Judge overseeing Surfside collapse litigation chastises town over proposed downzoning

Miami Beach mayor is working with his commission to finalize a memorial site at North Beach Oceanside Park

Judge Michael Hanzman and the site at 8777 Collins Avenue (Miami-Dade Circuit Court, Getty)
Judge Michael Hanzman and the site at 8777 Collins Avenue (Miami-Dade Circuit Court, Getty)

The judge overseeing Surfside condo collapse litigation again implored the town to drop its proposed downzoning of the Champlain Towers South property, nearly two months after a portion of the building came down, killing nearly 100 people.

Confusion surrounding the site’s zoning is dampening efforts to sell the oceanfront property for the highest possible price, with proceeds to go to the survivors and the families of the victims.

Still, the receiver and the broker tasked with selling the site at 8777 Collins Avenue are moving forward with an offer from an undisclosed stalking horse bidder for up to $120 million. Avison Young broker Michael Fay said during a hearing on Wednesday that he hopes the contract will be ready in the next couple of days.

Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman, who presides over the collapse lawsuits, chastised the town for considering downzoning at the hearing on litigation and the site sale process.

Under the proposed revision of the town’s zoning code, the 1.88-acre property would be measured differently, reducing its size to 1.27 acres. That would only allow for 139 units to be built, instead of the currently allowed 205 units.

“I would hope [Surfside] would continue in its support for these victims by shortly advising the court that it intends to take absolutely no action whatsoever that could have the effect of decreasing the value of this property,” Hanzman said during the hearing. “That’s what I hope to hear from the town of Surfside, and I hope to hear it as soon as possible.”

Attorneys for Surfside, Lillian Arango and Tony Recio, pushed back, saying the possible downzoning is part of a town-wide development code overhaul that has been in the works for a year and a half. The town is not decreasing the number of units allowed per acre on the collapse site, Recio added.

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Town commissioners have not yet met to consider the zoning change for the site.

Hanzman added that it does not matter how long the zoning overhaul has been in the works.

“The fact that this catastrophe occurred, and this property has to be sold to compensate the victims of this tragedy, has not caused the town of Surfside to adjust their thinking?” the judge said.

The contract for the stalking horse bidder, which would set the floor purchase price, is being drafted, it was revealed in court. At the same time, Avison Young has finished the offering memorandum to put the site on the market to buyers willing to out-bid the stalking horse. Still, any further clarification on the site density from the town would help, said Fay, who leads the team marketing the property.

Separately, receiver Michael Goldberg hired an appraisal firm to determine the value of the units. That information would be used if victims win their suits and are awarded disbursements. The appraisal report is expected in early September.

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An official cause of the collapse has yet to be determined, as investigators collect evidence. The property is still under Miami-Dade County’s jurisdiction. But some have pointed to Surfside’s possible role in the tragedy.

During the portion of the hearing when Hanzman listened to families of the victims, Carlos Noriega, whose mother died in the collapse, said he expects Surfside to be named as a defendant in the consolidated case. Noriega, who described his mother as the “heart and soul” of his family, was also opposed to a reduction in the site’s density.

“I am appalled by the possibility that the town of Surfside could further injure the victims and families of this catastrophic event … by doing anything to further adversely impact the families and the victims, by doing anything to reduce the value of the property,” Noriega said.

In his updates to the court, Goldberg said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber is working with his commission to finalize a memorial site on about 2 acres of the northernmost portion of North Beach Oceanside Park. The park is steps away from the Champlain property, separated only by the Eighty Seven Park condo tower.

The possibility of a memorial, even if close to the collapse site, is not palatable to some who lost loved ones.

“My daughter did not die at the [Miami Beach] park. She died at 8777 Collins Avenue,” said Pablo Langesfeld, referring to his daughter, Nicole Langesfeld, who was an attorney at Reed Smith and died in the collapse.

David Rodan, who lost family members, echoed Pablo Langesfeld, saying a memorial near the building collapse “is not going to be the same.”

Hanzman reiterated what he has said in the past in court: Victims will get absolute honesty from him, and the truth is that dedicating the Champlain site to a memorial is not an option.

He also shot down another suggestion by relatives of the deceased: a land swap. It was proposed that Miami Beach annex the Champlain site and preserve it as a memorial, while allowing development on the 2 acres at its North Beach Oceanside Park.

“I can tell you for certainty that the city of Miami Beach won’t do a land swap, nor would a governmental entity come in and pay market value for” the Champlain lot, Hanzman said. “The victims and families are not going to be donating that land for the public good.”

Although a memorial off-site would not be “as moving,” he urged those who lost loved ones to visit the Miami Beach park.

“It is going to be an elegant tribute to those who lost their lives,” Hanzman told Rodan, “and I think you would be very proud to take your kids there one day and tell them what happened.”