The winding and acrimonious saga of the Bal Harbour Shops’ quest for expansion will continue with no legal entanglements after the Shops and Village Hall agreed to walk away from litigation that’s been ongoing for about a year.
Last week, the Village Council voted unanimously to make a deal with the Shops to abandon litigation that loomed over plans to expand the luxury mall. The Shops will drop two lawsuits against the village, and the village will give up any potential claim to attorney fees.
Last year, an earlier expansion plan was defeated in a deadlocked vote after a councilman recused himself because he works at the mall’s Neiman Marcus. That vote prevented the deal from going to a referendum, which was required because the plans included a land swap for neighboring Village Hall.
The Shops filed two lawsuits against the village and Councilwoman Patricia Cohen. In one, the Shops’ ownership, the Whitman family, contended that Cohen had a conflict of interest because she is friends with members of the Soffer family, which owns the Aventura Mall.
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In the other suit, the Whitmans accused her of being too slow to respond to public records requests for emails, text messages and voicemails that the Shops’ ownership believed would reveal bias against the project.
“I guess it’s time to call it a day and celebrate turning a page,” Cohen said after the vote on the deal.
352,000 square feet would be added if plans for the expansion of the Bal Harbour Shops are approved
The Whitmans have longed to expand the upscale shopping center in the face of increased competition from other retail destinations, such as the Design District and Aventura Mall. Some residents oppose expansion because they fear it will bring increased traffic and years of construction.
Mayor Gabriel Groisman told the Miami Herald he helped negotiate the legal ceasefire to strip away distractions from the current expansion proposal, submitted in January, which will be publicly presented to the community in April.
“Really, it’s a victory for the village in the sense that we’re getting out of litigation mode,” he said. “What this does is remove the cloud over the process.”
Part of the deal is both sides agreed to pay their own legal fees. For the village, this means taxpayers are footing a bill of about $800,000 — more than $600,000 for outside counsel retained by Cohen and about $200,000 in fees paid to the village’s attorneys.
The agreement is not a typical settlement where one side loses the right to make the same allegations in the future. Because the Shops are still pursuing expansion through the normal public processes at Village Hall, the mall’s owners want to reserve the right to sue in the future.
Bal Harbour officials will hold a public workshop at 7 p.m. April 4 at the Sea View Hotel to present details of the new expansion proposal.
In a statement, Whitman Family Development said it wants to move forward with current plans without the pall of lawsuits.
“While we firmly believe our legal actions were well-founded, we would like to do everything possible to work collaboratively with Bal Harbour Village so that we can move forward a reduced-scale plan that improves the Shops and brings significant benefits to the community,” read the statement. “With this in mind, we are by agreement of the parties dismissing the lawsuit against the Village Councilwoman, as well as the litigation in which she and the village are parties, all without prejudice, and look forward to continuing constructive and productive conversations with the council and the administration.”
A few residents who spoke at last week’s meeting were displeased to see the suits withdrawn.
“[The Shops] should pay for our legal fees, not just walk away,” said resident Baka Raheb, during public comment.
The new expansion plans will be detailed in a public workshop at 7 p.m. April 4 at the Sea View Hotel. This will be an informational meeting only. The council is tentatively expected to consider the plans at a public hearing on April 25. Should it pass an initial vote, a second and final vote would be held May 16.