Bal Harbour Shops planned expansion sparks major uproar
Live Local Act, which supersedes local zoning rules, and yearslong battle over proposed height increases are at core of dispute
A massive fight is brewing in Bal Harbour that will likely play out in court.
Village residents, council members, elected officials from other towns and even representatives of Saks Fifth Avenue aired their grievances in response to Whitman Family Development’s plan to expand Bal Harbour Shops with workforce housing, during a council meeting on Tuesday.
Whitman submitted an application this month to add 275-foot buildings as part of a mixed-use expansion of the high-end shops. The plan takes advantage of the state’s Live Local Act, which requires that the developer set aside 40 percent of the residential units for workforce housing. The law preempts local governments’ density and height regulations, a major point of contention for local municipalities.
In a letter addressed to Mayor Jeffrey Freimark on Tuesday, Matthew Whitman Lazenby, CEO of the family company, outlined the need for affordable housing and praised the Florida Legislature’s passing of the Live Local Act. Toward the end of the letter, Whitman Lazenby threatened legal action if the town did not comply with the state law.
“Should the Village continue with and not withdraw its assertions that Floor Area Ratio provides a reason not to approve it, we must immediately ask the Courts to intervene to resolve this dispute, as we respectfully disagree with both assertions,” Lazenby Whitman wrote.
Freimark and council members said they were ambushed by the application, some finding out through an article in the Wall Street Journal.
“I was deceived, lied to by the developer,” said council member David Albaum.
Saks Fifth Avenue, a longtime Bal Harbour Shops anchor tenant, which has been in litigation with the Shops, said the Shops’ plan appears to call for demolishing the Saks store.
“Astonishingly, we have not been contacted by Shops, we have not provided our consent, we haven’t had time to give a full review or analysis of this,” said Darrell Payne, a shareholder at Stearns Weaver Miller who represents Saks. “Needless to say, this action violates multiple, multiple provisions of our long term lease with [the] Shops, including a basic right to quiet enjoyment.”
Resident Adam Petrillo, a real estate and finance professional, called the developer’s actions “absolutely appalling.”
“I have never ever in my life seen the rug pulled out the way this developer pulled it out on you folks,” he said.
Bal Harbour residents have long fought against a height increase at the 18-acre property. In 2006, Bal Harbour residents voted to limit commercial buildings to five stories. Years later, Whitman Family Development sought a charter amendment that would have allowed the firm to apply for a height increase. Voters shot that down. Only after a yearslong battle did the village approve the Shops expansion in 2017, which is currently underway.
“If we’re all practical, and we look at Collins Avenue this evening, we see the traffic coming down the southbound lane, what this could represent in terms of congestion, traffic, and a true impact on life safety and police and fire,” Petrillo said. “You have to say no on all accounts.”
Cassie Seifert, also a resident, agreed.
“The constant stress of battling the over-development efforts of the Shops, along with the relentless noise pollution and traffic from their construction projects, have degraded my family’s quality of life immeasurably,” she said.
Under the new application, Whitman plans to add a 70-room hotel, 600 residential units and another 46,000 square feet of retail. Part of the project would be built where a Barneys store was previously planned.
Residents expressed concern over the project’s height and the effect it would have on infrastructure, including traffic.
Whitman Family Development was absent at Tuesday’s meeting, when the development was discussed. The application is not up for a vote.
But in a statement sent to The Real Deal on Wednesday, Whitman Family Development defended its plans, saying that “too many hospitality and service workers, teachers, nurses, and first responders are forced to commute long distances into the Village because they can’t afford to live within its boundaries,” citing those who work in hotels, condominiums, shops, and restaurants.
“Bal Harbour Shops is already adjacent to dense, high-rise development, making it an ideal place to create a multi-use development with attainable housing for our local workforce,” the statement said.
Ron Book, a powerful lobbyist in the state who represents developers and local municipalities in Tallahassee, was also a topic of discussion at the meeting. Book is a lobbyist for Whitman Family Development and the village of Bal Harbour.
Council member Buzzy Sklar suggested the village replace Book in representing the village in Tallahassee in its fight against Bal Harbour Shops expansion over the Live Local Act. The Florida Legislature is considering bills that would amend the affordable housing legislation this session.
“If there’s a conflict, there’s a conflict. There’s no two ways about it,” Sklar said. “You can’t represent both sides of a coin.”
Village manager Jorge Gonzalez said it would be difficult to be “changing horses midstream like this,” as Book represents the village on other issues.
The mayor said that Book said he had not been hired by Bal Harbour Shops regarding Live Local, and that he would not, assuming he continues to work for the village. Book did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sklar doubled down on cutting ties with Book if he continues to work for Whitman Family Development.
“I don’t think we could piecemeal what we want him to work on,” Sklar said. “We don’t know what conflicts might come down the road. So I think if he, in my opinion, drops his retainer with the Shops and represents us, then he represents us. If he continues to work for the Shops, then he can no longer represent us on anything.”
Other municipalities have struggled with how to handle applications submitted under the Live Local Act. Doral passed a moratorium on new construction, which expires this year, and reached a compromise with the developer of a mixed-use project bringing the planned height of a project down to eight stories tall. A moratorium was among the tactics the Bal Harbour council discussed at Tuesday’s meeting.
Under Florida’s Live Local Act, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last year, developers can build structures as tall as those within one mile of a proposed project, if they set aside 40 percent of the residential units for people earning up to 120 percent of the area median income, for at least 30 years.
In Miami-Dade County, that comes out to just under $90,000, based on the county’s AMI of $74,700.
The Legislature could pass changes to the law that would ban counties and local municipalities from restricting floor area ratio. It would explicitly state that developers can be able to build up to the highest currently allowed floor area ratio in that county and city. The bills also seek to restrict the height of Live Local projects to up to the height of existing buildings within a quarter of a mile.