In the latest attempt to salvage their original $400 million expansion plan, the owners of Bal Harbour Shops have launched a website targeting their leading opponent, drawing a sharp rebuke from a perceived competitor caught in the crossfire.
BalHarbourPublicRecords.com makes available more than 10,500 pages of emails and text messages gleaned from private cellphone and private email accounts belonging to Bal Harbour Vice-Mayor Patricia Cohen. The documents were obtained by the Whitman family after they filed a lawsuit against Cohen and the village for allegedly violating Florida’s public records law.
Matthew Whitman Lazenby, president and CEO of Whitman Family Development, told The Real Deal that the documents prove Cohen is biased against Bal Harbour Shops due to her personal relationship with members of the Soffer family, who own Aventura Mall. He also accuses Cohen of conducting official village business using her private email accounts, including matters related to the proposed expansion.
“Our goal is to ensure that the men and women who are elected follow the laws they are sworn to uphold,” Lazenby said. “If there are actions going on behind closed doors, out of the public’s view, it is detrimental to the entire village, not just us.”
Lazenby also contends some of the emails suggest Cohen is carrying water for the Soffers. “She has told us multiple times that she has been friends for many years with Brooke Soffer, one of the owners of Aventura Mall,” Lazenby said. “We also see [emails] to Brooke’s sister, Jackie Soffer, who is my counterpart at Aventura.”
Jackie Soffer, who oversees the retail, hospitality and office divisions, including Aventura Mall, for Turnberry Associates, called the Whitmans’ accusations “outrageous” and “absurd.” during a phone interview with TRD. While her sister, Brooke, is a friend of the vice-mayor, she is not, Soffer said.
“We don’t have a friendship,” she explained. “I don’t have breakfast meetings with her. I don’t talk to her on the phone. If I see her in passing, I’ll say hello.”
Soffer told TRD that the Whitmans are using the alleged “friendship” as a ruse to deflect attention from questions surrounding Bal Harbour Shops’ proposed expansion, from a possible increase in traffic congestion to whether the luxury mall still has the cache to recapture its exclusivity and to convince the high-end brand names that left to come back.
“They are using me as a scapegoat and Patricia as a scapegoat,” Soffer said. “To drag me into this is just wrong. They are behaving like bullies because [Cohen] is not voting the way they want her to.”
Soffer said she is not exerting any influence over Cohen and that she does not view Bal Harbour Shops as a major competitor. “We have 28 million visitors a year,” she said. “They don’t have the customer base that we have. They are not going to take my tenants. They don’t threaten me. They don’t worry me.”
Kent Harrison Robbins, Cohen’s attorney, said the emails don’t prove any wrongdoing by his client or that she is biased because of her personal feelings for the Soffers. “There is nothing exciting or extraordinary in the emails,” Robbins said. “Anyone who wants to read through them will be bored to death.”
Lazenby disagreed, pointing to a handful of emails highlighted in a section of the Whitman’s public records website. “We feel those documents are proof positive,” he said. “There is clearly a willful attempt to conduct official city business outside of the sunshine.”
Cohen was one of two village council members who recently voted against allowing a referendum to approve or reject the sale of the Bal Harbour Village Hall site to the Whitmans, who want the land for the mall’s expansion. The resulting deadlock all but killed the proposal. However, the Whitmans are hoping to undo the council’s vote by forcing Bal Harbour into mediation in lieu of litigation, according to their attorney, John Shubin.
“If we cannot resolve our differences, clearly we reserve all of our rights to seek accountability through judicial proceedings,” Shubin added.
Simultaneously, the Whitmans have submitted an alternate plan with a different configuration that does not include the Village Hall site and has at least 50,000 square feet less, eliminating the addition of about 10 to 20 luxury boutiques.
Shubin also told The Real Deal that Cohen still hasn’t produced all of the emails and text messages. According to a motion filed by Robbins, Cohen requested a time extension to a May 16 deadline to turn over all the documents. “The bottom line is that the deadline has come and gone,” Shubin said. “We have not made much progress since then.”
Robbins said the last 200 pages of documents will be provided to the village clerk for final review by the middle of the week. Nevertheless, Cohen’s lawyer said the Whitman’s fishing expedition did not turn up anything against his client. “There is nothing inappropriate whatsoever,” Robbins said. “Not even close.”