Stanley Whitman's Wonderful Life

Three inches. That's all that separates Stanley Whitman from perfection. For now. Whitman is standing on the second floor of his Bal Harbour Shops -- he built the mall, he owns it -- observing his latest improvement project, an expansion of the walkways delivering shoppers from the parking garage into the mall. No one ever complained about the width. The owner just decided it was something he wanted. “Can you believe all that trouble for just that extra little bit of room?” he asks with obvious satisfaction, as workers chip away at the terrazzo floor. Whitman also is installing a new floor on the second level (“to match the one on the first”) and repairing two of the reflecting pools he fills with tropical fish. Constant attention to every detail of the property's appearance is what make the Shops, in Whitman's opinion, “the only really, truly, honest-to-God, world-class property in Dade County.”

Located in the beach village of Bal Harbour -- the small, affluent community of high-rise condominiums and private cul-de-sacs extending from 96th Street to Haulover Cut and bordered on the west by Bay Harbor Islands and on the east by the Atlantic -- the Shops constitute one of the most famous, exclusive, and profitable shopping districts in the nation. The mall's two department stores, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, anchor a two-story network of open-air walkways funneling shoppers into upscale emporia such as Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Fendi, and Prada. At age 81 Whitman makes the trip from his Miami Shores home to his office in the Shops every business day, and not because he has to. “I committed the classic real estate mistake of falling in love with the property,” he confesses.

The developer may have stayed true to his mall -- he has passed up opportunities to build others -- but the gleaming façade of the Shops does not constitute the sum of his impact on the village of Bal Harbour, or on the larger landscape of South Florida.

Whitman, recycling the old line about General Motors, maintains that what is good for his mall is good for the community and vice-versa. Since opening the Shops in 1965, the developer has taken an unusually active role in shaping the world beyond his front gate. “The civic stuff is the root of what I'm all about,” he says, proudly noting his efforts in pushing through the construction of I-95 in the Sixties. Over the years the Miami Herald has published not one but two celebratory features chronicling his achievements. His name is included in the Bal Harbour founder's circle, and three years ago he was honored with his own day by Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas “for contributions which serve to enrich the fabric of the community.”

But not everyone in the shadow of Whitman's mall lives happily ever after. If his vision has garnered a world-class clientele, praise from public officials, and valentines from the mainstream press, neighbors claim the developer has virtually colonized the area around Bal Harbour Shops.

A blue-and-white banner hanging outside the village's Church-by-the-Sea bears witness to the charge: “TO THE BAL HARBOUR MALL OWNER: THIS CHURCH IS NOT FOR SALE.” Minister Priscilla Whitehead suspects the developer is using a parking-fee dispute to try to roust her congregation so he can take over the property.

Paul Novack, mayor of neighboring Surfside, sympathizes with the church, adding that the developer's ambitions extend well beyond Bal Harbour. The Surfside of Stanley Whitman's dreams, Novack observes, is a city of entrance ramps leading to his mall, or as he puts it: “whatever facilitates the sound of cash registers.” If so, Novack, Whitehead, and the surrounding community have cause for concern. As Whitman himself freely admits, he has money, influence, and even history on his side.

At first glance one wouldn't necessarily take Stanley Whitman for a millionaire developer. True, his usual attire of short-sleeve sport shirts, khakis, and expensive loafers might evoke the country club, as might the tennis whites he occasionally wears to the office. But his demeanor is all wrong for the part. Whitman is effusive and down-to-earth. His speech is peppered with locker-room poetry. He refers to one ex-Bal Harbour councilman as having “about as much sense as my dead boxer bitch.” He moves remarkably well on two recently installed artificial knees. His blue eyes, framed by neat, thin strands of white hair, are compelling, as if their owner were forever on the verge of conveying some crucial piece of information. In a different setting, he could be mistaken for an aging fight trainer.

But that would be way off the mark. Stanley Finch Whitman was born into South Florida's ruling class, its first one, actually. His father, William, was a millionaire businessman from Chicago who made his money in printing. “He was the inventor of almost all the equipment used in the printing presses and the newspapers around the world,” his son says, stealing a fond glance at a portrait of the old man hanging in his office.

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Gaspar González