najjar told the AJC in January, “My integrity is to help people and I always help people all my life. It was to me a dishonor not to keep things going because that’s not me. I can turn bad properties into good properties, that’s my reputation. I can lease, I can make things happen.”
-- Staff writer Jennifer Brett contributed to this article.