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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Whitman ultimately engineered not just a mall but an illusion of abundance, perfect contentment, and civility: his own magical kingdom.
At lunchtime on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Whitman walks past the small congregation of black-vested waitstaff milling outside Carpaccio, the Italian restaurant on the Shops' ground level. He says hello to them by name. Whitman knows everyone's name. Not just store managers and representatives. Waiters. Waitresses. Maintenance staff. Security personnel. Walking through the Shops with Whitman, one is tempted to see him as the kind old patriarch of an extended family.
The charm of this initial impression, however, quickly gives way to darker implication: direct accountability. If you screw up, Stanley Whitman will hear about it. And everyone knows it. The mere mention of Whitman's name is enough to send any mall employee, right down to the parking attendants, into a whirl of solicitous servitude. “He's very much involved with the rules,” notes one current store manager, describing the owner.
David Migicovsky states the case more emphatically. The Whitmans, he says, “run the place with a noose around your neck.” Migicovsky speaks from experience. For two decades he operated the popular Coco's Sidewalk Café in the Shops. He says he was squeezed out the door by a succession of shorter and shorter leases and a forced relocation from the first floor to the second that dramatically reduced his business. Two years later Migicovsky's dislike for the Whitmans and his fear of their influence -- Stanley Whitman's, in particular -- remain palpable. “Whitman's arteries,” says Migicovsky, suggesting the extent of the developer's hold on the life of the community, “stretch everywhere.”
Migicovsky is speaking figuratively, of course. Maybe. In the Sixties and Seventies, Whitman, as a member of the Dade Water and Sewer Authority advisory board, more than tripled the amount of fresh water Bal Harbour received from Miami Beach and communities across the bay. He was chairman of the South Florida Highway Users Federation when that organization was mobilizing support for the construction of the northern extension of I-95, a project that ultimately made it easier for shoppers to make their way out to Whitman's mall. The group turned out supporters of the highway extension to public hearings that otherwise would have been attended mostly by people who didn't want or couldn't afford to have a freeway built through their back yards.
“The bleeding hearts are still lamenting about what was done to Overtown, this premier black community,” Whitman concedes. “Yes, it's too bad, but my God, I-95 saved Dade County....” He stops himself. And offers his own hard-luck story. Or tries. “I didn't like it,” he remembers, “when the government came and took my property in the Florida Keys for a [state] park, but they did, they did ...” His voice trails off. His attempt at empathy is abruptly derailed by the limitations a charmed life can impose. “Of course,” he notes, “I paid $25,000 for that land, and the government gave me $750,000 for it.” What he didn't get is the highway he really wanted. That one, the proposed Opa-locka Expressway, would have run from NW 27th Avenue all the way to Biscayne Boulevard along North Miami's 125th Street, essentially delivering customers right to the Shops.
If Whitman didn't get his road, he still benefited from the friends he made along the way. Back in the late Eighties, for example, the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) wanted to close the Shops' Collins Avenue entrance. Whitman called William Lehman, a friend and regular tennis partner, who also happened to be a powerful United States congressman from North Dade. According to Lehman's journals, the congressman spoke with Bill Taylor, DOT's man in Washington, D.C., about Whitman's problem. The entrance is still there.
Whitman says those days of city-building and political arm-twisting are behind him. But his actions and recent history suggest otherwise. He unfurls one of countless aerial-view maps of Bal Harbour he keeps behind his office desk. “You see this,” he says, pointing to a bus stop on the southern side of 96th Street, across from Saks Fifth Avenue and just beyond the Surfside town line. “Surfside got DOT to come and put a bus bay in. This street, before they screwed it up, had traffic condition B, which is about as good as you can get. Now it's down to D, which is about as bad as you can get.”
The thrust of Whitman's complaint is that by installing a bus bay at the corner of 96th Street and Abbott Avenue and prohibiting southbound traffic on Abbott during morning and afternoon rush hours, the town of Surfside is encouraging a bottleneck at 96th and Harding Avenue, the intersection that forms the cornerstone of the Shops.
“Traffic flow has actually improved,” counters Surfside Mayor Paul Novack. “It's volume that has increased.” He dismisses Whitman's complaint as typically self-serving. “Bal Harbour Shops would like to see surrounding residential streets serve as entrances to the mall,” he says flatly.
Others read a more sinister motivation into Whitman's opposition to the bus bay. “The people who are getting off those buses in front of Stanley Whitman's mall,” says Rev. Priscilla Whitehead, whose Church-by-the-Sea also is located in front of the bus stop, “are not the sort of people he wants to see there.” Indeed many of them attend Alcoholics Anonymous and Gray Panther gatherings at the church. They are people who cannot afford cars of their own. They are not people who frequent Bal Harbour Shops.