Stanley Whitman's Wonderful Life

He was born to wealth, he built the wildly successful Bal Harbour Shops, and he always seems to get what he wants -- no matter what

To say Whitman has the village hall in his back pocket may or may not be an accurate description of political reality in Bal Harbour, but it is a geographic certainty. The small building sits on 96th Street, behind the Shops.

The Church-by-the-Sea, on the other hand, historically has been the thorn in the developer's side. That's because Robert Graham sold church members their land in 1946, making it one of the few adjoining plots the developer was unable to offer Whitman. By the time Whitman completed his land deal with Graham in 1957, the church had been in operation for almost ten years. Whitman built his mall around it, on three sides.

Fast-forward to the present. The church and Whitman are involved in a protracted struggle over what the church considers its right and Stanley Whitman his sacred trust: parking. In a town where public parking is virtually nonexistent, Whitman reserves 1800 spaces for his well-wheeled clientele by charging a rate of four dollars per hour to park in the multi-tiered garage that rises up behind, and virtually surrounds, the church.

No detail escapes Stanley Whitman's attention on his daily stroll through the Shops
No detail escapes Stanley Whitman's attention on his daily stroll through the Shops
No detail escapes Stanley Whitman's attention on his daily stroll through the Shops
Jennie Zeiner
No detail escapes Stanley Whitman's attention on his daily stroll through the Shops

Since opening the Shops, Whitman, who takes pride in being what he says is the first mall owner ever to charge for parking, had issued free parking vouchers to the church. Then, last March, he slipped church leaders a bill for $23,000 for February parking. The church refused to pay, citing a gentlemen's agreement between Whitman and the church founders: perpetual parking in exchange for the church's support of the mall's development. Stanley Whitman, however, is the only living person who might have been at such a meeting all those years ago and he calls the church's claim “a big fat lie.” And besides, he adds, “you could have twelve rabbis and ten priests sitting and listening to a real estate transaction such as the one the church is describing, and it won't do you any good if it isn't on paper and it isn't signed.”

Whitman says he provided free parking as a favor to the church. Now he's changed his mind and is petitioning the courts to affirm his sole property right to the parking lot. And he's keeping track of how much the church owes him. The village council, predictably, has stayed out of the matter. “Our position is one of quietly watching,” says Mayor Hirschl.

Rev. Priscilla Whitehead, an energetic woman who carries around a small notebook in which she scribbles extensive notes on her dealings with Whitman, cites the developer's prediction that church attendance “would wither and die” without parking as proof of his real goal: acquiring the church property. She may be right. If the church is forced to sell the land, Whitman gets first crack at it. He holds what is called a right of first refusal, a provision Robert Graham was able to secure for him way back in 1957. Whitehead has a less legalistic name for it: “Old-boy network, behind-the-scenes stuff.”

Whitman will admit he wanted the property as recently as “four or five years ago” for a five-star hotel. But, he adds, that was when South Florida had no five-star hotels. Now several are on the way, and Whitman has never been one to settle for having merely one of the best of anything. Still he doesn't rule out the possibility he may have some other use for the land. “Someday it might turn around,” is all he will say of his desire to acquire the property, a statement that sounds less hypothetical than anticipatory. Things, after all, do have a way of ultimately working themselves out in Stanley Whitman's favor.

The church, for its part, intends to outlive Whitman's whims. The banner that hangs outside is the congregation's final word on the subject: “THIS CHURCH IS NOT FOR SALE.” It's also part of a public campaign designed to shame the developer and rally public support in Bal Harbour. So far, though, no luck.

If anything Whitman's campaign against the church has grown more brazen. On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-September he called Bal Harbour police to the Shops when Whitehead and a church custodian attempted to exit the parking garage without paying (church members and staffers had continued to use the lot, declining to pay until the court ruled on Whitman's petition). Police took down the car's license plate number and allowed the minister to leave without incident. “This is all just a game to Stanley,” muses a frustrated Whitehead.

Perhaps. But it would appear to be one the developer is intent on winning. Whitman has since barred church members from using the lot at all. On Sunday mornings, when the Shops are closed and services are held at the church, heavy chains secure the entry gates to the mall garage.

And the banner outside the church? “They can put up there that I'm a damned Nazi; makes no difference to me,” says Whitman. But maybe it does. After all, the banner constitutes the only visible sign of resistance -- or even asymmetry -- in Whitman's neat, clean, wonderful world.

“What motivates me?” The answer appears to elude Stanley Whitman, but only momentarily. Then, like almost everything else he's wanted in life, it comes to him. “A friendly environment,” he declares. “That's all. I don't mind people telling me how great I am.”

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