Voters trounce Bal Harbour Shops’ attempt to overturn law restricting building height

Martin Vassolo
·3 min read

Bal Harbour Shops suffered a landslide defeat in a special village election Tuesday as voters rejected the luxury mall’s proposal to overturn a 2006 referendum that limited the building height on its property and required voter approval to build taller.

Nearly 90% of Bal Harbour voters rejected the charter amendment, which would have cleared the way for parent company Whitman Family Development to build taller on its 11-acre property without first going to a referendum vote by the village residents.

The proposed amendment wasn’t only unpopular among voters. The current Bal Harbour mayor and his predecessor spoke out against it, and a former councilwoman took to the streets with an oversized campaign sign to recommend that everyone reject the proposal.

“I don’t know who to go celebrate with first,” said ex-Councilwoman Patricia Cohen. “I’m so relieved because hopefully they’ll get the message that it’s not going to happen and they’ll leave us alone.”

About 37% of the village’s 2,139 registered voters turned out for Tuesday’s election. Just 82 people voted in favor of the amendment, and 702 voted against it.

Matthew Whitman Lazenby, president and CEO of Whitman Family Development, released a statement Tuesday night thanking supporters and accusing the village of misleading voters in explaining the amendment to residents.

“The Village’s current height restriction prohibits the Shops from responding to the rapidly changing needs of consumers and residents, and we are disappointed that the Village distorted this fact in its official notices, but we remain hopeful that we can work together with the community on a path forward,” he said.

The company, which has not submitted specific redevelopment plans, has said it “aspires” to build taller than the current 56-foot height restriction passed by voters in 2006. That referendum requires that any proposed developments exceeding the height receive approval from voters prior to going before the five-person village council.

Paul Pruess, president of the Palace at Bal Harbour condominium, said he voted in favor of the amendment despite helping to lead an effort in 2006 to pass the anti-development referendum.

He said he supported overturning the 2006 law because the mall is “vital” to the community and provides a boost to its property values. Any proposal would still need to go before the council, he said.

“I’m sorry that it went down in defeat, but it is not surprising,” he said. “Everyone is against development.”

Bal Harbour Mayor Gabriel Groisman, who voted against the proposal, said it called for residents to “vote away their rights.”

He said the mall still has the right to propose a new redevelopment of its property and ask the voters for their opinion during a referendum.

“The Shops continue to have the right that they have always had to present a project to the council,” he said. “If that project requires a height variance, then as per our charter, that amendment would have to go before the public.”

He said the company met with him last year to discuss possibly building a hotel on the property, but does not know what lies ahead for the mall. The mall is in the middle of a $400 million expansion that is unrelated to the amendment.

“I can’t predict what the Shops’ next move is going to be or what their intentions are with regards to any new project,” he said.