A looming special election tied to easing height restrictions for the Bal Harbour Shops would give the luxury shopping center’s owners the flexibility to possibly add a mid-to-high rise building in the future. But some prominent residents fear Whitman Family Development wants to bypass the village’s voters in seeking approval for a skyscraper more than 290 feet tall.
As of Thursday morning, 391 mail-in ballots had been turned into the Miami-Dade elections department for the special election that will be held Tuesday. Voters, who will also be allowed to cast ballots in-person on election day, will decide whether to amend the Bal Harbour village charter and allow height increases above five stories in the special business improvement area, which encompasses the Bal Harbour Shops at 9700 Collins Avenue. Currently, the village charter prohibits structures above five stories from being built anywhere in Bal Harbour.
Whitman Family Development, which owns Bal Harbour Shops, is pushing in favor of a yes vote on the referendum, through a political action committee called The Future of Bal Harbour. Matthew Whitman Lazenby, owner and manager general of Whitman Family Development, said the charter amendment would create a process requiring public hearings and approval from the village council for any potential new development that affects height limits in the business district.
As the nearly $500 million renovation of the Bal Harbour Shops moves forward, the severe impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on brick-and-mortar retail caused Whitman Family Development to consider ways the company can adapt and remain a viable, local business, Lazenby said in a written response to emailed questions.
Last summer, Future of Bal Harbour got 253 residents to sign a citizens’ petition to hold a referendum on the height increase proposal. The petition was certified on July 24 by the village clerk after the Miami-Dade elections supervisor verified 195 signatures on the petition were from qualified Bal Harbour voters. The threshold for certification is 185 verified signatures representing 10 percent of the village’s 1,855 voters.
“The Shops wants to continue to deliver a superior shopping environment to its patrons and a world-class downtown for the village’s residents, and it strongly believes that the current height limit prohibits its ability to respond to the rapidly changing needs of consumers and residents,” Lazenby said.
Yet, the Bal Harbour Civic Association opposes the referendum. The influential homeowners group claims a yes vote would take the power away from residents to decide height increases for Bal Harbour Shops. Instead, the village’s elected officials would have control.
In a Jan. 13 mass email to village homeowners, the association warned voters not to “be fooled by the calls, texts and glossy mailers you’ve received from the Future of Bal Harbour committee.”
“A yes vote means that three elected officials — here today and gone tomorrow — will decide the future of Bal Harbour,” the email states. “The Shops attempted to build a high-rise hotel on their property in 2006. At that time, voters overwhelmingly passed a charter amendment that froze the zoning limits on building heights in Bal Harbour and stopped the planned hotel.”
The association’s email claimed that a yes vote would allow Whitman Family Development permission to possibly develop a 27-story hotel or office building. “A no vote will stop the development project in its tracks,” the email states. “The Shops has not even presented its proposed project for the public to examine and review before this special election.”
Bal Harbour Civic Association board member Mark B. Fisher told The Real Deal that the association feels Whitman Family Development’s best route is to present a project to the residents and let them vote yea or nay on the project.
“Bring a plan so that the entire community can see exactly what the Shops proposes just like most developers would do,” Fisher said. “According to the city, this can be brought as a referendum as opposed to the community ceding control to the council without even knowing what the plan entails.”
Fisher said the association “absolutely wants” Bal Harbour Shops to succeed. “It is in everyone’s best interest because a prosperous Shops [means] a prosperous community,” Fisher said. “On the other hand, in 2006, residents voted to have the final say on height. Why would the community approve a variance to give it back to the council without even knowing what the plan is?”
Lazenby denied his company is contemplating a 27-story high-rise project. “This claim is false,” he said. “Bal Harbour Shops has no intention of building a 27-floor tower and the charter amendment says nothing about allowing 27 stories.”
The luxury retail center owner also insisted the referendum, if approved, would give residents the opportunity to object to any height increase requests. “The current charter prohibition on height is absolute,” Lazenby said. “It forbids any and all plans for buildings that might exceed three stories and expressly does not provide for a vote of the residents to consider plans.”