News

Conversations About the Surfside Condo Site's Future Are Underway. Is It Too Soon?

What will become of the site of Champlain Towers South in Surfside?
Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg
What will become of the site of Champlain Towers South in Surfside?
Susana Alvarez awoke to tremors that sounded like ceaseless thunderclaps. She opened the door to her tenth-floor condominium at Champlain Towers South in the early hours of June 24, and the elevators were gone. When she made her way to a fire escape, she saw the moon, the stars, and the remains of her building below.

"There was nothing there," Alvarez says.

She ran down the fire escape, something she says she would not have been able to do if not for the help of other residents. Alvarez now wishes she could run away from Surfside — the pile of rubble, the casualties, the internal monologue about why she survived when so many others perished.

"I got a call from a woman saying, 'I know you're not Jewish, but you're one of the chosen ones,'" Alvarez tells New Times. "I blocked her number, I have no idea who she was. But that stuck with me."

Sixteen days after the partial collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, first responders have recovered 78 bodies from the rubble. More than 60 people are still unaccounted for. Some families have buried their loved ones, while others continue to wait for news. With every rise of the death toll, the community grieves.

Less than three weeks after the collapse, questions already are arising about what might happen to the property at 8777 Collins Ave. Should the site be transformed into a tribute to victims of the collapse? Or will the property be sold and redeveloped, and a shiny new high-rise built?

Alvarez, for one, wants nothing to do with the decision.

"I don't care what it becomes," she says. "I don't want a part of it. I want the land sold, and I want my portion of it. Rebuilding? No. I would never step foot on that property ever again. I saw death in there. I saw people suffering. And I want nothing to do with that property other than whatever is due to me."

During a news briefing Thursday, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said that stakeholders wanted to do "something different" to commemorate the lives lost.

"I think for most of us, we don't want to have it be business as usual...and certainly discussions have begun how that could happen," the mayor said.

Some Surfside leaders and community members believe it's too soon to discuss what will become of the site. Rescuers are working around the clock, and human remains are still being pulled from the rubble. Every day seems to bring jarring news about the potential warning signs that led to the collapse.

But the question of the site's fate has already been broached in press conferences, at court hearings, in online petitions, and behind closed doors. Tina Paul, Surfside's vice mayor, says she recently facilitated a meeting between the survivors and a court-appointed receiver who's now in charge of financial decision-making for the condo. During that meeting, the receiver raised the possibility of selling the property.

"It's too soon," Paul tells New Times. "The condo owners — it's their property. They would all have to decide."

Paul believes the town does need some sort of memorial, but she says it's a decision that should be left for a later time.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett agrees.

"I'd like to know what the families want to see there," he says. "I'm going to be talking to them and asking them over the next several months. I think the first thing we're going to do is focus on pulling everybody out of that rubble and supporting the families."

Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer says she doesn't believe it's appropriate for the site to be rebuilt.

"I would like to think there isn't a developer on earth who would want to," she says. "It would be like living on an Indian burial ground. It's a poltergeist. I would hope the only solution here is to make it a memorial park."

As confirmation of what the community would like to see, Salzhauer points to an online petition that has garnered more than 1,000 signatures calling for a memorial.
click to enlarge Candles and ribbon decorate the site of a memorial to victims of the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside. - PHOTO BY NATALIA GALICZA
Candles and ribbon decorate the site of a memorial to victims of the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside.
Photo by Natalia Galicza
Not everyone agrees. Some residents worry that a fixed memorial would permanently equate Surfside — once a sleepy beach town — to the tragedy.

Lorin Jacobson, who has lived in Surfside for 15 years with his wife and two kids, says that would mean the end of his town as he knows it.

The Surfside he knows has friendly neighbors, manageable traffic, and peace and quiet. But today, he hears police sirens blaring day and night. He watches unfamiliar vehicles zip through his neighborhood at alarming speeds, and he spends twice as much time getting anywhere owing to the traffic closures. Everything has changed, and it prevents him from forgetting why.

"We'd all like to move on a little bit," he says.

Though Jacobson never lived in Champlain Towers South, his family recognized each of the children whose lives were claimed by the collapse. They were all familiar faces from either school or the Boy Scouts.

He says the tragedy has been especially hard on his 16-year-old son.

"The kids are the ones who are suffering right now. I think the longer we drag this out, the harder it is for the kids to have normalcy," Jacobson says. "I don't want my kids growing up on the beach saying, 'Oh, look, that's where all the people died.'"

At the same time, Jacobson is wary of the site hosting a new high-rise. He worries it will set a precedent in Surfside, whose mile-long beachfront has long tantalized developers.

"They want to turn it into Sunny Isles," Jacobson says, alluding to the heavily developed condo canyon a short drive north on Collins Avenue. "And I think giving an opportunity to bid on the property is going to be a nightmare."

Strong real estate and development interests might already be interfering with what residents and survivors say they want. As the Miami Herald reported this week, at least one real estate broker has speculated the property could be sold for more than $100 million.

Jorge Calil, an attorney representing Alvarez in a lawsuit against the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, says selling the property to a developer could help compensate victims and family members of those who died.

"They are going to need the proceeds from the sale of the land in order for there to be enough financial support to all the unit holders that have a claim," Calil maintains.

While Alvarez wants to put the collapse behind her, she says the Town of Surfside should answer for what happened and be responsible for creating a memorial to those who died.

"The town owes them that," she says.

Although she has yet to replace the checkbook she had to leave behind when she fled the crumbling building, Alvarez is trying to rent a new place as soon as possible. She plans to return to work in hopes of gaining back a sense of normalcy. And once she goes through therapy and heals her emotional wounds, she wants to help future victims of disaster.

"I am here — now what can I do?" Alvarez explains. "I would love to get myself back together and pay back all the assistance that has been given to me to the next person, in the next place this happens. Whether in California with the fires or after a hurricane somewhere — wherever. Now that I know what it feels like, I would truly like to pay it back."