Ask Matthew Whitman Lazenby how long Bal Harbour Shops has been seeking approvals for its expansion, and he says, “it seems like forever. Let me put it this way — my 98-year-old grandfather, Stanley Whitman, who is turning 99, has been working on this project for 50 years. He opened the center in 1965. We’ve expanded incrementally both vertically and horizontally.”

This story first appeared in the May 22, 2017 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The most recent phase of Bal Harbour’s expansion approvals odyssey has taken just over a decade. Whitman Lazenby, president and chief executive officer of Whitman Family Development, which developed, owns and operates Bal Harbour Shops, said, “We’ve had some type of applications in the approvals pipeline for 12 years.”

Bal Harbour Shops on May 16 received final approval from the city council to move forward with a $400 million plan that will add 304,387 square feet of new retail space to the open-air shopping center, nearly doubling the Shops’ existing space.

The enlarged shopping center will feature the first Barneys New York flagship in the Southeast, which will include the restaurant Freds at Barneys. “We announced with Barneys the expectation that they’ll join the project,” Whitman Lazenby said. “The city council said it’s not done until it’s done. Barneys sent a letter to the commission saying they were planning to open.”

The plans call for a new plaza at the main entrance of the Shops on Collins Avenue.

A Whitman Family Development web site devoted to winning the right to expand Bal Harbour said “as part of the enhancement plan, Bal Harbour Shops will provide funds for the creation of a new waterfront public park for recreation. The proposed park would be created on the current site of the Village Public Works Department building.”

The site also said Bal Harbour Shops will donate funds for a new, environmentally sustainable, hurricane-protected Village Hall and parking garage.

Whitman Lazenby said the center’s layout will remain unchanged. With Saks Fifth Avenue, an anchor tenant of Bal Harbour Shops, on one end and Neiman Marcus on the other, there are 100 stores in between. “Today, the third level of the west half is used mostly for office and storage. We’ll add a third level for the east half and turn all the office space to retail.”

Whitman Lazenby said, “We’ve been privileged and humbled to have a world-class collection of tenants telling us they don’t have enough space to present their brands in the proper manner. They’re squeezed into too-small spaces. To offer right-sized opportunities is hugely important. And being able to accommodate the long list of prospective tenants.”

Until now, Whitman Lazenby said stores wanting to expand had to do so vertically. “We’ve had stores such as Ferragamo and Valentino,” he said, “both doubled in size, from 3,000 or 4,000 square feet to 6,000 or 8,000 square feet. We’re seeing more and more of this desire to double in size or more. This whole flagship concept means presenting entire assortments without having to edit them.”

“Retail with a focus on restaurants” is how Whitman Lazenby described the new tenants. “Restaurants are important, but there’s this mad rush where every landlord and major store is going overboard with food and beverage. I fear in some destinations there’s an over-reliance on giant food halls. We’ll have a handful more than today and of the caliber we have today.”

According to the plan, Bal Harbour Shops’ existing parking lot will be demolished but not before a new garage is built on the site of the former Church by the Sea, which Whitman Family Development acquired in 2012 through a land swap deal. The new parking garage will be adjacent to Saks and Barneys and connect to the existing center through the expansion.

Whitman Lazenby said local issues in Bal Harbor can loom large, since the community is just one-square-mile and has only several thousand residents. Over the years, members of the village objected to various aspects of the plan. Besides the loss of the church, residents raised concerns over increased traffic and the four-year construction timetable.

What turned the tide for Bal Harbour Shops, said Whitman Lazenby, is the fact that the election for local council members was switched to coincide with the national presidential one. “Many people weren’t involved in politics until they changed the election cycle,” Whitman Lazenby said. “People voted in record numbers for local candidates and installed two pro-business and pro-shopping center candidates. That’s what finally secured the vote.”

Asked if Bal Harbor was involved in the change in the election calendar, Whitman Lazenby said, “We’ve been accused of a lot of things, but nobody suggested we had anything to do with that. We wanted the greatest number of citizens involved in the election process.

“The truth is, the plans we started with 12 years ago weren’t as good as the plans we ended up with,” Whitman Lazenby said. “We benefited from the feedback cycle.”

For example, Bal Harbour included a social catering facility in an earlier proposal, which was intended for fashion shows and hosting charity events. “The way we presented it, it was not perceived well,” Whitman Lazenby said. “The community thought we’d have thousands of cars parked outside.”

More recently, Saks became a vocal opponent to the expansion. The department store retailer said it objected to the new plan’s increased reliance on valet parking and the arrangement of the center’s loading dock. Saks said its customers prefer to self-park over valet. A development agreement calls for up to 58 percent of the center’s parking to be valet. Bal Harbour said it would resolve the issue.

“I’ve shared war stories [with other developers], and it seems that every project has its major obstacles and significant issues,” Whitman Lazenby said. “Sometimes it’s financing. Ours clearly was approvals.

“What we’ve learned during this 12-year approval odyssey is that bigger is not always better,” he  said. “The scale of Bal Harbour is intentionally human. The worst thing we could do is destroy that by creating a monster.”

After much discussion about whether to give the expansion a new design or duplicate the existing aesthetic, Whitman Lazenby said, “We decided there’s something sort of special in the air of the existing center and we didn’t want to mess with it. It’s a fairly simple concept, Fifties motel architecture and lush landscaping with koi ponds and alfresco dining. My grandfather wanted people to be wowed by the stores, not the center.”

Of the 12-year journey, Whitman Lazenby said, “Everybody’s been patient. In this quirky family business of ours, what I’m most excited about is being able to fulfill this vision my grandfather had while he’s around to enjoy it. That has enormous sentimental value.”

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