Jan 11, 2024 - News

Residents 'up in arms' over Bal Harbour Shops expansion

A rendering of Bal Harbour Shops' proposed mixed-use residential project.

A rendering shows the proposed expansion of Bal Harbour Shops in the foreground, with new towers to house residential and hotel units. Photo: Courtesy of Whitman Family Development

Bal Harbour Shops shocked local officials and residents this week with plans for a massive new residential project that would rise 275 feet tall — about five times higher than what's allowed — at the luxury mall just north of Miami Beach.

  • The plans call for 600 "high-end" residential units, 70 hotel rooms and over 45,000 square feet of additional retail space.

Why it matters: The developers seek to override local zoning rules under a new Florida law, the Live Local Act, which gives developers across the state additional rights when building affordable housing.

  • Under the law, developers can bypass city council votes when proposing affordable housing projects if they abide by all other local regulations.
  • The project calls for 40% of the residential units to be income-restricted "workforce housing," the minimum threshold in the law.

Catch up fast: In 2021, nearly 90% of Bal Harbour voters rejected a referendum proposed by the Shops to make it easier to build higher than its current 56-foot limit.

What they're saying: Bal Harbour Mayor Jeffrey Freimark tells Axios he heard more complaints from residents in the 24 hours after the project was announced than he had in his previous seven years in office.

  • Freimark says the project would worsen traffic congestion in the tiny village of 3,000 residents, which would impact drivers headed to North Miami and Sunny Isles from Miami Beach.
  • "People are up in arms about it," he says.

The other side: Matthew Whitman Lazenby, president and CEO of mall owner Whitman Family Development, says the project would cater to workers in the hospitality, public safety and medical industries who are "priced out of the market."

  • "South Florida's economic future relies on creating more sustainable housing options," he says.

Context: The project can comply with the state's definition of affordable housing by making rents attainable for households making between 50% and 120% of the median annual income in their state or county.

  • A single person in Miami-Dade County making as much as $86,760 could qualify for affordable housing at the 120% threshold, according to the Florida Housing Finance Corporation.

Zoom in: Freimark says village attorneys are reviewing whether the project complies with the Live Local Act and a development agreement between the village and the Shops for a separate ongoing expansion.

  • While the law preempts local height restrictions, it doesn't say anything about floor-area ratio (FAR), the calculation local governments use to determine how much square footage can be built on a certain lot.
  • The Shops are requesting a 133% increase in FAR — on top of a 391% height increase — village manager Jorge Gonzalez tells Axios.
  • "There is no way they are going to comply with the FAR as it is currently defined," Freimark says.

What's next: Miami State Sen. Senator Alexis Calatayud, who introduced the Live Local Act in 2023, has filed an updated bill prohibiting local governments from restricting FAR.

  • Freimark added a discussion item to next Tuesday's council agenda to discuss the project.

The bottom line: "We don't expect that they will be able to break ground on this project any time soon, if at all," Gonzalez says.

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