Sunday, August 01, 2021

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What will become of the land the Surfside condo is on?


Even as the search for victims of the Surfside condominium collapse continues, a question has surfaced: What will become of the land?

Although beachfront property is a hot commodity in South Florida, survivors, families who lost loved ones and neighbors are struggling to imagine another apartment building or hotel in a space that has suffered so much loss. Instead, many condominium owners have expressed hope that the government will purchase the property and build a memorial park.

The possibility of selling the land for a memorial - similar to the museum and fountains in the footprint of the twin towers that honor the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 - has come up in official conversations in recent days. But when it was broached Wednesday at a hearing to discuss the various lawsuits filed on behalf of victims, a concern lingered: Would such a sale offer victims the largest possible payout for their lost homes?

Attorney Robert McKee said his client Steve Rosenthal, one of the residents suing the condo association, and other possible clients wondered if discussions about the possible park could start with the county, state or federal government, though he said it was "probably not the best commercial use."

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman called it an "interesting thought" but added that Michael Goldberg, the attorney appointed by the court to handle the lawsuits on behalf of the condo association, is tasked with getting the most money for victims, including through asset sales and $48 million in insurance money. The land was valued at $100 to $130 million, according to one estimate offered to Hanzman.

Hanzman left what would happen if a government wanted to buy the land open to question. It's unclear whether the government could pay as much as a developer.

"If other government agencies step in and take action that takes priority over this case and over the receiver, then we'll address that at the appropriate time," he said. "For the time being, it's not this court's role to set policy or establish parks or monuments."

Rosenthal - who still owes part of his mortgage for Unit 705 - said he is looking for a solution that could offer him a chance at financial recovery. At 72, he said he can't work for decades more to earn back what he had lost.

"Where am I going to move?" he asked, adding that he doesn't feel safe living in a high-rise or beachfront building. "What am I going to do?"

Comparing the site to the locations of the twin towers attack and Oklahoma City bombing, both of which are now memorials for the hundreds killed, Rosenthal said the toll of this disaster is colossal in its reach for Miami, where many knew people who knew people missing or dead.

Rosenthal said he told Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, about the memorial idea in a meeting with survivors.

DeSantis's spokeswoman Christina Pushaw told The Washington Post that the governor had no comment on the land use, adding that it "would be up to the owners to determine, and it isn't the place of the state to speculate on this subject before the owners have weighed their options."

Miami-Dade Mayor Danielle Levine-Cava, a Democrat, also said she did not know yet what the county would do. "We're exploring opportunities like that," she said of the park in an interview.

When asked if Surfside would consider purchasing the land, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett also said he will defer to families.

"I think it something we should put on the table and discuss with all the stakeholders," he told The Post, adding that he thinks families "expect the town to step up and do what it's supposed to do."

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, who leads the Shul of Bal Harbour, a large gathering spot of the Jewish community in the area, said he and other clergy told Burkett that they did not support a new condo placed on the site. Jewish burial laws specify that soil that may contain human remains is sacred and building on it is like building on a cemetery, Lipskar said.

"I just came from the pile, and anytime you go there, there's a chill that runs through your body," he said. "There are souls floating in that space."

Lipskar said the memorial would offer people a space to honor the people who died, which Chabad of South Dade Rabbi Yakov Fellig, who lost his sister, Ingrid "Itty" Ainsworth, in the collapse, said families needed. His sister, 66, and her husband Tzvi, 68, were found Monday, after recently celebrating the birth of two new grandchildren, the Associated Press reported.

"The memorial will give our families and all people the opportunity to commemorate the memory of the loved ones and to meditate and reflect upon their lives," Fellig said in a statement.

According to Michael Capponi, who runs the nonprofit Global Empowerment Mission that has given gift cards, laptops, necessities and more to many of the survivors, everyone he has spoken to is in favor of making the site a memorial.

"I haven't met someone yet who doesn't like that idea," he said. Capponi, who was among the first to offer aid to the victims, has lent an ear to each family, listening to their harrowing stories of survival and working to provide housing to those who have nowhere to go.

He said many residents, such as Rosenthal, are retired and cannot return to work to make back the money they invested over the decades in their homes.

Reviewing comparable listings, Andres Asion, a broker and founder of Miami Real Estate Group, estimated that the $100 million to $130 million value would be a fair price for the site. Waterfront property is scarce, making the nearly two acres more valuable, he said.

In the last decade, new buildings erected north and south of Champlain have sold for steep prices, attracting affluent residents, including Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner six doors down.

Surfside, a small beach town of roughly 6,000 people and a 12-story limit on its buildings, has less development than its neighbors - Miami Beach and its world-famous nightlife, and Bal Harbour with its luxury retail scene.

The property may be alluring to some developers interested in selling the ocean vistas and beach access. But a sale to a developer could be blocked by condo owners who don't wish to see another apartment put up in place of Champlain Towers South.

Oren Cytrynbaum, who was not in his unit at the time of the collapse, said he also hopes a memorial can be put in place of where he lived, adding that he would like to see the funds end the ongoing legal battles and provide closure to those who lost family members and friends among the dead and unaccounted for.

"We can't forget those who passed away," he said. "We have to honor them in some way. We can't let people have to deal with litigation for the next few years or decades."

Darrell Arnold, who lives in a house along Harding Avenue, about a block from the site, could see Champlain Towers South condo - and then the wreckage - from his living room window. He watched when as engineers demolished the standing part of the tower, destroying what remained of people's homes.

Imagining a view of another condo in just a few years is "grotesque," Arnold said.

"At least, there needs to be some time for that to be some kind of memorial," he said.

The Nir family, who rented their home on the ground level of the building had narrowly escaped the condo's collapse, sprinting through the lobby and into the smoke-filled street. Days later, Gabe Nir boarded a bus to 8777 Collins, to see the towering heap, with spindly metal poles sticking out. It was hard being there for Nir, who had wished he could have reached into the pile and saved his neighbors.

He said the site needs to become a memorial. Building over it with another condominium would do a disservice to the lives lost.

"It's just like, 'Okay, yeah, people died, and we'll just put a new one on top of it and forget about what happened,'" he said. "That's what it feels like."

"And also, like, if you were to build it like how are they going to remember?" he added. "People need to remember."

Published : July 10, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Meryl Kornfield, Brittany Shammas