By  on April 18, 2005

Occasionally, Stanley Whitman thinks his son and grandson have gone mad.

The 86-year-old owner and developer of Bal Harbour Shops couldn’t figure out why his two relatives were recently set on bringing Vilebrequin, a Saint-Tropez-based bathing suit store for men, into Bal Harbour. Now, Vilebrequin, which operates only eight stores in North America, is one of the busiest shops in an open-air mall populated with the likes of Prada, Gucci, Christian Dior, Tod’s and Marc Jacobs.

“The business Vilebrequin does here is crazy,” laughed Whitman. “My son and grandson definitely give me some pleasant surprises.”

Of course, that’s one of the perks of running a family business. Bal Harbour Shops, which is nestled on the ocean just north of Miami Beach, posted sales per square foot of $1,421 in 2004 and is one of a handful of high-end shopping centers still owned independently of the giant retail real estate investment trusts, along with South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., Highland Park Village in Dallas and Americana Manhasset in Manhasset, N.Y., on Long Island. To get a sense of just how high-end these malls are, Americana Manhasset recently advertised its stores in the new magazine Absolute, which is available only to the Manhattan crowd who earn more than $500,000 a year.

At Bal Harbour, Stanley’s son Randy is the managing partner, and his grandson, Matthew Whitman Lazenby, runs the leasing.

Families like the Whitmans — or the Segerstroms who own South Coast; the Millers, who own Highland Park, and the Castanas, who own Manhasset — are getting scarce. As real estate investment trusts continue to gobble each other up, there are very few prominent mall companies that own fewer than 60 malls, much less families that own one or two properties. In the past several years, even midsized mall owners like Kravco, Wilmorite and The Rouse Co. have been absorbed by the larger REITs. Simon Property Group and General Growth Properties Inc., the two major players in the mall arena, each own roughly 200 regional mall properties, in addition to other retail ventures like community centers or power centers.

Still, Whitman is confident that those REITs won’t be touching his property. And as an elder statesman, he’s weathered more than a few takeover bids.

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