Florida, the land of gleaming condos, frets after collapse

By Patricia Mazzei

Modern Florida was built on condos like Champlain Towers South.

“A new lifestyle is evolving in Florida and with it, a new habitat, the condominium,” Florida Trend magazine declared in 1970, when it first used the word.

Condos promised an entrée to the Florida dream of sunshine and fresh starts, affordable because it could be shared with a few hundred neighbors.

A condo craze boomed in the 1970s, and Florida, decades after the advent of air-conditioning, insect repellent and swamp dredging, was on its way to becoming the third-most populous state, a frontier land for builders and investors and a powerful lure for people seeking the ultimate Florida reward: life on the beach.

The residents of Champlain Towers South came to Surfside from all over the Americas and every walk of life: wealthy penthouse owners who kept a beachside pied-à-terre, modest-income retirees who had called the place home for decades, Orthodox Jews just a few blocks from temple, Cuban exiles, New York snowbirds. They were seduced by the promise of prosperity and enjoyment embodied in the gleaming buildings that have defined the Miami skyline for nearly half a century.

But the disastrous collapse of the 13-story building in the early-morning hours of June 24 brought a crashing end to those hopes, and it has since consumed people all over metropolitan Miami, many of whom live, have lived or know someone in a beachfront condo.

The tragedy has forced some of them to question what they thought they knew about the safety of their homes. And it has brought on a worrying realization that perhaps the Florida dream as they knew it is a little bit broken.

“Hundreds of miles of beachfront, mild winters, sand dunes, palm trees, all that imagery — but more importantly, the promise of a better life,” Gary R. Mormino, a professor emeritus of Florida studies at the University of South Florida, said in describing what brings people to the state. “These people, this was the reward for their lives’ work. To have to die so suddenly and so tragically is so terrible.”

At least 94 people died in the collapse, and 22 more remain potentially missing in the rubble.

What brought down the 135-unit building, which needed major repairs but was not thought to be on the verge of ruin, is still unknown and the subject of lawsuits and investigations.

Residents who survived have spent the past two weeks grieving the loss of their neighbors, burying the dead and trying to determine how and where to pick up the lives they left behind in their shattered homes.

For some, that will be a decision about whether to remain on the Florida coast at all.

Steve Rosenthal, a 72-year-old restaurant advertising executive who lived in Unit 705, is strictly looking for rentals in mainland Miami neighborhoods such as Coconut Grove, although he is already lamenting that he will not be able to replicate the charm of his old condo.

“You don’t appreciate what you have until you lose it,” he said.

A small and homey beachfront town

In the buoyant years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, Florida’s sizzling real estate market had attracted buyers from Latin America and Europe, many of whom paid in cash and rarely inhabited their units, leaving huge towers eerily dark at night. Some buildings remained half empty for a long time after the economic crash.

The story was not quite the same in Surfside, which had to some extent been shielded from Miami’s booms and busts. For many years, it was small and homey, one of the few places with houses that were walking distance from the beach and restrictions that limited most buildings to 12 stories.

“Surfside was this oasis away from the cocaine cowboys’ violence and the go-go era of Miami Beach,” said Alfred Spellman, a Surfside native and one of the producers of the 2006 documentary “Cocaine Cowboys.” “It was like time stood still.”

Few children lived in town. Many of the houses and condos were winter homes for retirees. The local luncheonette was Sheldon’s Drugs, on 95th Street and Harding Avenue, where the Polish American and Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, who often wintered in Surfside, was seated in a booth when he learned he had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.

The building’s condo dwellers were initially older and, in many cases, Hispanic and Jewish. They sought a quiet home (or vacation home) and a solid real estate investment that might someday also be enjoyed by their children and grandchildren. Some units purchased for part-time use eventually became full-time residences, especially when politics deteriorated in the South American countries where some of the buyers had come from.

“If you were developing in the late ’70s, Miami was not a tourist destination, and your neighbors were elderly,” Spellman said. “You had a South American clientele, but you weren’t a big business developer, with the flashy condo sales we see today.”

The building was not filled with rich, ostentatious people. Champlain Towers, with some condo units even today selling in the mid-$400,000s, made beach living achievable, hopefully for the long run. And as the Miami region evolved, becoming more cosmopolitan, older people and their heirs sold units to younger professionals and families, who kept most of the building occupied year-round.

Deborah Soriano, the owner of a children’s swimwear line, lived in the building for a couple of years in the 1980s after moving from Brazil and returned about six years ago. For her, the tower provided a place where she could relax without being disturbed. She was away most of the day for work but liked to return to smiles from her neighbors who made small talk in the elevator.

Inside, the building had an elegantly appointed lobby, carpeted hallways and big double doors for each unit. Narrow balconies were large enough to fit a couple of chairs. Living rooms and kitchens were spacious and often remodeled, sometimes with shiny granite. The parking garage below allowed residents to drive in and reach their homes without getting drenched in Florida’s summer thunderstorms.

But residents flagged multiple signs of disrepair. The pool leaked down to the parking garage. The hallways needed a face-lift. As the building neared 40, its condo association hired an engineering consultant, whose inspection in 2018 found rusting rebar and crumbling concrete that needed to be fixed. By this year, the cost of the needed repairs had ballooned to about $15 million.

Paradise lost

Even before the collapse in Surfside, which may or may not have been hastened by the building’s exposure to ocean water, salty air and increasingly higher tides and storm surges, the deleterious effects of climate change threatened to derail the vision of Florida as a paradisiacal refuge. (Surfside is keenly aware of the threat: It is the rare town that has planned to set money aside to pay people who may have to retreat from the water.)

“We always think the bad news is a hurricane,” said Michael Grunwald, a journalist and author of “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise.”

But increasingly, he said, “there’s going to be saltwater intrusion that messes with our drinking water, and sea-level rise that creates flooding problems.”

The Atlantic is now visible from Collins Avenue, through the gaping hole where the Champlain Towers South used to stand. A huge building designed by star architect Renzo Piano casts a shadow from next door, its massive size and shimmering luxury — the development was approved by the city of Miami Beach — a sharp contrast to little Surfside, which is now missing the building that used to stand at the town’s entrance.

“Anybody who’s spent a considerable portion of their lives in South Florida, one of their first thoughts will be, is this a combination of incompetence and corruption?” Spellman said of the collapse. “That’s unfortunately just the era and the way business is conducted here.”

But, in almost the same breath, he noted that he rarely leaves the barrier island where he was born.

“When we graduated from high school, people would go away for college, and I would say, ‘You’re going to end up here anyway — everyone ends up in Florida,’” he said. “Why ever leave? It’s paradise. For all the trials and tribulations, it’s paradise.”

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