About a year after a plan to expand the Bal Harbour Shops died in a split vote, a new proposal won initial approval from a reshaped council — a long-sought victory for the luxury retail shopping center and bitter defeat for community members who have sought to derail the project at each turn.
Capping a marathon Tuesday night hearing that stretched into early Wednesday, the council voted 4-1 to approve a group of zoning changes and a development agreement that pave the way for the $400 million, multi-year expansion project to move forward. Councilwoman Patricia Cohen was the sole no vote. A second reading will be held at 7 p.m. May 16 at the Sea View Hotel, 9909 Collins Ave.
The evening began with hours of testimony from the public, Shops representatives and executives from Saks Fifth Avenue, a recent opponent to the expansion. After hours of discussion, a few elements of the plan were tweaked before the vote. The Shops, owned by Whitman Family Development, will pay for more off-duty police to work security through the years-long construction period, increase the funds to be provided for a new bayfront park and implement a parking surcharge as soon as the new parking garage is built.
The Whitmans and associates cheered the approval. Afterward, team members said they would review the proposed changes before the next hearing.
“We are very pleased,” said Matthew Whitman Lazenby, CEO of Whitman Family Development. “But the work continues.”
The hearing ebbed and flowed from tense legal arguments to the tedious details of parking studies to everyday concerns of average residents expressing their support or opposition to the plan.
Some supporters consider the Shops an institution in the community. Several said they believe the success of the village is largely tied to the success of the Shops and its ability to expand.
Buzzy Sklar, founder of Burger & Beer Joint and owner of North Miami mini-sandwich restaurant Sliderz, said he was willing to put up with the inconvenience of years of construction because he likes the proposed public benefits package. The package is estimated to be worth $110 to $120 million and includes land and money for a new municipal building, funding for a new bayfront park, and a nearby property being leased by SunTrust Bank that would produce rent revenue for the village.
“What we’re getting back in the development agreement is unheard of,” he said.
Other residents raised longstanding concerns such as traffic impact and and more than four years of construction. Many believe a large shopping center will equal more traffic snarls on Collins Avenue and 96th Street.
“This is not a small inconvenience,” said William McCue, a local civil trial attorney. “I wish it were.”
The long evening reflected the winding saga of the Shops’ expansion during the last few years. The back-and-forth has included several expansion site plans, heated public hearings, the unseating of two council incumbents by two candidates backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Shops, and a recent unexpected twist — vocal opposition from the Shops’ largest tenant, Saks Fifth Avenue.
Saks first aired its grievance at a public workshop in early April, when an attorney for the anchor tenant first announced the store’s opposition. Tuesday night, representatives of Saks explained that they take issue with the new plan’s increased reliance on valet parking and the arrangement of the center’s loading dock.
Saks executives argued that their customers prefer to self-park over valet. The development agreement calls for up to 58 percent of the center’s parking to be valet.
“Our customers do prefer to self-park over valet,” said Dianna Corpus, vice president and general manager of the Saks at Bal Harbour Shops.
The Whitmans objected to Saks’ concerns, countering that the dispute is a contractual tiff that should be resolved in private. At one point, an attorney for the Whitmans cited an email exchange in which Saks representatives ask the Whitmans for a $55 million contribution to a future renovation to the store.
Ultimately the objections mattered little once the council voted. Still, the opposition from Saks underscored points made by opposing residents, some of whom have fought expansion since the demolition of the Church by the Sea, a 1940s structure that was sold to the Shops and torn down to make way for expansion in December 2015. This sparked an intensified backlash from village activists, some of whom are members of the church.
In April 2016, a proposal that included a land swap for the village’s municipal building failed. Another retooled proposal failed to take off later in the year. The Whitman family and associates then dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaigns of two council candidates, David Albaum and Jeffrey Freimark, who unseated incumbents in the November 2016 municipal election — incumbents who either couldn’t vote on a Shops expansion or opposed the previous expansion plan.
The Whitmans offered to buy Village Hall in December but later retracted the offer and submitted the current plan in January. Under this proposal, the Shops will expand by about 340,000 square feet on land it currently owns.