UPDATED, Sept. 10, 3:22 p.m.: The Surfside town commission will allow the condo collapse site to be rebuilt up to the same size as Champlain Towers South, scrapping a controversial proposal to downzone the property.
This means the new project could have the same square footage as the condominium that tragically toppled in June, but details such as the number of units and floors are yet to be hammered out.
Four out of five Surfside elected officials came to this agreement at a Thursday night workshop on a town-wide rezoning that has been in the works for a year and a half but that threatened to diminish the size of a new project at 8777 Collins Avenue. (Commissioner Charles Kesl was absent.) It marked the first meeting about the rezoning since May, prior to the collapse.
“Give them back exactly what they had. That is the only fair thing to do,” Commissioner Nelly Velasquez said at the workshop.
Town officials said Champlain Towers South was roughly 202,000 square feet without the garage and 139.5 feet tall, although it remained unclear at the workshop if this height was only for livable space or included the rooftop slab. The 12-story tower had 136 units.
Attorneys for the town and Champlain association receiver Michael Goldberg will work out details on exactly how to define the parameters for a new project. The new building envelope is more likely to be dictated by the Champlain size and height measured in feet as opposed to its number of stories and units. For one, a developer could choose to build fewer than 136 units but make them larger.
The outcome is good news for collapse victims like Champlain unit owner Susie Rodriguez, who survived. The downzoning proposal could have lowered the sale value of the 1.9-acre oceanfront site, potentially lowering disbursements to victims from the sale.
“We are going to get what we had and I think that’s very reasonable. I hope it all works out and what they are promising is done because a lot of lives were lost and we deserve to have our building back,” Rodriguez said after the workshop.
The collapse shortly after 1:30 a.m. on June 24 killed 98 people. Some survivors like Rodriguez, who was not home when the tower toppled, are forced to rent while at the same time remaining on the hook for their Champlain unit mortgage.
“We need a quick resolution. We are not going to wait five years for the zoning to be fixed,” she said, adding that people like her need to get on with their lives.
Still, the workshop exposed other divisions, with some survivors pointing a finger at the town for considering downzoning the site. Elected officials pushed back, with Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer saying the town merely is trying to preserve its small-town look and feel instead of allowing it to become overdeveloped like neighboring Sunny Isles Beach and Miami Beach.
“We are not trying to screw anyone out of profit. We are trying to preserve our quality of life,” Salzhauer said.
Furthermore, the push to sell and rebuild quickly is overlooking other issues, like that there could have been a sinkhole on the site, she added.
There also are divisions over what the new project should be, either luxury multi-million dollar units or more affordable homes. Salzhauer said the town should try to remain more attainable and called for Champlain survivors to be first in line to get a unit. Velasquez pushed back saying ultimately the developer will decide.
A project, including its design, would have to be approved by the town planning board and commission.
Prior to Thursday’s workshop, Surfside had been adamant about including the Champlain site in any downzoning.
The commission was considering revising the code in a way that would limit development on the site of the collapse to roughly 80 units, based on zoning of about 65 per units per acre and lot measurement that would reduce the size of developable land. A consultant planner was deposed last week to confirm the proposed zoning changes, as part of the Champlain litigation.
There has been mounting opposition from the judge overseeing the litigation, as well as the families of the victims, and survivors of the deadly collapse.
“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?” Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman said during a hearing last month.
Following the zoning workshop Thursday, Mayor Charles Burkett called the move to use a provision in the code that would allow what was destroyed to be rebuilt “a very elegant solution.”
He said that up until the most recent workshop, the commission had not taken a position on what it planned to do with regards to the site. But Burkett and commissioners had supported the idea of limiting density on the site, in favor of a more high-end, boutique development.
“Everybody on that commission wanted to do the right thing and I believe the right thing got done,” Burkett said. “There was no hesitancy at all to make the accommodation for the families that would allow them to be put back in the position they were in immediately preceding the collapse.”
At the latest hearing on Friday afternoon, Goldberg, the receiver, and the judge praised the town for working with the victims. Goldberg also updated the court on the status of the proposed land swap. A victim made the suggestion at a hearing Sept. 1, which involved building a memorial on the Champlain Towers South site and in exchange, the town would sell their oceanfront community center site, with the proceeds benefitting the survivors and families of the victims.
But Goldberg said he met with Surfside’s attorneys who discussed “in a very legitimate fashion” why a land swap was not feasible, including how lengthy the process could be and that it would be subject to a vote.
Burkett plans to call a special commission meeting on the rezoning once the legislation draft is prepared. About half of the items in the proposed code still have to be addressed before the commission can approve the draft, send it to the planning board, and then have it return to the commission for a final vote.
“I was just happy we could hear the residents from Champlain and quickly address their concerns and give them one less thing to worry about,” Burkett said.