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'Shaking all the time:' Surfside condo owners complained of luxury tower being built next door

Forensic structural engineer Stephanie Walkup analyzes photos the Miami Herald obtained by a contractor 36 hours before the Champlain Towers condo building collapsed, showing damage and standing water in the basement-level parking garage.

Posted: Jun 30, 2021 1:11 PM
Updated: Jun 30, 2021 1:11 PM

Two and a half years before her building collapsed into a pile of rubble, Champlain Towers South resident Mara Chouela dashed off the latest in a string of angry complaints about the development project next door.

"We are concerned that the construction next to Surfside is too close," Chouela, a board member of the condo association, wrote in a January 2019 email to a building official in her Florida town. Workers were "digging too close to our property and we have concerns regarding the structure of our building," she wrote, attaching photos of construction equipment directly across from her building's property wall.

Just 28 minutes later, the official, Rosendo Prieto, responded that "there is nothing for me to check." The reason why: The offending development, an ultra-luxury tower known as Eighty Seven Park, was directly across the border separating the town of Surfside from the city of Miami Beach, which runs between the two buildings.

In the wake of the Champlain Towers South disaster, Eighty Seven Park is facing new scrutiny: Champlain residents had complained that construction on the neighboring building would regularly cause their units to shake, according to friends and family members of the condo owners, as well as emails released by the town.

There's no evidence that the construction of Eighty Seven Park, which took place between 2016 and 2019, contributed to the collapse.

"We are confident that the construction of 87 Park did not cause or contribute to the collapse that took place in Surfside," the development group behind Eighty Seven Park said in a statement to CNN Tuesday.

But the 18-story tower would not have been allowed to be built across the border in Surfside, where buildings are subject to a 12-story height limit (although Champlain Towers itself received an exemption in the 1980s to add nine extra feet, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday).

That height limit doesn't apply in Miami Beach. The new tower looms over its now-ruined neighbor, its sleek, glass curves contrasting with the workmanlike stucco and concrete balconies of the section of Champlain South that's still standing.

Magaly "Maggie" Ramsey told CNN her mother Magaly Delgado, who is among the unaccounted for Champlain residents, had been concerned about the work being done next door.

"She did complain of a lot of tremors and things that were being done to the other building that she sometimes was concerned what may be happening to her building -- that might be putting it at risk," Ramsey said.

The new tower was designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano -- and billed as the starchitect's "first residential project in the Western Hemisphere." Its units are selling for millions of dollars, far more than most of those in Champlain South, and an outlier in what has historically been a more middle-class neighborhood of Miami Beach.

Eighty Seven Park's owners have included the world's top ranked tennis player: Novak Djokovic bought a ninth-floor condo in the building in 2019 and sold it earlier this month, according to property records -- less than two weeks before the deadly collapse.

Peter Dyga, the president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors, said that the likelihood of the Eighty Seven Park construction "being a significant cause" in the Surfside collapse "is slim, but no lead or idea should be excluded."

"There's probably going to be multiple things in the end that have contributed in some way or another," he said. "Still, buildings are built next to buildings all the time, and it doesn't mean that they come down."

He said minor shaking would not be unusual.

There are plenty of other potential causes: Engineering reports and a letter from the building's condo association have documented examples of structural damage in the doomed tower, with a 2018 report warning of "abundant cracking" in the concrete of the building's parking garage.

The residents' struggle with the developer across the border became a topic of conversation in Surfside. Marta Castro, a former member of the board of Champlain Towers East, a nearby building built by the same developer as Champlain Towers South, said she had heard many complaints from her friends and neighbors in the south building about the Eighty Seven Park construction.

"Everyone in town knew the problems they were facing," she told CNN. "My neighbors could feel the vibration -- they protested, they complained, nothing happened. I signed so many petitions."

And Eliana Salzhauer, a Surfside town commissioner, said she had heard from residents saying that the building "was shaking all the time" during construction.

"They were very traumatized and shook up," she said.

Debris, noise and a lack of response

Records released by the town showed that Champlain South residents sent a series of outraged emails to Terra Group, one of the Eighty Seven Park developers, complaining about construction debris, noise and the lack of response, and often attaching photos and videos.

"I am shocked and disappointed to see the lack of consideration and respect that Terra has shown our residents," Anette Goldstein, a condo board member, wrote to executives with the developer. "You have said you want to be a good neighbor... This is truly outrageous and quite unprecedented from what we hear from other associations in the area that have dealt with construction beside them."

An executive with Terra replied that construction workers had addressed or were in the process of fixing several specific issues, including plastic foam that was clogging the Champlain pool and unsecured tarps that were noisily flapping in the wind.

The emails released by Surfside so far don't show the residents specifically complaining to Terra about the building shaking, or bringing up the possibility of structural damage with the developer directly.

Miami Beach employees responded to more than 50 noise complaints at the building's address between 2016 and 2019, most of which specified construction noise, and the developers were fined for excessive noise at least eight times, according to city records. But there doesn't appear to have been any code enforcement cases specifically related to alleged shaking caused by construction.

A Miami Beach spokesperson said Tuesday night the city is "looking into many aspects of our process at all buildings to see where improvements can be made." Prieto, the former Surfside building official, did not respond to requests for comment.

Miami Beach approved the Eighty Seven Park development in 2015, with a review board allowing a height increase from 60 feet to 200 feet, according to news reports at the time. As part of the approval, Terra agreed to build public walking paths from the street to the beach and pay the city $10.5 million for improvements in a nearby park and other infrastructure upgrades. In exchange, the developer took over the right-of-way of the street, 87th Terrace, separating the development from Champlain South.

Joy Malakoff, who served as a Miami Beach commissioner at the time, said she hadn't heard any complaints from Surfside residents about the construction. "As far as I know, Eighty Seven Park was very carefully built, well built, and expensively built," Malakoff said.

The development had previously faced controversy over its demolition of the Biltmore Terrace Hotel, designed by well-known Miami architect Morris Lapidus, which was previously at the site. The hotel had not been protected by historic preservation rules, but Terra had originally said it would renovate the hotel and add a condo building to the property alongside it.

Instead, it tore down the hotel, saying the project wasn't viable. Some community activists to complained of a "bait-and-switch," the Miami Herald reported at the time.

Malakoff said that the hotel was in disrepair. "There were some preservationists who really fought to keep it, but it was past its life," she said.

Now, the condo tower is among the priciest in the city. Its penthouse came to market in 2019 asking $68 million, a price that would have been the highest paid for any condo ever sold in Florida, according to The Wall Street Journal. (It eventually sold for a mere $37 million.)

A $10.9 million four-bedroom condo in the building was posted on the real estate website Zillow earlier this month -- with photos showing an expansive view looking down on what is now a pile of ruins.

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Ohio Coronavirus Cases

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