After more than a year of contentious politics, lawsuits and last-minute surprise opposition from anchor tenant Saks Fifth Avenue, the Whitman family, owners of Bal Harbour Shops, scored approval late Tuesday to nearly double the size of the high-end shops.
In a meeting that stretched into the early hours of Wednesday, the village council voted 4-1 to approved four ordinances that will let Bal Harbour Shops begin construction to expand to 888,260 square feet. The $400 million expansion could last as long as eight years and will add more than 340,000 square feet to the complex’s current 511,000 square feet, an increase of 74 percent.
It was the second reading of the ordinance and the vote capped more than a year of angry debate in the exclusive oceanside community. Last year a similar measure to expand Bal Harbour Shops was rejected by the village council, but following elections last year two new council members who supported the expansion were elected with strong backing from the Whitman family. Councilwoman Patricia Cohen who has long opposed the expansion effort was the sole opposition vote.
In early April, anchor tenant Saks Fifth Avenue suddenly announced it was opposed to the plan, saying the new plans would mean 123 fewer parking spots, forcing 58 percent of customers to use valet parking. On Tuesday, Brian Paul, a senior executive with the company, said Saks also had concerns about the years-long construction effort, which he said would cause heavy congestion at loading docks and along 96th Street. Darrell Payne, an attorney for Saks, said “Saks was not going to back down,” and he said Saks could consider leaving Bal Harbour Shops even though its store there is one of its highest grossing facilities.
The Whitman family attorney strongly disputed the parking findings from Saks, saying there would only be a few days a year when customers would be forced to make heavy use of valet parking. Matthew Whitman Lazenby, CEO of Whitman Family Development, told commissioners more customers are using ride services like Uber and Lyft, and parking needs at Bal Harbour Shops will likely decrease as a result. At a first reading of the expansion plans in April, Whitman family representatives said an e-mail from a Saks employee indicated the company was seeking $55 million to fund the redevelopment of its 140,000-square-foot store at Bal Harbour Shops.
Whitman Family Development said as part of its expansion plans the company will pay for a new park along the Intracoastal waterway, build a new village hall, widen and improve sidewalks that border Bal Harbour Shops, build a 20-foot high wall near single family homes to limit construction noise and pay for up to 4,500 hours of police protection during the construction phase of the expansion.
Bal Harbor Mayor Gabriel Groisman said he first ran for mayor in 2014 because he knew the expansion would be the most important decision facing Bal Harbour.
“I knew it was an important decision I needed to be a part of,” said Groisman, who said the commission would stay involved in the process of the expansion. “Now we have to pray that we made the right decision and that it gets implemented in the right way,” he said.
While the commission approved a development agreement and other ordinances between Bal Harbour Shops and the village, Whitman Family Development will have to return to the commission in June for final approval of an ordinance largely dealing with construction noise.
A proposal by Groisman to move a fixed noise meter from 100 feet to 10 feet away from construction activities elicited immediate opposition from Matthew Whitman Lazenby, who said Whitman Family development was willing to pay for noise meters, which can cost up to $15,000 each, but that if the proposal is adopted “We have a project we can’t build.”
Speaking to The Real Deal after the vote, Lazenby said the vote means the expansion will allow Bal Harbour Shops to add premium retailers like Barney’s as well as restaurants and other amenities. “I think for the past 50 years we’ve been privileged to have a customer that’s voted every day in the amount of goods they buy from us….With the approvals we received tonight we are now in a position to be able to continue that for the next 50 years.”