By Michael E. Miller
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The employees of the posh Bal Harbour Shops are used to treating their well-heeled customers like royalty, as indeed some of them are. But many staffers say the mall management treats them like peons, especially when it comes to the common yet ticklish question of parking.
Each year, during five or six days surrounding Christmas, most store employees are forbidden to park at the mall's garage. They must leave their cars a little more than a mile north at Haulover Beach and take a chartered bus to and from work. The idea behind the arrangement, which applies to about two-thirds of the approximately 700 Bal Harbour workers, is to leave more spaces for shoppers during the busiest time of year. Surely a compelling reason for workers who understand the enduring retail principle about the customer always being right. But the employees say the mall owners are wrong.
"I think this sucks," one woman hastily explained last week as she stepped into the yellow shuttle that was departing from Haulover Beach parking lot number two at 10:00 a.m. "The [mall] parking lot isn't full A the fifth floor is empty. We have to take this bus and be late, for what?" The woman, who disappeared into the bus before giving her name, had almost missed the ride because she'd been waiting in her car to avoid standing outside in the cold rain. Another employee who works at one of the mall's department stores was worrying about being late for a 10:00 appointment with a client. "Of course I'm not too happy about this," she said with a grimace of resignation. "But I do understand we have more customers now."
Bal Harbour Shops owner Stan Whitman, who developed the palm-studded promenade shopping center three decades ago, says it isn't his intention to make his employees unhappy. It is to pamper his customers, and Whitman offers no apologies for banning employees from a garage with plenty of empty parking spaces. This past Thursday, the last day of Haulover parking, the mall garage had only 100 empty spaces, according to the Bal Harbour marketing office. "Our parking lot has never been filled in the 30 years we've been open, and as a result the customer doesn't drive around and around looking for a space that doesn't exist," he asserts.
"We're like, 'Well, what are we, chopped liver?' We're the ones waiting on those people," argues a worker at one of the mall's specialty shops. (Employees who were interviewed for this story didn't want their names published. "We're afraid of retribution from the owners," says one.) The worker says the $3.50 daily fee charged at Haulover is too steep for her budget, so this past week she had been stashing her car on the nearest Bay Harbor island and walking about a half-mile east over the bridge to work.
Mall employees normally must pay $1.75 per day or $30 per month to park in the garage. With no public parking in Bal Harbour, some mall workers unwilling to go to Haulover opted to hunt for spots at metered spaces on the streets of nearby Surfside and sneak out of the mall every three hours to feed quarters. A rebellious handful continued to park in the garage (often driving a different car to keep from being recognized by the uniformed parking attendants). This could cost them dearly; customer parking ranges from one dollar to four dollars per hour.
The prohibition against holiday mall parking doesn't apply to store managers, but many find their privilege to be a pain. "At night I have to take three employees home, because by the time we get out of the store the buses have stopped running," says one supervisor. "If I weren't working, what are they supposed to do, walk from here to Haulover at eleven o'clock at night?"
Bal Harbour general manager Richard Lodes insists the chartered buses will run as long as any employee remains at the mall.
"I happen to hate the entire parking situation," says a specialty store manager. "If I have an employee who comes in from 1:00 to 4:00, they still have to pay $1.75 a day just to work here. I know a lot of people who won't work here because they have to pay for parking." (Most local shopping malls provide free parking for both employees and customers, but urban centers on expensive real estate up the ante for shoppers and workers. Bayside employees are never told where they can or can't park, but they pay the same as the public: up to seven dollars on weekdays and up to sixteen dollars Saturday and Sunday. At CocoWalk and Mayfair, employees also pay to park; the rates vary according to the lease each business ngotiates with the malls' owners.
"They want the patrons to have service, but they don't want the people who provide service to have an easy time coming to work," says a Bal Harbour clothing boutique manager. "It's sort of a Catch-22. They're shooting themselves in the foot, I think that's what's happening."
"We want happy employees here. If you don't have happy employees, they're not going to take care of the customers," sighs Stan Whitman. "But the customer always comes first. You can send some people to Heaven, and they'll still complain.