As a judge fast-tracks the development of a new high-rise on the Champlain Towers South property, the families of those who died in the Surfside condo collapse are increasing pressure on town leaders to drop their resistance to a plan to ensure a memorial is built where the tower fell by trading public, oceanfront land to the eventual buyer of the collapse site.
Still grieving the deaths of their loved ones, Surfside families are now taking the fight to Town Hall, where Tuesday night they will ask the commission to consider a proposal to build a memorial at 8777 Collins Ave., along with a new community center. In exchange, the town’s current community center would be torn down and the planned redevelopment of the Champlain property moved to where the center is now located, about six blocks north on Collins Avenue.
A majority of the town’s commissioners have spoken out against the idea, as has the town’s top administrator.
Sofia Kaufmann, whose parents died in the collapse, said she supports the land-swap because asking a developer to build a memorial and a new high-rise on the site of a collapse would lessen the value of the land, meaning victims would be compensated less.
“The swap would really be a win-win for everybody,” she said.
Other nearby properties have been floated as the site of a future memorial for the victims of the collapse, which killed 98 people when it fell on June 24. But the land-swap plan has the support of the Miami-Dade judge overseeing the class-action lawsuit stemming from the collapse, who said it would allow for the victims to be compensated through a property sale while allowing for a memorial to be built on the collapse site.
Still, getting support from the Surfside commission will be a long shot. Affirmative votes from four of the five commissioners are needed to approve the plan, followed by passage in a town-wide referendum with 60% of the vote. Already, four commissioners have come out against the plan, saying that the center is too important to its residents to tear down and move from its central location to near the southern edge of town. Mayor Charles Burkett is the only member of the commission who has said he would support letting voters decide on the matter.
Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer, who drew criticism from families and Judge Michael Hanzman for calling the idea “delusional,” said the families and their attorneys have created the “false narrative” that a land swap is the only way to build a memorial on the collapse site. She said if enough families told Hanzman to sell 90% of the land and keep 10% for a memorial, he would be forced to listen.
“Why aren’t they mad at the judge?” she said. “It’s their property, they have a say in what happens to it.”
She added: “They want the most money for the land and they want to control what happens to it and they want our community center. And that’s where we have to say, ‘Wait a minute.’”
There may also be land-use and zoning restrictions standing in the way of the proposal, according to Town Manager Andy Hyatt, who wrote a letter last week to the court-appointed receiver for the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association outlining the town’s position. He said there is no appetite from the town to move forward with the proposal.
“The community center is the centerpiece of the Town’s services to its roughly 6,000 residents and the crown jewel of its public facilities,” Hyatt wrote. “Its central location is integral to equitably providing services to all Town residents, adult and child alike, and the amenities it provides should be maintained in its current central location without interruption. Accordingly, the community center site is not for sale, lease or exchange, even for this worthy cause.”
After reading Hyatt’s letter Friday, Judge Hanzman said he could not mandate that Surfside commissioners approve the plan, but told the outspoken family members in attendance that they could use their voices to lobby for it.
Victims’ families, Surfside leaders rally supporters
The near-unanimous, almost immediate rejection to the land swap disheartened — but motivated — the families who are pushing for a memorial to be built at the collapse site instead of a new residential building. The current plan is to sell off the land and put a memorial somewhere else in Surfside or in neighboring Miami Beach.
The families, who organized in a WhatsApp group chat, said they launched a media blitz, created the hashtag #SUPPORTTHELANDSWAP, wrote to elected leaders and circulated fliers asking supporters to speak in favor of the land swap at Tuesday’s meeting.
Carlos Wainberg, whose brother-in-law and cousins died in the collapse, likened their fight to that of 9/11 families who fought to build a memorial at ground zero. He said the new community center could be built to have upgraded facilities and more parking, and that private donations could be solicited to pay for the design and construction.
“We’re gonna do everything in our power to try to stop the sale of this land before the Surfside residents actually get the chance to make a decision about what’s supposed to go on that land,” he said.
But Salzhauer said she won’t support a special election, which she said would create a “civil war” in Surfside and allow developers to influence the election.
Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, Salzhauer and another commissioner, Nelly Velasquez, asked residents on the social media site NextDoor to speak up at the meeting after receiving emails from residents opposing the deal.
“This is the moment we come together as a community to defend our community center and all town-owned properties,” Velasquez wrote. ”Please, I urge everyone to dedicate Tuesday night to defend what we all love and cherish. United we are strong!”
In a separate post on NextDoor, Salzhauer said supporters of the land swap would appear “en masse” at Tuesday’s hearing “to point fingers at everyone BUT themselves and to push the false narrative that our community center should be sacrificed in this healing process.”
“Our residents must stand together loud and clear,” Salzhauer said. “We support our friends and neighbors tragically impacted by Champlain’s collapse and remain committed to see them succeed, but will NOT allow this tragedy to be exploited for profit and become the undoing or Surfside’s priceless community center and our residents’ quality of life.”
Wainberg called Salzhauer’s comments “disgusting” and said she was spreading lies and conspiracy theories to convince Surfside residents to oppose the land swap.
“She is still insisting that the idea came from developers and they are using us as a Trojan horse,” Wainberg wrote in a text message. “Truly disgusting coming from a city official to use [these] lies to try and convince the residents of her town to support the wrong cause without even taking the time to hear us out.”
Mauricio Kaufmann, the brother of Sofia Kaufmann, said he came up with the land-swap proposal without any developer’s help.
“I never talked to any developer,” he said. “I would like to see a memorial on the site where it happened.”
Martin Langesfeld, whose sister and brother-in-law died in the collapse, said Surfside leaders should respect and help honor the victims while compensating the families.
“We understand the community center is a memorable place, and that is the reason why we are asking to rebuild the community center however the city desires, along with a memorial to honor the 98 people who died in Surfside,” he said in a statement. “Approving this land swap will not only honor the lives of all those who died, but will also compensate the victims.”
Salzhauer, though, said giving up the space where generations of residents have gathered — the center was initially built in 1962 and rebuilt in 2011 — for a piece of land where a national tragedy happened isn’t a good deal.
“Who would make that deal?” she said. “There’s not a sane person who would make that deal.”