Surfside Agonizes After Condo Collapse, With a Memorial Hanging in the Balance

What to do with the site? There is no easy way to both honor victims and compensate condo owners.,

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SURFSIDE, Fla. — Unbearable grief absorbed Anabella Levine when Champlain Towers South collapsed in Florida this summer, burying her beloved older brother and three cousins in the rubble of her building while she was away for the night. Identifying some of the remains took an excruciating 18 days.

What she did not expect — what has consumed many of her recent days, even as she struggles with her family’s enormous sorrow — was a fight with the town of Surfside, the beachfront enclave where she and her cousins spent some of their happiest childhood days.

Their fight is over the inevitable question that follows a tragedy that killed 98 people: What should be done with a place where such horror occurred? But unlike in other disasters, the land in Surfside is worth tens of millions of dollars and crucial to some survivors’ financial future.

Ms. Levine and her relatives, as well as other victims’ families, insist that the site must become, at least in part, a memorial to the dead, similar to the 9/11 Memorial in New York. Though the debris at Champlain Towers has long been cleared away, they feel that the ground where so many people died is sacred.

But the parcel at 8777 Collins Avenue is nearly two acres on the beach in South Florida, where waterfront property is scarce, developers drive the economy and the market for luxury condos promising a dream Florida lifestyle seems insatiable. For many of those who lived in the building and lost almost everything they owned, a lucrative real estate deal seems like the best hope for any substantial compensation.

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The area where Champlain Towers South used to stand has been completely cleared.Credit…Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The debate over the parcel’s fate has revealed conflicting interests between victims’ families, who lost people, and survivors, who lost property, in the June 24 collapse. And it has stirred raw feelings in and threatened to divide Surfside, a town of 6,000 with low-slung buildings and a recent history of resisting the aggressive redevelopment that has brought huge gleaming towers to the nearby towns of Miami Beach and Sunny Isles Beach.

“We all knew each other,” Ms. Levine said. “I see all the pictures of the people that died, and they’re all people that I saw in my pool. I know 98 people that died in just one day.”

At issue has been not only what will be built on the property but also how big it can be, as town leaders push to rewrite zoning laws and restrict the size of future construction. In the effort to make Champlain Towers residents financially whole, some see the influence of developers eyeing profits, as is so often the case in Florida.

The judge overseeing the many legal claims over the collapse has said that the sale of the land must happen, and quickly, to give Champlain Towers residents the biggest possible payout. A private bidder is willing to offer $120 million for the property, according to the court-appointed broker handling the real estate deal. Insurance could pay out another $48 million.

With the cause of the collapse still unknown — and no deep-pocketed third party to sue over it, at least not yet — Judge Michael A. Hanzman of the Circuit Court in Miami-Dade County has said the total fund will fall far short of adequate compensation. So many people died that local newspapers are still publishing their obituaries, three months later.

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“I see all the pictures of the people that died, and they’re all people that I saw in my pool,” Anabella Levine said. “I know 98 people that died in just one day.”Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

The judge has made it clear that any chance of turning the entire site into a public memorial, as some residents and community members had hoped, runs counter to financial reality. No local government could afford to buy the parcel at market price. Keeping even a portion for a memorial would require persuading a majority of Champlain Towers condo owners to accept a smaller payout — a sensitive request that could pit neighbors against one another.

The city of Miami Beach, which borders Surfside just south of where Champlain Towers South once stood, offered space for a memorial in a nearby park. But Ms. Levine, her relatives and other victims’ families who packed the Surfside Town Hall last week, said only one place will do: the spot where the building fell. A new glitzy high-rise there, they say, would be too much to bear.

Ms. Levine lost her brother, Andres Levine, 26; cousins Moises Rodan and Luis Sadovnic, both 28; and Mr. Sadovnic’s wife, Nicky Langesfeld, 26.

“I had my whole life shattered in a night,” Vicky Btesh, Ms. Levine’s sister-in-law, who became a widow as she was finalizing hotel reservations for her honeymoon, said through sobs. “Help us find a way so that I don’t have to drive by that place and see a building erasing what is the biggest tragedy of my entire life.”

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Vicky Btesh lost her husband, Andres Levine, in the collapse.Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Some residents have felt betrayed by politicians who in the days following the collapse promised lasting help. A few victims’ families have directed much of their anger at town commissioners who dismissed the idea of a land swap with Surfside’s community center, allowing developers to build a new high rise on the community center property and dedicating the Champlain Towers site for a new community center and a memorial.

Frequently Asked Questions

It could take months for investigators to determine precisely why a significant portion of the Surfside, Fla., building collapsed. But there are already some clues about potential reasons for the disaster, including design or construction flaws. Three years before the collapse, a consultant found evidence of “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below the pool deck and “abundant” cracking and crumbling of the columns, beams and walls of the parking garage. Engineers who have visited the wreckage or viewed photos of it say that damaged columns at the building’s base may have less steel reinforcement than was originally planned.

Condo boards and homeowners’ associations often struggle to convince residents to pay for needed repairs, and most of Champlain Towers South’s board members resigned in 2019 because of their frustrations. In April, the new board chair wrote to residents that conditions in the building had “gotten significantly worse” in the past several years and that the construction would now cost $15 million instead of $9 million. There had also been complaints from residents that the construction of a massive, Renzo Piano-designed residential tower next door was shaking Champlain Towers South.

Even though Florida’s high-rise building regulations have long been among the strictest in the nation so they could stand up to hurricane winds, flooding and rain, along with the corrosive effects of salty air, evidence has mounted that those rules have been enforced unevenly by local governments. Engineers are conducting a thorough review of Champlain Towers North, a nearly identical building, to determine whether it could also be vulnerable. In nearby North Miami Beach, residents of the Crestview Towers were swiftly evacuated after a report documented cracks and corrosion in the building’s structure. And Bal Harbour 101 is spending an estimated $4.5 million in repairs. Now, residents throughout the region who long glamorized oceanfront condos are debating whether they should put their homes on the market.

Entire family units died because the collapse happened in the middle of the night, when people were sleeping. The parents and children killed in Unit 802, for example, were Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, a fan of the rock band Kiss and the University of Miami Hurricanes; Anaely Rodriguez, 42, who embraced tango and salsa dancing; Lucia Guara, 11, who found astronomy and outer space fascinating; and Emma Guara, 4, who loved the world of princesses. A floor-by-floor look at the victims shows the extent of the devastation.

A 15-year-old boy and his mother were rescued from the rubble shortly after the building fell. She died in a hospital, however, and no more survivors were found during two weeks of a search-and-rescue mission. There had been hope that demolishing the remaining structure would allow rescuers to safely explore voids where someone could possibly have survived, but only human remains were found. There were 98 victims overall.

Ms. Levine and other families suggested that would be a workable compromise. But Eliana R. Salzhauer, one of the commissioners, called the notion “delusional,” in part because the community center site, about five blocks north of Champlain Towers, is at the center of town and key to its quality of life.

During Tuesday’s commission meeting, which drew so many people that some had to watch from the lobby downstairs, the commissioner’s earlier comment enraged many of the families. But Ms. Salzhauer insisted that the ire against town officials was misplaced: Most commissioners want an on-site memorial, she said, but the town cannot afford the land, and the property’s fate is ultimately in the hands of condo owners and the court, not Surfside.

In any case, the community center should be off-limits, a majority of commissioners and a string of residents said.

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Some residents have made their deeply felt emotions known at Surfside Town Commission meetings. Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

In an interview, Ms. Salzhauer said lawyers in the Champlain Towers case — many of whom have represented developers in the past — are exploiting the pain of victims’ families and survivors with an eye on future real estate deals.

“This is the perfect storm of conflicts of interest, of South Florida corruption — from the day the building was built,” she said, referring to the turbulent origins of Champlain Towers, during which aggressive developers pushed through plans for the building, adding an extra penthouse story over the initial objections of the town. Investigations over issues such as land subsidence are continuing.

“The real issue is, why did the building collapse? It may turn out to be unbuildable. And should we be developing somewhere where it’s not sustainable in the first place?”

A big development proposed in town a few years ago caused such backlash that voters ousted most of the commissioners and approved rules to limit the sale of public land. The new commission has pursued a more restrictive zoning code, which drew little attention until it became evident that the changes could lower the value of the Champlain Towers land. This month, commissioners agreed to allow the same size development on the site as the building that fell.

Victims’ families and survivors have trudged to the Town Hall, attended court hearings on Zoom and commiserated in WhatsApp chats to navigate their new reality of anguish and displacement. Even the return of their recovered personal items seems far-off: The Miami-Dade Police Department will first need to decontaminate everything, from photos to jewelry to clothing, to get rid of asbestos — a process that could cost millions of dollars.

Many of those who lost their homes to the collapse still do not know where, when it is all over, they will be living. Most would like to come home. But in the end, it may be too expensive.

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