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‘The city will help us.’ Miami Beach took cash, fast-tracked tower on Champlain’s edge

·17 min read

When Miami Beach city officials rushed to greenlight construction of an 18-story ultra-luxury condo tower just across the city line from Champlain Towers South, no one knew the 40-year-old building in the neighboring town of Surfside was teetering on the edge of collapse.

But the leaps Miami Beach officials took to bring the Eighty Seven Park tower from concept to reality are now under scrutiny amid litigation and investigations into what caused a once-in-a-generation building failure at Champlain South that killed 98 people in June.

The city’s maneuvers seven years ago included creating a new height ordinance tailored for the Eighty Seven Park developers and allowing them to take control of a beachfront public street. Those decisions enabled the developers to avoid two potential voter referendums that would have offered the public a chance to veto their project. The deal hinged on Eighty Seven Park “voluntarily” paying the city $10.5 million.

The end result was that Miami Beach moved Eighty Seven Park’s property line — once buffered from Champlain South by the 50-foot-wide beachfront street — directly against the boundary of the aging Surfside condo, bringing heavy machinery and intense vibrations from sheet pile-driving far closer than would otherwise have been the case and heightening the potential of damage. Two years after completion of the neighboring tower, half of Champlain South came crashing down.

A 2015 image of 87th Terrace from Google Maps Street View shows construction crews preparing the 8701 Collins Ave. site for the Eighty Seven Park development across the street from Champlain Towers South.
A 2015 image of 87th Terrace from Google Maps Street View shows construction crews preparing the 8701 Collins Ave. site for the Eighty Seven Park development across the street from Champlain Towers South.

Close-by construction can affect neighboring structures in material ways, from damage caused by the driving of sheet piles for foundational support to a phenomenon called “differential settlement,” where disturbance of the water table and underground soil can unevenly shift the foundation next door, according to engineers interviewed by the Miami Herald.

Whether any of that occurred at Champlain South is the subject of a class-action lawsuit filed by survivors, victims and their relatives last month.

The suit says construction at Eighty Seven Park contributed directly to the Champlain collapse, naming the project’s developers, general contractor and engineers among the defendants.

The Eighty Seven Park firms deny the claims.

“Numerous media reports have documented that Champlain Towers South was improperly designed, poorly constructed, significantly underfunded, and inadequately maintained and repaired,” a spokesperson for the developers said in a statement. “We remain very confident that a full review of the facts will show that Eighty Seven Park had nothing to do with the tragic events at CTS.”

Photos taken by the developers in a pre-construction survey show that differential settlement at Champlain South may have been taking place before the construction of Eighty Seven Park. And while Champlain South bore significant signs of water damage, which the lawsuit claims was caused by Eighty Seven Park, condo board documents show those problems had been happening for years.

Engineering experts agreed that Champlain South was ailing from poor design, flawed construction and decades of patchwork repairs. They said work at Eighty Seven Park could have weakened the tower’s already failing structure — but would have been far from the sole cause of the tragedy.

“Champlain Towers South was a fragile building to start with,” said Abieyuwa Aghayere, a structural engineering professor at Drexel University. “And so anything that adds to it makes it worse.”

The Eighty Seven Park luxury condo building on June 30, behind the rubble that used to be Champlain Towers South.
The Eighty Seven Park luxury condo building on June 30, behind the rubble that used to be Champlain Towers South.

As Eighty Seven Park rose near their building and sheet piles were driven just 13 feet from its southern edge, Champlain residents complained about construction rattling their condo and expressed fears of structural damage, but no one seemed to do much to help.

Their conundrum was partly the result of geography.

Eighty Seven Park sits on the northernmost edge of Miami Beach. To its south is a 28-acre city park — devoid of residents who could complain about construction. To its north is Champlain Towers in the town of Surfside.

In other words, because of Eighty Seven Park’s location, Miami Beach commissioners had found a unique opportunity: Some of the people fuming the loudest over the project were not their constituents. They lived and voted in Surfside.

“They didn’t care about us,” Steve Rosenthal, a Champlain unit owner who survived the collapse, said of Miami Beach elected officials. “We’re not their voters. There was nothing we could do.”

Miami Beach city attorney Rafael Paz defended the city’s actions in a statement.

“The record shows that this transaction was fully vetted and analyzed for compliance with the City Charter and City Code, and was properly approved by the Mayor and City Commission,” Paz said.

While the lawsuit names neither the city of Miami Beach nor the town of Surfside as defendants, it’s possible the municipalities could be added later.

‘A done deal’

The Eighty Seven Park developers purchased 8701 Collins Ave. — then the site of the aging and historically unprotected MiMo-style Dezerland Hotel and a surface parking lot — in December 2013.

Beach commissioners were eager to see a new tower soar in the city’s working-class North Beach neighborhood, where it would boost tax revenue. And they were enthusiastic about an original plan to renovate the existing hotel — although the developers later decided to demolish it instead.

So they allowed the developers to take over 87th Terrace, the public street between the Dezerland and Champlain South, and add it into their project’s footprint.

“Vacating” a public road is allowed under Florida law.

But the move quickly became the most controversial of a parade of favors the city granted developers, which would allow them to circumvent not one but two voter referendums.

By taking over the road next to their property, the developers enlarged their square footage, letting them build more units under city density rules. If the city had wanted to increase the density directly, rather than enlarging the property by surrendering a public road, a voter referendum would have been required.

The city charter also states that any sale or transfer of city-controlled beachfront land — which 87th Terrace appeared to be — needed to be approved by voters in a referendum.

City officials, however, found another creative loophole. They said that a sliver of land on 87th Terrace between the road and the ocean was once privately owned and had been taken over by Miami-Dade County — meaning the city’s portion didn’t extend all the way to the beach. Therefore, the road, which dead-ended at the beach, wasn’t “beachfront property” and a referendum wasn’t needed, they said. (That didn’t stop Eighty Seven Park, where a penthouse would later sell for $37 million, from advertising itself as the place where “park meets ocean.”)

Former Miami Beach Commissioner Ed Tobin, the fiercest elected critic of the Eighty Seven Park project, said the giveaway of 87th Terrace should have been put to the voters.

He suspected that the developers, who after the project was approved gave tens of thousands of dollars to a political action committee run by another commissioner, had an inside track from the beginning.

“Sometimes when you’re up there, it seems like something is a done deal,” Tobin said.

David Martin, CEO of Miami-based development firm Terra, stands next to a scale model of Mr. C Residences Coconut Grove on April 14, 2021. Martin was the lead developer for Eighty Seven Park.
David Martin, CEO of Miami-based development firm Terra, stands next to a scale model of Mr. C Residences Coconut Grove on April 14, 2021. Martin was the lead developer for Eighty Seven Park.

The class-action lawsuit filed last month featured an internal email from Eighty Seven Park’s lead developer, David Martin, CEO of Terra Group and one of South Florida’s most prominent luxury builders, hinting at a cozy relationship with the city.

“Keep moving the job forward. If there are any issues with city call my cell,” Martin wrote in March 2019, apparently after receiving a complaint from a Champlain South resident. “The city will help us they want us to finish. Do not let any neighbor delay us just be nice!”

‘We got $10.5 million’

In mid-2014, the Eighty Seven Park developers agreed to pay the city $10.5 million to seal the deal for 87th Terrace.

The money was earmarked for improvements to North Shore Open Space Park directly south of the new tower and other projects in the North Beach neighborhood.

“This group is giving us $10.5 million that we can use to improve North Beach,” Philip Levine, the mayor at the time, crowed at a September 2014 commission meeting. “For $10.5 million, I think it’s the deal of the century.”

When a speaker at another public meeting criticized the city for “giving away” the street, Commissioner Jonah Wolfson responded angrily.

“We got $10.5 million. That’s inaccurate,” said Wolfson, who ran the political committee that later accepted money from the developers. “It wasn’t given away, it was $10.5 million … so you’re just not telling the truth.”

There was one potential problem: While Florida courts and the attorney general’s office have held that cities can vacate streets if it serves the public interest, they have said the transactions shouldn’t hinge on how much money the cities get in return.

In memos and meetings about the payment, Raul Aguila, then Miami Beach’s city attorney, was always careful to refer to the $10.5 million as a “voluntary contribution,” not a sale.

But former city officials characterized that distinction as a fiction, an allegation also made in the lawsuit.

“Merely saying it was ‘voluntary’ doesn’t make it so,” said Jose Smith, the Miami Beach city attorney for eight years until Aguila took over in April 2014. “There was clearly a quid pro quo.”

“The city essentially sold public land to the developer,” said Saul Gross, a Miami Beach commissioner from 2001 to 2009. “Personally, I think it’s outrageous.”

Both Smith and Gross also said they believed vacating the street should have required a referendum, dismissing the “waterfront” loophole found by city attorneys as a way to prevent the public from weighing in.

“The developer never wants to take a chance on the voters,” Gross said.

A matter of feet

In South Florida, local governments have been granting favors to developers for generations.

But the consequences of the Beach’s decisions on Eighty Seven Park might well have been disastrous for Champlain Towers South, according to the class-action lawsuit.

As a result of the road takeover, construction happened right up against the southern edge of Champlain South.

Residents of Champlain South complained about vibrations shaking their building. In January 2019, condo board member Mara Chouela emailed Ross Prieto, the Surfside building official, to complain that the project next door was “digging too close to our property,” causing “concerns regarding the structure of our building.”

Heavy machinery works along the outer wall of Champlain Towers South.
Heavy machinery works along the outer wall of Champlain Towers South.

Attached were photos of a backhoe on 87th Terrace near the southern wall.

A Herald investigation found that the June 24 collapse likely began near that area, when the pool deck collapsed and the slab disconnected from an underground foundational wall at the southern perimeter of the property.

Evidence of corrosion and pre-existing damage in the failed connection was visible in post-collapse photos, according to a review by 10 engineers interviewed by the Herald. And a computer simulation of the Champlain collapse, created by University of Washington engineering professor Dawn Lehman in conjunction with Herald reporting, now suggests the collapse spread into the tower when the corroded rebar connecting the slab to the perimeter wall snapped.

The lawsuit alleges that the proximity of construction at Eighty Seven Park caused the collapse, although it does not specifically point to the damage along the perimeter wall as the reason.

“Had the [developers] not ‘purchased’ 87th Terrace from the City, the construction would have occurred approximately 60 to 70 feet away from CTS,” the lawsuit states.

A matter of feet can make a big difference when it comes to the impact of vibrations from driving sheet piles like those installed in 2016 as part of Eighty Seven Park’s construction, said Manoj Chopra, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Central Florida. Driving piles 13 feet rather than more than 50 feet from a structural element, Chopra said, is “definitely significant, from just a comparative point of view.”

“The wave is highest in its magnitude closest to the source, and with distance it dissipates,” he said.

Records show the sheet pile driving exceeded vibration limits set by the contractor along the southern perimeter wall at Champlain South. While the levels were not likely to have damaged reinforced concrete, according to the mining industry standards on which the limits were based, engineers consulted by the Herald said even lower levels could damage fragile buildings with pre-existing degradation like Champlain South.

The Eighty Seven Park developers say they had no way to know Champlain South was so weak, and indeed the urgency of some of the building’s worst damage wasn’t spotlighted until a consultant’s report in 2018 as part of the building’s required 40-year structural review.

Other work on Eighty Seven Park could also have worsened that damage.

Before the tower rose, developers “dewatered” the soil on their property, sucking out the moisture so they could work in dry, stable soil rather than muck. The lawsuit alleges that the process caused differential settlement at Champlain South.

Differential settlement happens when the sediment under the part of the building closest to construction shifts or compacts more than others — often a result of drying out — potentially torquing the structure’s joints and cracking concrete.

While step-like cracks in the privacy wall along the perimeter of Champlain South suggest that differential settlement took place, photos from the developers’ pre-construction survey — conducted in early 2016 — show the problem began before any construction or dewatering next door. It’s unclear from photos reviewed by the Herald whether the damage worsened during dewatering or subsequent construction.

A photograph from a 2016 pre-construction survey by the Eighty Seven Park developers shows step-cracking in the southern privacy wall of Champlain Towers South.
A photograph from a 2016 pre-construction survey by the Eighty Seven Park developers shows step-cracking in the southern privacy wall of Champlain Towers South.

The Eighty Seven Park spokesperson said their project “did not cause any settlement” of the Champlain South structure.

“Any suggestion that dewatering, or any other construction activity, caused that cracking is just wrong,” the spokesperson said.

The developers also tore out 87th Terrace, the 50-foot-wide road and sidewalk next to Champlain’s southern perimeter wall, and replaced it with a bed of gravel and a 10-foot-wide public pedestrian beachwalk — gnashing the soil that sat next to a crucial structural element of Champlain with heavy equipment.

On at least one occasion during construction, equipment scraped against the outside of the non-structural concrete privacy wall around the Champlain South pool area, damaging it, according to an inspection by Frank Morabito, an engineer contracted by the condo board. The privacy wall sits atop the perimeter wall that provided critical support to the pool deck slab.

Eighty Seven Park said work on 87th Terrace couldn’t possibly have damaged the structural wall below, in part because it was protected by sheet piles installed during Champlain’s much earlier construction.

Neither the developers nor the general contractor, John Moriarty & Associates, would tell the Herald which subcontractor tore out the road in 2016 or installed the pedestrian beachwalk in 2019. The city of Miami Beach could provide no records that established the work on 87th Terrace was specifically permitted or inspected to ensure things went properly.

An aerial photo taken Nov. 17, 2021, shows the Eighty Seven Park building at 8701 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach, just south of the Surfside municipal line and the former site of Champlain Towers South.
An aerial photo taken Nov. 17, 2021, shows the Eighty Seven Park building at 8701 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach, just south of the Surfside municipal line and the former site of Champlain Towers South.

The developers say they only learned about the damage last year after Morabito estimated the privacy wall would need almost $200,000 in repairs, attributing about $80,000 of that damage to Eighty Seven Park.

Morabito also said the drainage system of the pedestrian walkway constructed by Eighty Seven Park sloped toward the Champlain wall, funneling water at the foundational wall and causing it to leak into the garage below — which the developers deny.

While plans show the walkway was designed to be flat from side to side, it’s unclear how it was built. Post-construction inspections conducted by the developers did not include elevation measurements to compare with those in Morabito’s report.

The lawsuit alleges that the water intrusion corroded Champlain South’s structural elements.

Water damage was clearly a problem in the slab-to-wall connection that failed during the collapse, according to engineers who reviewed photos for the Herald. But condo records show pooling water had been a problem for decades and that heavy planters leaked water into the slab connection before being removed in 2017.

“I would not say [construction at Eighty Seven Park] is the only thing that caused the failure,” said Aghayere, the Drexel University engineer. “So many things banded together. It was a perfect worst-case scenario.”

‘Complete access to the city’

Eighty Seven Park’s approval — from proposal of the project to final sign-off — took less than two years.

A development of its size would normally take much longer, especially given opposition from historical preservationists and North Beach activist groups, said Smith, the former Miami Beach city attorney.

But the developers “had complete access to the city and could get their way very easily,” he said.

Within weeks of the Eighty Seven Park team buying the lot in late 2013, Beach commissioners proposed a zoning amendment tailored specifically to increase height limits at the site to 200 feet.

Originally, the amendment applied to properties within 150 feet of North Shore Open Space Park — exclusively affecting the future Eighty Seven Park site. It was expanded a few months later to apply to properties within 250 feet of the park, Smith said, to encompass additional properties in the neighborhood and protect the city from accusations of illegal “spot zoning” to benefit a single developer.

What remained of Champlain Towers South after the June 24 collapse was taken down under a controlled demolition on July 4, 2021. Eighty Seven Park looms in the foreground.
What remained of Champlain Towers South after the June 24 collapse was taken down under a controlled demolition on July 4, 2021. Eighty Seven Park looms in the foreground.

The speed of the approval process took many by surprise.

At a March 2015 meeting of the Miami Beach Design Review Board, Champlain South unit owner Alberto Manrara said he didn’t understand why the developers needed to take over 87th Terrace.

“We’re concerned that, where before we had the street as a buffer from the existing lot, now that the city has sold that street to that developer, it brings the whole action so much closer to our building,” Manrara said.

Members of the review board told him it was too late; it was a done deal.

Guillermo Olmedillo, then Surfside’s town manager, said he didn’t even know about the 87th Terrace plan until a public works employee told him a fence had gone up around the road.

“I said, ‘What the hell?’ ” Olmedillo told the Herald. “Nobody knew.”

The developers say Miami Beach officials didn’t expedite their project.

“With 14 public meetings during 2014-2015, we in no way believe the approval and entitlement process was fast-tracked,” their spokesperson said.

After Beach commissioners approved the project, Eighty Seven Park started making political contributions.

In 2015, the developers and related entities gave $40,000 to a PAC called Relentless for Progress, chaired by Wolfson, the commissioner who advocated so fiercely for the project.

Jonah Wolfson, a Miami Beach commissioner at the time, in 2012.
Jonah Wolfson, a Miami Beach commissioner at the time, in 2012.

The PAC shared its initials, RFP, with a “request for proposal,” the document municipalities put out to solicit bids for projects. The name — seen by some as a reminder of the lucrative business the city hands out — was a brazen act of cynicism in the eyes of critics like Tobin, the other former commissioner.

“You can’t get elected until you go into the service of the real estate developers,” Tobin said. “It’s sort of like being inducted into the mafia.”

Wolfson did not respond to requests for comment.

The spokesperson for Eighty Seven Park said the PAC contributions “played no role” in the city’s earlier approval of the project and that the payments were “part of our involvement in the community.”

‘Where did the money go?’

As for the $10.5 million the developers gave to Miami Beach, city officials have been slow to use the money.

City spokesperson Melissa Berthier said $1.9 million has been spent so far, all toward planned renovations to North Shore Open Space Park. Of that, $1 million has gone toward “design and project administration,” Berthier said, and $900,000 toward the park’s portion of a beachwalk expected to be completed next summer.

The remainder is budgeted for other park improvements, Berthier said.

Nancy Liebman, a former Miami Beach commissioner and longtime historic preservation advocate, said she has heard “many complaints” about the slow pace of renovations.

“Where is the money?” Liebman said. “Where did the money go?”

Levine, the former mayor who once publicly called Eighty Seven Park “the deal of the century,” now says he hardly remembers his role in touting the project.

“All I remember is that the developer I believe pledged money to help build the park,” he told the Herald. “I don’t remember anything else.”

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