Surfside shoots down controversial proposal for Damac’s collapse site

In haywire meeting, commissioners voted against tweaking setback requirements allowing for an on-site memorial

Mayor Shlomo Danzinger, Commissioner Nelly Velazquez and the Surfside Collapse site
Mayor Shlomo Danzinger, Commissioner Nelly Velazquez and the Surfside Collapse site (LinkedIn, Town of Surfside, Getty)

A controversial proposal to tweak development regulations for Damac Properties’ project in Surfside fizzled out amid concerns that the ordinance amounted to special treatment of the Dubai-based developer, allegedly allowing it to maximize profit from its proposed condominium building.  

In a special meeting on Tuesday that went off the rails –– with elected officials speaking over each other on the dais and one former town mayor getting escorted out of the chamber ––  commissioners voted 3-2 against the ordinance. 

The proposal would have created a mechanism to change the requirement for the south setback, or the distance between Damac’s project and 87th Terrace. In exchange, this would have freed up space on the north side of the site facing 88th Street, allowing the planned memorial to partially stretch onto the collapse site at 8777 Collins Avenue.

“We are coming here and giving special meetings to developers,” said Commissioner Nelly Velasquez. “It is a favor. You are asking us to change our ordinance to help the developer to do what they want to do.” 

A rendering of the project
A rendering of the project (Rendering via Zaha Hadid Architects)

In June, Damac filed two sets of designs for a 12-story, 57-unit boutique condo designed by Zaha Hadid Architects on the 1.8-acre oceanfront property. The plans call for up to six condos per floor, with units ranging from 4,000 square feet to 15,000 square feet

Surfside already has approved for a memorial to rise on 88th Street. But many victims’ families have pushed for the place of remembrance to rise on the actual Champlain Towers South property. 

Under the ordinance, the memorial would still have been built on 88th Street but could extend by about 5 feet to 10 feet onto the collapse site. Schematics presented at the meeting showed that this would decrease the project size by about 1,000 feet. But the drawings also showed that the ordinance would allow Damac to build a straight building instead of a wedding cake-designed project where the upper floors scale back similar to a pyramid.

Essentially, a straight building would allow for bigger units on the upper stories, opponents argued. 

“Those apartments that are worth millions of dollars more than the ones on the lower floors are going to create an extra profit for the developer,” Velazquez said. 

Commissioners Velazquez, Fred Landsman and Marianne Meischeid voted against the item. Velazquez said the developer, not the mayor, should have presented the proposal. 

Mayor Shlomo Danzinger and Vice Mayor Jeffrey Rose, who were the sole votes in favor, countered that shooting down the ordinance does away with the possibility of having a portion of the memorial extend onto the collapse site. 

“The developer owes nothing to any of us,” Rose said. “They can build the current plan completely. The current plan meets code. What this ordinance does is give the town a mechanism to shift it to allow the developer to give us some sort of access on the site.”

Landsman, who was the deciding vote, initially appeared to side with the ‘yes’ camp. Prior to the vote, he proposed a tweak to the ordinance to specify that the setback reprieve Damac gets on the south side has to equal the amount of space freed up on the north side for a memorial. Then, he backtracked and voted against the item altogether. 

The meeting often degenerated into heated debate among commissioners on opposing sides of the vote. Adjourning the meeting was the only point that Danzinger and Velasquez could agree on.

The public comment period did not go smoothly either. 

Martin Langesfeld, whose sister and brother-in-law died in the collapse two years ago, was critical of the mayor’s allegedly off-the-books meeting with Damac in Dubai. 

Late last year, Danzinger went to Dubai to meet with billionaire Hussain Sajwani, who founded and leads Damac, though victims’ family members maintain they knew nothing about the trip. 

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“We are completely working backwards. The fact that everyone behind me is extremely confused about what is being presented but that you are very clear makes it very clear you are not involved with any of the families,” Langesfeld said, addressing commissioners in support of the item. “Listen to the families and stop insulting us please.”

Danzinger pushed back on allegations he had done anything improper and said the ordinance would have merely set in motion a mechanism to tweak the setbacks, but not actually determine the size of the setbacks at this stage. 

“We started a conversation with the developers. We even brought them to the table. There was a conversation in Dubai, yes, that was all part of it,” he said in his opening remarks. 

Damac hadn’t asked for any code changes and, in fact, it was the town manager that sat down with the developer, Danzinger said. After the second-year collapse commemoration this summer, a lot of victims’ families approached him to again ask for the memorial to extend onto the site of the tragedy. 

“But understand you don’t represent all 98 families,” he told some of the speakers on Tuesday. 

In an email sent to residents this morning, Danzinger said the developer decided to move forward with its plans that do not take into account an on-site memorial. A spokesperson for Damac confirmed it will move forward with the wedding cake design in light of the ordinance not passing.

Damac’s proposal would go before the town’s planning and zoning board in August, and to the commission for final approval in September. Danzinger wrote that the commissioners who voted down the ordinance on Tuesday could bring it back as a discussion item during the August 8 commission meeting, but that they have a limited amount of time to get it added to the agenda due to public meeting notification rules. 

“I want to emphasize the urgency of this situation,” he wrote. “We have only a few days to get this on the August agenda, or the opportunity to obtain a portion of the land for the memorial will be lost for good!”

In an extreme move, Danzinger also had former Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett escorted out by police officers after he addressed commissioner Landsman directly. The mayor’s justification for removing Burkett from the meeting was that he violated Robert’s Rules of Order, parliamentary procedure that legislative bodies typically follow. 

In an email sent prior to the meeting, Burkett blasted the proposed ordinance as a “proposed giveaway scheme” that would allow Damac to build a larger project. 

Burkett argued that the ordinance is really a “gift” by Danzinger that allowed the developer to build a project that is larger by roughly 37,500 square feet. Danzinger and some town officials pushed back on that calculation. 

“You really think you are going to get away with this?” Burkett told Danzinger at the meeting before being escorted out. 

Resident Deborah Cimadevilla said she could “not believe what I just observed under these circumstances.”

“You don’t have the support of your community,” Cimadevilla said. “You don’t have the support of the people who passed away there who are sharing their heart through their loved ones.” 

Damac closed on the site in June 2022, one year after the tragedy, for $120 million. The firm was the sole bidder for the property in a court-ordered sale of the site. 

The planned development will mark the first project in the U.S. for Damac.

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