Damac Properties scored a key approval for its luxury condo project in Surfside, though it has to try to move a controversial garbage loading dock away from the planned collapse memorial.
The Surfside Commission voted 3-2 in favor of the project on the Champlain Towers South collapse site, capping a contentious nearly six-hour meeting on Wednesday evening that included Mayor Shlomo Danzinger having two people escorted out and members of the commission repeatedly speaking over each other.
At the center of the heated debate was determining if the Dubai developer would be allowed to have its garbage pickup and loading zone on the same street designated for the collapse memorial. The proposal to allow for garbage pickup trucks next to the memorial has angered families of victims, some of whom called the plan “extremely disrespectful.”
Damac, led by Hussain Sajwani, plans a 12-story, 52-unit condo development on the oceanfront property at 8777 Collins Avenue, where 98 people died in the collapse of the former Champlain building more than two years ago. Damac acquired the property at a court-ordered auction last year for $120 million. Zaha Hadid Architects is designing the new building.
Under the approved resolution, Damac has to rework its site plan to move the garbage pickup away from 88th Street, where the memorial is to be built, and on the southwest corner of the development site near 87th Terrace. But the approval also came with a clause giving Damac wiggle room to pursue its current plan if the Florida Department of Transportation and Miami-Dade County don’t sign off on the reworked site plan with a loading dock on the southwest corner of the site.
Mayor Danzinger, Vice Chair Jeff Rose and commissioner Fred Landsman voted in favor of the motion that gives Damac the flexibility to keep the sanitation pickup on 88th Street if FDOT and Miami-Dade reject Damac’s revised plan.
Commissioners Nelly Velasquez and Marianne Meischeid voted against the motion, taking issue with allowing Damac to pursue its project as is if the loading dock tweak isn’t approved.
“I would definitely be in favor of the southwest corner and removing the loading dock and freeing up 88th Street for a memorial,” Meischeid said. “But I wish you would take off the back end of the discussion because we are … leaving it in the hands of the developer. We are leaving it in his hands to go to FDOT and propose something that we don’t know would satisfy.”
The approved resolution also limits Damac to construction vehicle access on Collins Avenue, away from the memorial site.
Another pending issue with the project is that the southwest corner of the development site is in a flood zone, prohibiting the construction of the building and a two-level underground garage. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency is reworking its flood maps, with the new maps putting the entire site outside a flood zone. The project can’t proceed until either FEMA implements its new maps or approves Damac’s letter seeking implementation of the new map.
The plan to place the loading dock area on 88th Street has been a contentious point over the past month. On Aug. 31, the town’s planning and zoning board gave preliminary project approval, despite victims’ families’ outcry over the garbage pickup. At the time, a Damac representative told the board that FDOT’s direction was to keep the loading dock away from Collins Avenue, though state transportation representatives later said the issue was not discussed in meetings, the Miami Herald reported.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Damac tried to appease concerns by further tweaking its plan. Representatives showed plans to decrease the loading dock driveway width to 12 feet from 20 feet, and move it farther west on 88th Street, essentially only taking 20 percent of the street, leaving the remainder for the memorial.
In a statement, Damac praised the commission’s vote, but did not disclose details of its next steps or the project’s timeline.
Damac called the “divisiveness surrounding this submission” unfortunate. “We believe the conditional approval of the site plan establishes a new way forward towards better collaboration between all stakeholders.”
David Rodan, whose brother and cousins died in the collapse, was one of a handful of speakers who said they did not want to be “begging for the memorial” to take up the entirety of the street.
“I only want to be involved with the design of a memorial, not the fight for its existence,” Rodan said. “The memorial has to be meaningful, respectful, appropriate of what happened. The memorial has to be as close to where it happened as possible.”
By Rodan’s calculations, even with the design tweaks, the loading area would encroach onto 34 percent of 88th Street, he said.
Martin Langesfeld, whose sister, Nicole Langesfeld, and brother-in-law, Luis Sadovnic, died in the collapse, said it ultimately doesn’t matter whether Damac moves the trash loading area farther west. “Regarding the 40 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “They deserve zero percent because 88th Street was assigned [for a memorial] as a sign of respect.”
He and other families of victims have consistently argued that the 88th Street loading dock area violates a Surfside resolution approved last year. It designated the entire street for a memorial, with the only exceptions for emergency vehicles or other required access.
In response to past assertions by Danzinger and Landsman that the same victims’ families show up at town meetings, speakers on Wednesday read letters from victims’ families during public comment. Some of the families live out of the country and for others, it’s too traumatic to be there, Langesfeld said. “People grieve differently,” he said.
To allow “a garbage disposal right next to the memorial is a big slap in the face to everyone,” one letter from a victim’s family said.
“We have plenty of motivated individuals within our ranks who have carried our torch,” another letter read on Wednesday said. “Damac does not need to be gifted additional land that would be taken from the proposed memorial site.…Even the least vocal among us see what is most appropriate.”