Maison Paco Rabanne. The words alone, soft as an Hermes scarf, evoke images of European elegance and luxury -- jewelry and servants and fine food and everything smelling sweetly fragrant. Now think of a high-rise condominium with that name: sprawling units with floor-to-ceiling windows and wrap-around balconies overlooking Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, a fine-dining restaurant, gymnasium, pool, multiple Jacuzzis, and a Jag in every parking space.
That's the vision a Brazilian development company had when it broke ground in January 1994 at 5900 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach's condo canyon. The building, scheduled for completion in August 1995, was going to offer a choice of 124 units -- two and three bedrooms -- ranging from $180,000 to $750,000 for the penthouse. Its namesake, the Spanish-born Parisian designer Paco Rabanne, was an architectural consultant for the design of the façade.
But after numerous delays, the general contractor was fired this past June and work ground to a halt. A slew of lawsuits ensued. Now, nearly three years after the first shovelful of dirt was turned, the hulking shell of the development sits dormant and half-completed.
The problems with the $31 million building, however, go much deeper than contract disputes. The structure is riddled with substandard construction and building-code violations, say private engineers and City of Miami Beach officials. "On our site inspection we noticed that the work performed in the project is of extreme poor quality, never seen in the construction trade," noted a consulting engineer in a letter to his client Ocean Bank, the major lender for the project. The discoveries have cast doubts on when -- or if -- the building is ever going to be completed. More seriously, the findings raise the possibility that poor construction was overlooked or approved by city building inspectors who were making regular trips to the site.
Some of the subpar work was first publicly revealed this past summer by the developers' newest general contractor, who notified the city. Philip Azan, director of the Miami Beach Building Department, has since uncovered a long list of deficiencies in the building. Azan, who became building director this past April, characterizes the problems as matters of "quality control" rather than "safety." But he doesn't minimize their seriousness. "This shouldn't have happened," he declares flatly. Azan has compiled a twenty-page inventory of structural, electrical, plumbing, mechanical, and fire violations, including inadequate headroom in the stairwells and parking garage, pieces of lumber embedded in the roofing membrane, an insufficient number of fire sprinklers, inadequate sanitary-sewer and rainwater drainage, unsatisfactorily installed bathtubs and whirlpools, undersize water pipes, exposed reinforcement steel throughout the project, and assorted construction for which proper permits had not been obtained.
The director is sifting through reams of construction and inspection documents trying to figure out who's to blame. He won't speculate on the possible culpability of his own inspectors, some of whom had begun making occasional inspections of the site about a year before the first round of violations was publicly revealed. But Azan's twenty-page inventory indicates that dozens of deficiencies and violations were apparently approved by city inspectors. (Azan declined to further explain the document and his notations.)
Perhaps mindful of the possibility that his own inspectors might be blameworthy, Azan has asked investigators from the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) to get involved. (Among its many duties, DBPR licenses and certifies the construction trades as well as architects and building inspectors.) State investigators will determine if there were violations of Florida law pertaining to the construction, financing, and inspection of the project.
While he refuses to comment on his inspectors' work pending the outcome of the DBPR investigation, Azan does believe the inspections system is flawed. The inspectors make spot checks when the contractor or a subcontractor is ready, but they rarely return to the same location if the work is satisfactory. After they've left, Azan says, another subcontractor might make changes to the approved work. "The inspectors go specifically to an area, inspect, approve it or disapprove it, then go to their next inspection," the director explains, adding that his staffers are responsible for between 20 and 25 inspections each day. "The inspectors cannot see all. We can see a percentage of what's being done," Azan asserts. He's exploring ways to tighten up the system, including adding a round of inspections or a final walk-through in areas that have already received approval.
Also under scrutiny now is the project's so-called special inspector. (State law allows for the developer of a complicated and large project to hire a state-certified engineer or architect -- in lieu of a city building official-- to approve structural work as it's completed.) For his part, Maison Paco Rabanne's special inspector, Eugenio Santiago, says he did the job he was required to do. "The special inspector verifies that structural elements are put in place according to the plans," says Santiago, who, in his 28-year professional career, has designed the structural engineering for numerous high-profile edifices, including the Terremark building in Coconut Grove and Booker T. Washington Middle School. "If a staircase doesn't have enough headroom, that's not the authority of the special inspector. My duty is to ensure that whatever the contractor puts up doesn't fall down. The bottom line is that the quality of construction left a lot to be desired -- that's a quality-control issue for the owner and the [city's building officials]."
Santiago asserts he "constantly" complained about the quality of the workmanship to the contractor and the development company, and noted the problems in numerous reports. Beyond that, there was little he could do, he claims. "As a structural inspector, I had no leverage to stop the work or try to be strict about those things," he insists. "In any case, people are trying to make it seem like the building is falling down. The building is structurally sound. It looks like hell, but it's not going to fall down."
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A lawyer for the original general contractor, Rabanne Joint Venture, says his client was only following the architects' designs. "It's our position that the work we did is work of good quality and was built in accordance with the plans given to us," attorney Joseph Raia contends. Raia also says it's "quite noteworthy" that the allegations of substandard work arose only recently, even though the general contractor built the project under the supposedly watchful eyes of inspectors representing the owners, the city, and Ocean Bank. "The owner is very definitely trying to dump on my client the responsibility for its failure to properly design the building," argues Raia, adding that the two companies composing the joint venture have, between them, more than a century of international building experience.
Meanwhile, assorted litigation ensnarling the project is working its way through the courts. The primary dispute is between the Brazilian developer, Edel International Developers, Inc., and Rabanne Joint Venture. Edel criticizes the general contractor for taking too long and costing too much; the general contractor maintains that the delays and cost overruns were the result of more than 200 changes to the building's design demanded by the developer. Edel is also facing lawsuits filed by several subcontractors who allege they haven't been paid for their work.
Despite the mounting problems at the development, Edel is optimistic. "The [developer] believes that it will be able to restart the construction, hopefully complete the building within the next six to eight months, and in the process of doing so not only cure any construction defects but also fulfill its obligations to the buyers who have entered into presale arrangements," says Edward Soto, attorney for Edel. Surprisingly, the delays apparently haven't scared away buyers. According to Elio Cepollina, Edel's vice president, all but about 20 of the 124 units have been sold.
The fiasco at 5900 Collins has reverberated throughout the building industry in Miami Beach. Whether or not his inspectors made mistakes, Azan says the troubled development highlights the need for closer examination of construction projects and a beefier inspection force, particularly at a time when large-scale Beach developments are springing up like weeds. "Because of this one, everyone's going to wonder whether Portofino Tower is structurally sound, whether Sunset Harbour is okay," he admits. To counter this perception, and to allay the city's own concerns, the director recently received permission to hire five more inspectors. Azan says he has also stepped up inspections at other building sites: "As a result of the Paco Rabanne, we've been looking at other projects with a lot more detail than we normally do. They're coming under the microscope.