Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail
To the casual passerby, there appears to be nothing remarkable about the oceanfront construction site amid the long line of condominium towers standing shoulder-to-shoulder along Collins Avenue in Surfside, Fla.
The property is a big hole in the ground, surrounded by fencing sheathed in mesh screening, with orange traffic barricades cordoning off the site from the street. Workers in hard hats walk the foundation, while backhoes and trucks rumble along the northern property line. A lone police car stands watch nearby.
It would be easy to miss the gravity of this site, the scene of one of the deadliest disasters in the Miami Beach area’s recent history: the collapse of a 12-storey oceanfront condominium building in June that killed 98 people.
In the four months since Champlain Towers South fell, many signs of the tragedy have been muted. The huge memorial Wall of Hope that attracted thousands of mourners was taken down at the end of August to protect the memorabilia from hurricane damage. Sea grass has been planted in neat rows between the site and the beach, covering an area where debris from the building fell. Most of the 12,000 cubic yards of rubble from the collapse has been removed from the site.
But for local residents and people who visit this popular seaside community for winter getaways, the gaping hole in the oceanfront skyline is reminder enough of what happened in the early morning hours of June 24, and nagging concerns the collapse may not have been an isolated incident.
“I wouldn’t buy a condo after that,” said Mark Baine, a New York banker who has been wintering in the area for years and recently set about buying a place. “I’ll buy a house, not a condo.”
Mr. Baine is no outsider. He grew up in an oceanfront community in Palm Beach County, about an hour’s drive north of Surfside, and has family in Miami. He knows all about the questionable development practices of the 1960s, seventies and eighties at the heart of lingering fears that another collapse is waiting to happen.
But as long as prices of waterfront property continue to rise, development will continue. Mr. Baine points to the prices of condominiums in nearby luxury waterfront buildings – one-bedroom units for US$7-million and four-bedroom units for US$25-million.
Some locals say a combination of lax building codes, inadequate inspection protocols and enforcement, and the corrosive effects of the oceanfront climate make the possibility of more tragedies like the Champlain Towers South collapse a possibility – and not just in South Florida. Residents say the incident exposed serious flaws in the way buildings have been built, maintained and inspected.
The fallen condo may also be a harbinger of things to come along other U.S. coastlines, where developers and builders keep pushing the limits of construction and, in effect, thumbing their noses at Mother Nature.
The tower’s flaws were well-documented. An engineering report that was part of a county-mandated 40-year recertification identified “major structural damage” linked to waterproofing issues around the swimming pool deck and the parking garage, and “severely deteriorating” concrete throughout the building, including in load-bearing areas.
“You know when a building is in bad shape,” said Maria Acosta, who lives in a nearby oceanfront condo tower. She said on her visits to see friends at Champlain Towers South, she noticed peeling paint and cracked walls, as well as the leaky swimming pool.
Ms. Acosta was asleep the night of the collapse when she was awakened by a loud slam that sounded like the thumping from a construction site. Her cousin burst into her room, saying the building down the street had fallen down.
“I said, ‘Buildings don’t just fall down,’” Ms. Acosta said. But soon afterward, “my phone started blowing up with people asking if I was okay.”
Within days, Ms. Acosta said, her own building was swarming with inspectors and engineers. The monthly maintenance fee for her unit doubled almost immediately, from about US$500 to US$1,000. The commotion was so chaotic, she moved to her mother’s house a few miles away until things calmed down.
Now back in her oceanfront unit, she believes whatever remedial measures have been taken are adequate.
“I do feel safe now,” she said. “I know that our building is in better shape.”
In the meantime, a judge recently approved a plan to sell the Champlain Towers South property for US$120-million, a decision that angered some victims’ families, who are hoping to have a memorial erected on the site.
Sadly, Mr. Baine said, he wasn’t surprised: “It’s all about the money.”
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