Stanley Finch Whitman, the visionary developer and owner of Bal Harbour Shops, among the most luxurious and productive shopping centers in the world, died Wednesday morning of natural causes at his home in Miami Shores, Fla.
Whitman was 98 and had been in declining health for the past few months, though well into his late 90s, he still went to the office, working with his grandson Matthew Whitman Lazenby, president and chief executive officer of Whitman Family Development.
Whitman died knowing that his ambitious plan for a $400 million, 300,000-square-foot expansion of the 450,000-square-foot Bal Harbour Shops, had finally been approved by the city council on May 16, after years of seeking permission and being stymied by local politics and community concerns that were ultimately resolved.
Whitman opened Bal Harbour Shops in 1965, after visiting other retail venues around the world and developing a clear — and at the time radical — vision for the property. He saw the potential in luxury long before the rest of the shopping-center industry and came up with the concept of bringing the tony retailers of Fifth Avenue to Miami Beach and creating a lush, tropical setting for them with upscale restaurants and other amenities. He foresaw that Miami as a tourist mecca would only grow, and that tourism and luxury would be a potent combination.
“When we opened Bal Harbour Shops in 1965, the Ala Moana shopping center had by far the highest sales per square foot,” Whitman told WWD in 2013. “By 1970, we passed Ala Moana [in Honolulu] in sales per square foot, and for every year since we have had the highest sales per square foot in any center anywhere.”
Whitman also worked closely at the center with his son Randy, who is now less active in the business. “The big thing is having my family working here,” Whitman said during the 2013 interview. “They’re doing a fantastic job. We don’t always agree, but we always get along.”
Whitman had opportunities to create other malls around the country, but he maintained a singular focus on Bal Harbour, keeping it vibrant by leasing to world-class brands and designers, and establishing “radius” clauses in the leasing that restricted designers and retailers from operating additional stores in the market unless they were well outside Bal Harbour’s reach. That sometimes caused friction with expansion-minded tenants and led to a few departures to other venues such as Miami’s Design District or the Aventura Mall. With competition growing in other parts of the Miami area, in 2013, the Whitmans decided to broaden their business and became codevelopers and equity partners in the 500,000-square-foot retail component of Miami’s 2.9 million-square-foot Brickell City Centre.
Born in Evanston, Ill. on Nov. 15, 1918, four days after the end of World War I, Whitman spent the majority of his long life on and around the Greater Miami beaches, growing up in a single-family home on the ocean at 32nd Street and Collins Avenue, where the Faena Hotel stands today. He attended Duke University in Durham, N.C., where he was the president of his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. At Duke, he met his future wife, the late Dottie Stivers.
As a naval officer in World War II, he commanded a fleet of submarine chasers off the Atlantic seaboard, became a naval instructor and was honorably discharged in 1945 as a lieutenant commander.
He got involved in his family real estate business, leasing properties on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road and buying and selling large swaths of oceanfront property up and down Miami-Dade’s coastline. In 1946, Whitman became one of the original 25 incorporators of what would become The Village of Bal Harbour. He partnered with the Village of Bal Harbour’s developer, Robert Graham, to build the business district in the fledgling, one-square mile town, but eventually bought out his partner after having a different vision for developing Bal Harbour Shops. Many dismissed Whitman’s luxury concept for Bal Harbour as foolish, but the numbers it generated right from the time it opened quickly made believers out of the skeptics.
Bal Harbour scored many firsts in the shopping center industry. Bal Harbour Shops was the first shopping center to be planned — from the outset — for both vertical and horizontal expansion. It was also the first shopping center to break $1,000 in sales per square foot, the first to break $2,000 per square foot, and according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, ranks as the world’s most productive shopping center. At one time, it eclipsed $3,000, but in recent years has slowed down with tourism declines and shifting consumer spending habits.
It also became the first shopping center anywhere to feature both Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue in the same center. Previously, the two retailers had a gentleman’s agreement not to situate in the same center.
“It was no coincidence that our first Neiman Marcus store outside of our home state of Texas was in Florida and located in Bal Harbour Shops. That is largely because Stanley Whitman saw the potential for tourism in Florida in the during the Sixties, he foresaw the migration to the Sunbelt, and he also knew that there would always be a market for luxury,” said Karen Katz, president and chief executive officer, Neiman Marcus Group. “Then as now, Neiman Marcus was synonymous with luxury and Stanley Whitman knew he could not claim to have the most exclusive shopping center in the world without a Neiman Marcus store. Stanley Marcus wholeheartedly agreed and our Bal Harbour store opened in 1971 and it has always been one of our most successful stores. To further underscore Whitman’s foresight, Florida remains a very important market for us with international shoppers and Floridians alike. With Stanley Whitman’s passing, luxury retailing has lost a truly great visionary and Neiman Marcus has lost a dear friend.”
Whitman wanted to bring Bloomingdale’s to Bal Harbour Shops. “He tried to sell me on space. He thought it would be great for Bloomingdale’s but we could never figure anything out,” said Michael Gould, Bloomingdale’s former chairman and ceo . “Bloomingdale’s ended up going to Aventura, but we had a friendship that transcended business….Stanley was this Damon Runyon-esque character. He’d tell it like it was, you always knew where you stood, and he saw through people. But he was a very warm guy with great vision and standards he wasn’t going to deviate from for the long-term viability and quality of the center. I define him as a real visionary.”
“Bal Harbour was our model to emulate and still is to this date,” said Frank Castagna, principal of Castagna Realty Co., and owner of the Americana Manhasset luxury shopping center in Manhasset, N.Y. “I have been a friend and admirer of Stanley for many years. He was an icon in the development of a truly world-class fashion center along with being an early pioneer in bringing fashion to Miami and South Beach.”
Whitman was a prominent public figure in the Miami area, serving as chairman of the Dade Water & Sewer Authority, chairman of the South Florida Highway Users Federation, chairman and founding member of the Village of Bal Harbour Resort Tax Committee, among other roles, and he supported several charitable causes, including the Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis and the University of Miami’s Miller School’s Project.
Aside from his wife, Whitman is also predeceased by his brothers, William “Bill” Francis Whitman and Dudley Allen Whitman. He is survived by his son, Randall “Randy” Alan Whitman his daughter, Gwen Whitman Lazenby; four grandchildren, and four great grandsons.
A memorial service is being planned and details will be announced at a later date.