Families fume over plans taking space from Surfside condo collapse memorial

'It doesn’t matter how luxury a building may be. Garbage is garbage,' one critic said about plans to include garbage collection and a loading dock near a proposed memorial for those killed in the Champlain Towers South collapse.

DAMAC International is developing a luxury residential building at 8777 Collins Ave., where the Champlain Towers South collapse killed 98 people in 2021.

DAMAC International is developing a luxury residential building at 8777 Collins Ave., where the Champlain Towers South collapse killed 98 people in 2021. Photo by Verónica Zaragovia/WLRN

Plans to include garbage collection and a loading dock on the same street as a proposed memorial site for the 98 people killed in the 2021 collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside have angered and outraged relatives of some of the victims, along with former and current elected town officials.

Tensions only grew more intense when DAMAC International, the Dubai−based developer seeking to build a luxury condo building on the site of one of the worst building failures in U.S. history, pointed the finger at the Florida Department of Transportation for forcing it to build the loading dock on 88th Street in Surfside.

FDOT officials later told WLRN and other media outlets that it never made any such recommendations to the developer in connection with a loading dock or garbage collection.

Related coverage – Critics question Surfside mayor's relationship with Dubai developer

The contentious back−and−forth represents just the latest battle among relatives of the condo collapse victims, town officials, and the developer.

Emotions have been running high ever since the 12−story beachfront condo suddenly collapsed on June 24, 2021. A federal probe of the cause — looking at two dozen different scenarios — may not be completed until 2025.

In recent months, some families of victims have been at odds with the developer over a planned memorial site, pleading over the summer to have it on the grounds of the collapsed building. Instead, the proposed memorial will be designed for, and built on, 88th Street.

DAMAC International purchased the 1.8-acre site for $120 million after a former Florida Circuit Court judge approved the sale as part of a settlement with victims’ families and property owners. It plans to build 52 luxury condo units that range in size from 4,000 to 9,000 square feet. They will cost an average of $25 million each.

The latest source of contention erupted at the Surfside Planning and Zoning Board on Aug. 31 when the developer presented its design plans that included the controversial garbage pickup and loading dock on 88th Street.

Despite the public outcry, the board voted 4−1 to recommend approval of the developer’s plans to the town commission, causing more strain and stress. The full commission will take up the recommendation at its September 27 meeting.

“Everyone can understand what a memorial is, and what it means to respect people — that 88th Street needs to be sacrosanct,” former Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer told the board. "On Jan. 11, 2022, I wrote a resolution that passed to make 88th Street, in its entirety, from Collins until the beach, a pedestrian memorial closed to vehicular traffic except for emergency vehicles."

“I'm outraged to see that the proposed plan for the new building is taking so much of 88th Street, a street that was a sign for a memorial, which is not much, but is all that we will ever have permanently to honor, to go there, to remember, to connect to our loved ones,” said David Rodan, who lost four relatives when the Champlain Towers South building collapsed on June 24, 2021.

The wife of one of his cousins who died was Nicky Langesfeld, the daughter of Pablo Langesfeld who also spoke at the meeting.

“Placing the garbage facilities adjacent to the memorial is an act of malice and disrespect for all of us,” said Pablo Langesfeld. “It doesn’t matter how luxury a building may be. Garbage is garbage.”

Blaming FDOT

The developer and top town officials, including Town Manager Hector Gomez, told those at the Aug. 31 meeting that FDOT officials said they did not want garbage collection along Collins Avenue.

“When it comes to FDOT...they do not want any loading or staging on Collins Avenue that would impact that arterial highway if there is a way to accommodate it on a secondary roadway,” said Gomez.

James Galvin, a representative for DAMAC, also spoke at the meeting, saying the developer was also only following FDOT regulations.

“They honestly do not care what anybody else says or does on their road,” Galvin said. “It's whatever their law says because it's their arterial roadway. So we have to follow their guidelines.”

At one point, Planning and Zoning Board Chair Carolyn Baumel said “You cannot load or unload anything on the face of Collins Avenue, period.”

She apologized to the people who felt emotional about the memorial.

“I knew people in there [Champlain Towers South], and yes I have friends who did make it out. It’s hard. We have to move forward,” Baumel said. “If this is the way that it’s intended and this is what God has given us, I feel we are very lucky.”

Only one board member, Lindsay Lecour, voted against the plan and urged DAMAC officials to work with FDOT on a different solution.

“I would like them to come back with an alternative that allows for a full frontage on 88th Street as the ordinance read,” Lecour said. “We're not going to redesign it for them. They have the finest team in the world on their side.”

She suggested they take a number of months to rework the garbage collection and loading dock, acknowledging the cost of doing that.

“It's also costing our town the integrity of this memorial on 88th Street,” Lecour said. “I don’t know how else to say it. This team can do it.”

A gathering at the Four Seasons

The distrust among victims’ relatives, former and current Surfside commissioners, and the developer was evident when former Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett sent out a newsletter with photos of three of the zoning board members who approved the plans having drinks at the Four Seasons hotel. He emailed the newsletter the night before this Planning and Zoning meeting.

In the photos, board members are sitting with Surfside’s current mayor, Shlomo Danzinger, vice mayor, Jeffrey Rose, and a commissioner, Fred Landsman – all three who’ll be voting later this month on the developer’s plans.

One of the photos showed Planning and Zoning Board Chair Carolyn Baumel sitting on the lap of fellow member David Forbes.

“We are friends, catching up, laughing, and having fun as friends,” Forbes said, defending himself when he brought up the photos during the August 31 zoning board meeting.

“We discussed our jobs, our children, our kids, schools, family, and most of all, Lionel Messi and what he's done for the entire area, and talking about the Dolphins coming up,” he said. “At no time was city, county, or state business talked about.”

The gathering at the hotel could be a violation of Florida’s Sunshine law, said Bobby Block, the executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to protect the public’s constitutional right to open government.

The state Sunshine Law requires any gathering of two or more members of the same board at a local and state level to discuss any actions that may come before a board to be open to the public, give reasonable notice of the meeting and minutes must be taken.

“Florida's Sunshine laws are designed to protect the integrity of the government process, to make sure decisions take place in the public, and this is in part to protect the very officials from accusations of self-dealing or making sweetheart deals with constituents or political donors,” Block said.

Former Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told WLRN that the zoning board members appear more responsive to representatives of the developer than the public.

“What we're hearing at the meeting is the developer and the staff and even the planning board members getting up in an orchestrated effort to sort of put forward this narrative that, ‘Shucks, we tried. We did our best. Big bad FDOT wouldn't let us do what we wanted to do. They forced us.’ All that was a lie,” Burkett said. “All that was a big scam.”

FDOT's response

Following the Aug. 31 zoning board meeting, FDOT emailed a statement to WLRN about what the state agency discussed with the developers and the town.

“Representatives from the FDOT Permits Office met with the developer’s representatives on Aug. 2, 2023, to discuss a future permit application,” wrote Tish Burgher, FDOT communications manager. “The developer’s representatives provided a preliminary site plan with paving and drainage details. As presented, the only request to FDOT was driveway access onto SR A1A/Collins Avenue; their site plan identified a loading area on the north side of the property off 88th Street.”

The email went on to add, “This was an informal coordination meeting. FDOT has not received a permit application from the developer or their representatives. No reviews or recommendations have been provided to the applicant by FDOT. The statements that are referenced do not accurately reflect our communications to date. While our goal with all permit applications is to ensure the safety and mobility of the traveling public, we are sensitive to the community’s concerns and will work with all parties to develop the best solution.”

DAMAC International officials later wrote to WLRN, saying “We’re working to remove the sanitation area from the loading dock area and develop a system to deliver it from within our site to the designated pick-up location."

Niall McLoughlin, DAMAC International's Senior Vice President of Communications, also said that the statement made by DAMAC’s Galvin about FDOT was made in “good faith and is consistent with our interpretation and the general advice from the traffic consultant based on FDOT’s standard operating procedures.”

Meanwhile, Surfside officials said town officials are organizing a meeting that would include the Surfside Memorial Committee, DAMAC International officials, and others “with the goal of working towards a sanitation collection strategy that will work for all parties while respecting the future memorial park site, localized traffic flow and ensuring the safety of the Town’s sanitation collection workers.”

In an op−ed published Sunday in the Miami Herald, Surfside Commissioner Marianne Meischeid urged the developer to remove the loading dock from 88th Street and relocate it to the southwest corner of the building, allowing trucks and other vehicles to access it from Collins Avenue.

“Here, the right thing should be obvious,” Meischeid wrote.

Surfside is considering two firms to design the memorial project and expects to present their pick to the commission by November.

The public can attend the special commission meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 6 p.m. in the Town Commission Chambers at Town Hall, or watch via its website, www.townofsurfsidefl.gov.

This story is published as part of a collaboration between City & State Florida and WLRN NewsVerónica Zaragovia covers health care as well as Surfside and Miami Beach politics for the station. Contact Verónica at vzaragovia@wlrnnews.org

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