On the heels of financing two successful campaigns to shift the balance of power on the Village Council, the owners of Bal Harbour Shops are offering $15.6 million to buy Village Hall and pay for a new one elsewhere in town.
It’s the latest development in the upscale shopping mall’s long, meandering and controversial quest for a big expansion. The Shops spent hundreds of thousands to support the election of two political newcomers in the small seaside town of 2,800 residents. Those new council members, Jeffrey Freimark and David Albaum, both said they believe the voters should be allowed to weigh in on any sale of public land.
Last year, with one council member recusing himself and the mayor in opposition, a vote to send the question of a land swap to the ballot box failed. Both of the “no” votes have been replaced by the newcomers.
Now, the Shops want to buy the property, which abuts the mall, give the village another parcel of land and pay for the construction of a new municipal building. Unlike previous offers that were packaged with expansion plans and lush renderings of a revamped mall, this proposed land swap stands alone.
$15.6 million What the owners of Bal Harbour Shops have offered to pay for Village Hall
Matthew Whitman Lazenby, the CEO of Whitman Family Development, which owns the Shops, announced the new proposal at Tuesday night’s Village Council meeting.
“We think that the cleanest solution and the easiest potential ballot item is one that isn’t tied to any set of plans,” he said Tuesday night. “It simply asks the council if the council believes it is in the best interest to sell Village Hall in return for something. And we think that something, appropriately, would be another piece of public land, ideally larger than the land that this building sits on, and funds to bring a brand new Village Hall.”
Whitman Family Development owns two other parcels of land it wants to offer: one acre directly north of Neiman Marcus, or another east of Collins at 96th Street, the current site of a Suntrust Bank.
Village law requires that the sale of public land be approved by voters, but it has to clear the council before it reaches a referendum.
The proposal is one step toward a future expansion of the shopping center, which has long been on the docket for the Whitmans. Previous council members and village activists have opposed earlier expansion plans.
Village law requires that the sale of public land be approved by voters, but it has to clear the council before it reaches a referendum. With Freimark and Albaum on the council, and given the breakdown of previous votes, the mall almost certainly has enough votes to clear the council and put the land swap proposal to the voters.
The matter could come before the council as soon as January during the first council meeting of 2017.
“The question is what will go in place of Village Hall?” said Brian Mulheren, resident and a director of the Bal Harbour Citizens Coalition.
The coalition has submitted two petitions to place its own questions on a future ballot to create more obstacles for any expansion plans. One change would raise the threshold required to approve a sale of public land. The second would require a referendum for any proposed commercial redevelopment plan that would increase retail space by more than 30 percent, with 60 percent needed for approval.
Opponents of the Bal Harbour Shops expansion have circulated petitions in support of two referendums that would make expansion more difficult.
Elections officials are currently verifying the signatures on the petitions. If enough registered voters in the village signed them, the two questions would go to a ballot and possibly a special election.
Another resident, Elsie Howard, told the Miami Herald that while she wants to know more specifics about the proposal, she feels the village needs a new municipal building.
“My general feeling is we need a new Village Hall,” she said. “I’m optimistic the village manager and the elected council will do the right thing.”
Whitman Family Development submitted a formal offer letter Wednesday, which proposes a $15.6 million purchase price intended to cover the costs of building a new Village Hall with underground parking.
The company spent big to back Freimark and Albaum this year. The family and associates spent more than $300,000 on the campaigns and the two men’s combined fundraising totals were about $93,000 with much of it coming from the Whitmans, and other affiliated entities.
Tuesday night, Lazenby said in an interview that his family has been transparent about its support for both.
“In our democracy, we can support the candidates with the vision that we feel is in the best interest of the community,” he said.
Miami Herald staff writer Lance Dixon contributed to this report.