Miami-Dade County

In battle to demolish church, Bal Harbour Shops takes unusual shot at prominent competitors

The 70-year-old Church by the Sea in Bal Harbour on 96th Street, November 6, 2015.
The 70-year-old Church by the Sea in Bal Harbour on 96th Street, November 6, 2015.

An already fiery battle over the possible preservation of a Bal Harbour church building that’s supposed to be torn down for expansion of the Bal Harbour Shops next door got even more piquant this week when the luxury mall’s owners, the Whitman family, posted an “alert” on their website that’s caused jaws to drop around town.

The Whitmans’ post strongly suggests that their competitors at Aventura Mall and the Miami Design District are behind a “mysterious” Bal Harbour civic group that’s opposing the mall expansion and supporting efforts to block an impending demolition of the church building. The post, dated Nov. 15, accuses the group, the Bal Harbour Neighbors Alliance, of spreading “patently false claims” about the shops and the church.

The Whitman post cites no names, but refers to the “families behind Aventura Mall and the Design District.” That would be the Soffer family, developers of Turnberry and owners of not just Aventura Mall but also the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, and Craig Robins, principal in the expansion and ultra-high-end makeover of much of the Design District. Robins recently married Jackie Soffer, who oversees retail for the family company, Turnberry Associates.

Robins said Tuesday he had not seen the post and knew nothing about the Alliance. Turnberry did not provide a promised statement by the end of business Tuesday.

The Whitmans’ unusually public insinuation comes amid prolonged discussions by Miami-Dade County’s historic preservation board over whether to consider the 1940s church, the work of two prominent Miami architects, for designation as a historic landmark. The board, which has been split on the question, is scheduled to discuss it further at its monthly meeting on Wednesday.

If the board decides to go ahead with a study, it could impose a moratorium on demolition — but not until December at the earliest. Some board members are concerned that opponents of the mall expansion might be improperly using historic preservation to block it.

The church has embarked on an aggressive campaign to demolish its building, which Bal Harbour Shops has a deal to buy and which is critical to the mall’s expansion plan. The congregation abruptly moved out two weeks ago without a solid plan for a new home as crews began taking out stained-glass windows, initially without permits. The church also sued Bal Harbour Village to force it to issue demolition permits.

Preservationists and the Alliance’s website claimed the church was in an obvious rush to beat out any possible action by the preservation board.Some critics suggested the congregation was being guided by the shops, both of whom are represented by the same law firm, Shubin and Bass.

On Tuesday, the church co-pastor, the Rev. Robert Asinger, appeared to acknowledge the intent was to avoid board action in his first public statement.

“While this plan has been five years in the making, the Miami-Dade County Historic Preservation Board only recently began to explore a possible historic designation for the Church that would restrict our ability to follow the overwhelming wishes of our congregation,” Asinger said in a statement issued through a spokeswoman for Bal Harbour Shops. “With an agreement for a future building in hand and the possibility of our plan being derailed by outside influences, we feel this is the right time to move.”

The evidence mustered by the Whitmans for their contention: That the Bal Harbour Neighbors Alliance, a nonprofit group formed six months ago, lists former state legislator and attorney J.C. Planas as its registered agent, and that Planas also represented a Miami Beach political committee funded at least in part by the Soffers. Planas also represents a Church by the Sea member who last week went to court in an unsuccessful effort to block demolition of the church building.

In a statement, Whitman Family Development President Matthew Whitman Lazenby on Tuesday restated the claim about the Alliance but did not refer to the Soffers or Robins.

“We believe that this group has ulterior motives, namely preventing this plan from moving forward, and that it is not representing the interests of our community, as it claims,” he wrote.

The online Whitman post doesn’t say so explicitly, but the presumption is that the Soffers and Robins stand to gain if the controversial Bal Harbour Shops expansion doesn’t happen. The Whitmans and Robins’ Dacra have long been at competitive odds because the Design District has successfully lured away some of Bal Harbour Shops’ premier tenants, including Cartier, Hermes and Louis Vuitton.

But Robins dismissed the Whitmans’ post as “absolutely not true.”

“I have not directly or indirectly been involved in or funded this organization, nor do I know anything about it,” Robins said in a brief interview, referring to the Alliance group. “I wish the Whitmans the best, but their expansion would be the best thing for the Design District. It would transform Bal Harbour Shops from one of the most beautiful and exclusive destinations in the world to a much more mass-oriented mall. And that would be fine for us.”

Planas called the Whitman post “very funny and sad.”

Planas said he doesn’t know whether the Soffers have made a financial contribution to the Alliance, but added it’s a legitimate group formed by activists concerned over the proposed expansion’s impact on traffic. Incorporation records filed with the state list its officers as Raul Diaz of Aventura, Daniel Beladonne of Bay Harbour Islands and Alexandra Cruz of Surfside, none of whom could be contacted Tuesday.

“There is legimitate concern over traffic at the intersection of 96th Street and Collins,” Planas said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know anyone in those northern cities traveling through that area would be hurt by expansion when it comes to traffic.”

The Whitmans’ website claims the expansion would reduce congestion by improving traffic flow.

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