Surfside commissioners shoot down proposed land swap with collapse site to create memorial

“I said the concept was delusional because it is,” commissioner Eliana Salzhauer said at the commission meeting Tuesday

The now empty lot that was where the Champlain Towers South condo building once stood (Getty)
The now empty lot that was where the Champlain Towers South condo building once stood (Getty)

Surfside commissioners ruled out any possibility of a land swap with the site of the condo collapse to create a memorial, after listening to victims and their families in favor of the proposal, as well as residents against it.

Some victims had suggested swapping the Champlain Towers South site at 8777 Collins Avenue with the town’s community center property, at 9301 Collins Avenue, so that a memorial could be built as well as a new community center. The proceeds of the land sale of the current community center would benefit the victims and their families.

During a packed commission meeting Tuesday evening, commissioner Eliana Salzhauer, who had previously referred to the proposal as “delusional” – a comment that the judge overseeing the collapse litigation addressed during last week’s hearing – said she didn’t want “anyone to think I’m being cold or callous.”

Attorneys for the town had already ruled out the land swap at a hearing on Friday, and addressed why Surfside would not entertain the idea in a formal letter to the receiver.

“If we were to swap our community center, where would we put our pool? Where would we put the building? Where would we put the different items we have at our community center?” commissioner Nelly Velasquez asked. “Building a new community center doesn’t cost a couple of million dollars. It costs a lot of money.”

Salzhauer defended her previous comment. “I said the concept was delusional because it is,” she said, clarifying that she was not referring to the victims themselves.

“The people that suffered here. It’s not just those that lost lives and lost property…. Everyone’s loss is equal here,” Salzhauer added. “There’s nothing I can say to make this better, but we were elected to serve the entire town.”

The commissioners spoke after an hour of public comments.

Several family members of the 98 who died in the collapse choked back sobs as they implored commissioners to allow for the land swap, or at least help find another way to build a memorial on the Champlain Towers South site.

“It is the most painful thing knowing that the remains of my daughter [are] still in the rubble.… How can they think about building something there?” said Andrea Langesfeld, who lost her daughter, Nicole Langesfeld, and son-in-law, Luis Sadovnic. “This is not about money. This is not about space.”

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Ultimately, the Champlain site is privately owned and now under the control of court-appointed receiver Michael Goldberg, meaning the town has no control over what happens with the site, Salzhauer said.

Still, some victims pushed back, saying the town can try to secure federal funding to buy the land. Others did not push as hard for a memorial, and some Surfside residents, who did not live at Champlain, said having a community center at the site where children play and residents swim in the pool would not be fitting.

Yet others offered alternative suggestions as to where a place of remembrance could be built.
Randy Rose said a memorial could replace the portion of 88th Street, just north of Champlain, from Collins Avenue east to the pathway. It also could be built just south of the collapse site separating it from the Eighty Seven Park condominium tower developed by a partnership led by Terra.

Ultimately, the decision is being rushed at a time when victims and the community still are dealing with emotion over the catastrophe, said Raquel Oliveira, who lost her husband and son.
The decision also must take into account morals, politics and financial distributions, she said.

Mayor Charles Burkett acknowledged the swap was not going to happen, but urged victims and residents to come up with more ideas.

“My heart breaks for you guys because I know that this is something you were getting your hopes up about,” he said. “I hope you will not give up hope.”

Carlos Wainberg, whose brother-in-law and three cousins died in the collapse, said it was “disheartening” that the commission would reject the land swap right away.

“We are fighting to honor the people lost in this tragedy. I want every Surfside resident to remember in this building about 5 percent of Surfside lost their home. Two percent of this community perished. This was not a natural disaster. This was not an earthquake. The building just collapsed,” he said. “We can’t just let this go. We can’t just forget about it.”