Bal Harbor Shops’ contentious battle with the village and its assistant mayor just got much more heated — and litigious — as the luxury shopping center seeks approval to expand.
Bal Harbour Shops sued Assistant Mayor Patricia Cohen and the village of Bal Harbour in Miami-Dade Circuit Court on Tuesday, alleging that Cohen violated the county’s conflict of interest and code of ethics rules that apply to municipalities’ elected officials, by failing to disclose her bias and conflict of interest and failing to recuse herself from voting on Bal Harbour Shops’ application for its proposed expansion.
The move came just before the village was set to vote on the shopping center’s revised plans for expansion at a Village Council meeting Tuesday night. Bal Harbour Shops’ attorney John Shubin sent a letter on Tuesday requesting a deferral of that vote if Cohen did not plan to recuse herself. The deferral was granted at the evening meeting, a Bal Harbour Shops spokesperson told The Real Deal.
According to the lawsuit, Cohen maintains a personal and business relationship with the Soffer family, who own Bal Harbour Shops’ competitor Aventura Mall, and who have close ties to the developer of Miami’s Design District, an emerging competitor, as well. Jackie Soffer, who oversees the retail, hospitality and office divisions of her family’s Turnberry Associates, is married to Dacra President and CEO Craig Robins, who is spearheading the Design District’s transformation into a luxury shopping destination.
The suit further alleges that Cohen has a relationship with Brooke Soffer, Jackie Soffer’s sister, and visited her home and Robins’ office in February. “Cohen is more than just close friends with Brooke Soffer,” the suit alleges. “Cohen has been provided with special privileges and receives discounts at a clothing boutique owned by Brooke Soffer at Aventura Mall, gifts that should have been disclosed …. and Cohen provides landscaping services to Brooke Soffer, which may extend to landscaping work in connection with properties located at the Fontainebleau Hotel and Aventura Mall.”
“These are serious allegations which we do not take lightly,” Shubin told TRD. “We believe in good faith that Patricia Cohen has a business interest with entities that would be affected by Bal Harbour Shops’ application and therefore she should recuse herself. We look forward to pursuing and establishing these allegations in court.”
According to the suit, under the County Code of Ethics Ordinance, Cohen’s relationship with anyone or any entity that would be affected by any action of the Village Council results in a conflict of interest and would automatically disqualify Cohen from voting and also invalidates any of her votes in connection with the proposed expansion of Bal Harbour Shops.
The suit asks the court to prohibit Cohen, who has opposed Bal Harbour Shops’ expansion, from voting on any future items related to it. It also asks the court to rule that she violated the open meeting rules of Florida, while Bal Harbour Shops’ application was before the village at a public hearing on April 13. “Cohen and Mayor Martin Packer communicated with another about the merits of the application through both whispers and notes,” rendering void their votes, the lawsuit alleges.
Cohen could not be immediately be reached for comment late Tuesday.
Bal Harbour Shops revamped its $400 million expansion plan in May with a different configuration that does not include the Village Hall site, after the luxury shopping center’s owners failed to win village approval for their original proposal on April 13. The village council deadlocked 2-2 on the sale of the Village Hall site which was part of Bal Harbour Shop’s original plan, first proposed several years ago.
The latest design has at least 50,000 square feet of less space, eliminating the addition of about 10 to 20 luxury boutiques, Matthew Whitman Lazenby, president and CEO of Whitman Family Development, which owns and operates Bal Harbour Shops, told TRD in May.
The new expansion plans still include the first Barneys New York flagship store in the Southeastern United States, significant upgrades to longtime anchor tenants Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, and new luxury boutiques and restaurants for the 51-year-old upscale shopping center, Lazenby said. Bernard Zyscovich of Zyscovich Architects is the lead designer on the project.
But it is now designed to be built entirely on land already owned by the Bal Harbour Shops, including the site of the former Church by the Sea, purchased for $30 million by Whitman Family Development in February.
The most recent suit is not the first the shopping center has filed against Cohen and the village. In March, Bal Harbour Shops filed suit against them, alleging Cohen was violating Florida’s public records law because she had failed to turn over text and email messages on her personal electronic devices in which she may have negatively discussed the luxury mall’s expansion plans.
Turnberry general counsel Jonathan Kurry told TRD at that time that Bal Harbour Shops’ demand for the assistant mayor’s personal emails and text messages would prove the accusations being made about Soffer and Cohen were “pure nonsense.”