Bal Harbour Shops founder takes show to Brickell

From left, Matthew Whitman Lazenby, Stanley Whitman and Randy Whitman
From left, Matthew Whitman Lazenby, Stanley Whitman and Randy Whitman

At the age of 94, Stanley Whitman could reinvent luxury retail – again.

Growing up during the Depression, Whitman, the owner and founder of Bal Harbour Shops, learned a precept he continues to live by: luxury is an inelastic good.

The shopping center north of Miami Beach, which opened in 1965, was named last year the world’s most productive shopping center, measured by sales per square foot, on the planet.

“I brought the Fifth Avenue merchandise back to Miami,” Whitman told The Real Deal. The shopping center, the site of the first Gucci and Prada retail outlets in the U.S., drew wealthy Northeasterners to South Florida. “If I’d leased the stores to type of clothing my wife dressed in, I’d be broke,” he said.

“With Miami rated as the third poorest large city in the U.S., what we have here could not exist in 1965 nor today,” he said.

For consumers of luxury from cities like Buenos Aires and Moscow, Bal Harbour Shops, which Whitman opened as a retired U.S. Navy officer in 1965, is synonymous with Miami – a mecca for high-end shopping.

Now the Whitmans are branching out in a joint venture with Hong Kong-based Swire Properties to develop the retail portion of the future Brickell CityCentre, a $1.05 billion mixed-use complex.

Stanley Whitman says wealthy out-of-towners have been Bal Harbour Shops’ lifeblood, and that a new influx of foreign tourists from Latin America, Russia, the E.U. and China is the impetus for CityCentre.

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“Our interest in the Brickell CityCentre is very simple: Bal Harbour was the only location available to get this huge tourist business, but now we have tourists coming from the Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons in Brickell. There’s no change to the concept, it’s just a bigger market, and Latin America and other parts of the world have gotten very wealthy,” Whitman said.

In transient South Florida, Whitman, 94, and his family, including executives Randy, Whitman’s son, and Matthew Whitman Lazenby, Whitman’s grandson, will receive an award from Urban Land Institute for “sustainable retail.”

“Florida is seeing so many projects start and fail. It’s all about the initial returns in the first few years and then sell it off! The Whitmans have been there for so long, it’s more than just the typical retail story,” said Julie Medley, director of ULI’s Southeast Florida and Caribbean district office.

The award is an acknowledgement of what the Whitmans have achieved with Bal Harbour, and what observers and residents hope will achieve with CityCentre – nothing less than a lasting impact.

“I saw the opportunity in the market place in Brickell as extremely compelling — the CityCentre capitalizes on the notion of urban reinvestment that’s sweeping the nation,” Matthew Whitman Lazenby, who joined the company in 2003, said.

Bal Harbour and CityCentre differ on one huge point: parking. Stanley Whitman innovated at Bal Harbour, enraging some by charging for validated parking, to discourage beachgoers from filling up the lot. By contrast, at CityCentre, the MetroMover will stop at a station inside the facility and all parking will be underground, driving construction costs through the roof to provide pedestrians with street-level storefronts.

“My grandfather told me it is the primary responsibility of the leasing or operating agent to give the market what it wants, not what it ought to want,” Whitman Lazenby added.