Critics question Surfside mayor's relationship with Dubai developer

Dubai-based DAMAC International bought the property of the former Champlain Towers South building, which collapsed in 2021, one of the deadliest collapses in U.S. history.

People walk past a temporary memorial wall at the site during a Surfside Remembrance Event for the collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 24, 2022 in Surfside.

People walk past a temporary memorial wall at the site during a Surfside Remembrance Event for the collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 24, 2022 in Surfside. Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui Trinkl/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

More than two years after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, family members of the 98 people killed, town commissioners and the Dubai-based developer planning a luxury condo on the site of the tragedy remain far, far apart on where to build a memorial.

The tension was clearly evident last week when Surfside town commissioners held a special meeting to hear Mayor Shlomo Danzinger’s design plan.

His plan — to extend the memorial from 88th Street onto the beachfront condo site where the building collapsed on June 24, 2021 — was greeted with deep skepticism by relatives of the victims, city commissioners and the town's former mayor.

Most seethed with frustration and anger, especially after learning the mayor had traveled to Dubai to meet with the developer without disclosing their discussion, and allowing the developer to possibly build a bigger condo building. And they were upset with the mayor for unveiling the plan without giving them ample time to review it.

By the end of the two-hour meeting, the five-member town commission had rejected — at least for now — the mayor’s plan by a slim 3-2 vote.

Dubai-based DAMAC International purchased the 1.8-acre site for $120 million after a Miami judge approved the sale as part of a settlement with victims’ families and property owners.

At the start of last week's meeting, Surfside Commissioner Fred Landsman tried to set a friendly tone because tension has been building for months over plans on where exactly to build a memorial. A number of relatives want a memorial on the same land where the building collapsed; the town mayor proposed a compromise to include part of the memorial on that land.

“This is not about doing favors for a developer,” Landsman said. “For me this is about doing the right thing for the families and the town of Surfside. We’ve invited the families, the developer, the press, town staff, and of course, our town residents. We are not doing this behind closed doors. We are here in the sunshine for all to see and hear.”

Despite Landsman’s pitch and plea, many relatives and some town commissioners were unhappy with what they viewed as a less-than-transparent process leading to the mayor’s compromise proposal, which he outlined to the audience.

The original development plan that was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, a British architecture and design firm, doesn’t include a memorial, he said.

“This is a wedding cake plan that was proposed to us,” the mayor told everyone in describing it as tiers of floors, with the bottom floors bigger than the top ones.

He then presented another plan that allowed for the memorial to extend onto a part of the land where the former Champlain Towers South building once stood. It was to remain empty and, in exchange, the new condo building would be more of a rectangle instead of a wedding cake, making some of the top floors larger.

“What we're doing is taking land from the developer, which obviously has its own value right there, because it was paid for, incorporating it into the town and making sure that they get their square footage back,” Danzinger said.

The mayor quickly got an earful opposing it.

“You’re asking us to change our ordinance to help the developer do whatever they want to do, to increase their profits,” said Commissioner Nelly Velasquez. “Because of course, the top floors are the most valuable floors in this building.”

She then slammed the developer’s staff for not making their own presentation. Staff also did not answer questions from the media.

“To even have our mayor giving us this presentation when it should have been the developer giving us this presentation shows how much support we're having for giving things to a developer that has not come here and negotiated first with our town to see what really benefits our residents,” she said.

Danzinger defended the proposed change in the effort to have part of the memorial on the land where the victims died.

“The developers haven't asked for anything,” Danzinger said. “This came after a negotiation by our town manager sitting with the developers as this came forward by the family members to get square footage on the property.”

Added an exasperated Danzinger: “This is not about restructuring the building. It's about putting a memorial on the land. Why is the developer doing this? Because we asked them to. It's that simple.”

Some family members were confused and upset and came up to the podium asking for clarification, frustrated that this was the first time the family members had seen this proposal.

“We don't have any more meetings, we don't discuss this before, as we used to do it,” said Andrea Langesfeld, whose daughter, Nicole "Nicky" Langesfeld, died in the collapse. “So I need to understand clearly. For me, it's not clear what we are gonna receive as an important place for us to be respecting our loved ones.”

Danzinger clarified that the developer wouldn't actually build on the stretch of the property extension.

“This is their setback — nobody wants to build a building to the end of the property line,” he told Langesfeld. “It's not good for the neighbors, it's not good for the community. So there is a setback. So we are encroaching into their setback and coming closer to their building.”

Questions over relationship

Others have asked questions about the mayor’s relationship with the site’s owner and developer, and how the public learned details about the project.

In October, Danzinger traveled to Dubai without announcing it publicly and met with DAMAC officials. WLRN obtained emails between Danzinger and Andrea Langesfeld’s husband, Pablo, through a public records request. It shows that Pablo Langesfeld emailed Danzinger 11 times asking if he traveled to Dubai. Danzinger, following the 9th email, confirmed meeting with DAMAC but wouldn't share details of the meeting.

Former Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer also brought up the mayor's trip to Dubai, pointing out that public records requests have yielded no details about it.

"There were secret meetings, meetings that were held out of the public eye, out of sunshine, and there was never any paperwork to be found on today's agenda,” Salzhauer said. "There is nothing in writing. The families have been left out of the loop."

WLRN has filed several public record requests for emails and text messages that led up to the mayor’s trip to Dubai, but town officials said no records exist.

Danzinger’s Dubai meeting with the developer only became public after DAMAC last January confirmed the meeting to the Miami Herald.

WLRN also reached out to DAMAC to request an interview, but company officials gave no timetable when they could be made available.

During last week’s meeting, former Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett, who wanted to speak in opposition to the proposed change, was kicked out after addressing his comments first to Commissioner Landsman. Rules ban the public from addressing anyone on the commission directly.

“Only God knows what went on in Dubai when he flew over there,” Burkett later told WLRN by phone after the meeting. “He won't tell us who paid for the trip. He won't tell us who paid for the hotel.

"He won't tell us who pays for the meals, and he won't tell us who paid for the entertainment. I don't know why he won't do that. He didn't bother to tell the families he was going, and then when he came back, he wouldn't tell the families what he talked about. So it's all a big secret. It all came undone tonight.”

The one public speaker at the meeting who endorsed the mayor’s proposed change was Ben Jacobson, who traveled to Dubai with the mayor last fall. He chairs the town's Charter Review board and is on the town's Tourist Board.

“In exchange for them moving their whole building over, we're actually getting to go onto the land where 98 souls were lost,” Jacobson said. “Otherwise, anybody who goes to that memorial will never be on the land.”

In the end, Landsman changed his vote in favor of the mayor’s plan and voted against it. His vote tipped the commissioners to reject the mayor’s proposal in a 3-2 vote.

'Fate of proposal lies in your hands'

The mayor has not given up on getting his plan approved by commissioners.

The day after the contentious town meeting, Danzinger sent out an email asking residents to reconsider their opposition, writing “the fate of this proposal now lies in your hands.”

“If the residents and family members consider this a priority, I would advise you to email the Surfside Commission and request that the proposal be brought back to the August Commission meeting. On the other hand, if this is no longer a priority for you, the developer will proceed with their project, and we will continue our efforts toward the memorial on 88th Street without incorporating some of the original land," he wrote.

The next commission meeting is Tuesday, Aug. 8, beginning at 6 p.m. Any changes to the current proposal would have to be approved then.

For now, DAMAC is scheduled to present its original plan without the memorial extension in exchange for a larger building to Surfside’s Planning and Zoning Board in late August.

In the meantime, firms interested in designing the memorial need to turn in their proposals by Thursday, Aug. 3.

Families told WLRN they remain hopeful that open dialogue could take place to satisfy everyone.

"We're just trying to ask for respect," Martin Langesfeld told WLRN after the meeting. "We're asking for a memorial on the site of the collapse, working with the developer on making sure it happens while they don't lose profitability, even gain profitability if they need to.

"We can't forget this land came at the cost of 98 beautiful people, including my sister Nicky."

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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