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Momentum builds for putting memorial to victims of Surfside condo at Miami Beach park

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A makeshift memorial for victims of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse at a dog park in Surfside, Florida on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. The condominium partially collapsed Thursday, June 24.
A makeshift memorial for victims of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse at a dog park in Surfside, Florida on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. The condominium partially collapsed Thursday, June 24. (Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post/TNS) Photo Gallery

MIAMI — A plan for building a memorial honoring the 98 people who died in the Surfside condominium collapse is gaining momentum — but the leading site is on donated land in a Miami Beach park a short walk from the now-vacant Champlain Towers South property.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman, who is overseeing the fate of the condo property at 8777 Collins Ave. and supports selling it to a private developer for luxury units, expressed his preference for the memorial site in Miami Beach during a court hearing on Wednesday.

Hanzman said it would not be feasible for a government entity to buy the former 12-story condo property in Surfside at the going sales price of $120 million and build the memorial there, so an alternative free location on the Miami Beach park would be ideal. The judge, who has repeatedly said his priority is to raise as much money as possible for the victims and survivors of the June 24 collapse, called the proposed memorial site facing the ocean “absolutely gorgeous.”

But a handful of Champlain condo owners and renters who lost family members in the tragedy completely disagreed with Hanzman’s preference for the memorial in Miami Beach, raising emotional questions that could undermine the proposal’s viability.

“I believe the memorial should be at Surfside, and not Miami Beach, at the site of the tragedy,” Pablo Langesfeld told the judge. “Don’t get me wrong, but my daughter [Nicole] didn’t die at the park. She died at 8777 Collins Ave.”

Nicole Langesfeld, 26, and her husband, Luis Sadovnic, 28, died in the collapse just five months after being married in January.

David Rodan, whose family owned two condo units at Champlain Towers South, said he lost a brother and a cousin, both in their 20s, in the collapse.

“We obviously prefer to see the memorial at the site of Champlain,” Rodan told the judge. “I don’t think a park two blocks down the road is going to have the same sentiment.”

But Hanzman said options other than the park for a memorial are extremely limited. “I’m not going to give people false hope,” the judge said.

The idea for the alternative site emerged in mid-July when Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber proposed using part of the city’s North Beach Oceanside Park to honor the victims of the condo collapse in neighboring Surfside. The 28-acre park is located near the northern border of the city, about 100 feet from where the Champlain condo tower once stood.

In a letter to the judge, Gelber said that the park is currently undergoing a $12.8 million renovation. A $10.5 million contribution from the developers of the nearby Eighty Seven Park condo building will help fund the renovation. The payment was contingent on the city’s vacating a 50-foot-wide public road in favor of the developer, Terra Group.

Earlier this month, the Miami Beach Commission directed the city manager to explore the option of placing the memorial at the park. A final decision would require the commission’s approval.

At Wednesday’s court hearing, a receiver for the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association said he met with Mayor Gelber on the park site last Friday. The receiver, lawyer Michael Goldberg, and the mayor were joined by Manny Kadre, an influential businessman and lawyer who has volunteered his time to raise government and private donations for the memorial project. Kadre’s colleague, businessman Rodney Barreto, is helping him in that effort.

Together, Gelber, Goldberg and Kadre toured a couple of acres on the northern edge of the Miami Beach park that would be set aside for the Surfside condo memorial.

“The land is absolutely spectacular,” Goldberg told the judge Wednesday. “It’s only 70 steps or so from the collapse site. This would be very suitable if we could construct something nice. We’re waiting for Miami Beach to sign off.”

Discussion of the alternative Miami Beach site for the memorial comes as the receiver moves ahead with the main plan to consider the sale of the Surfside condo property to a “stalking horse” bidder for $120 million. That initial bid might generate higher bids by early September.

Hanzman, the judge, said he is counting on the sale of the roughly 1.9-acre Surfside lot to generate at least $120 million. He is also counting on the former condo tower’s property and personal injury insurance coverage to raise another $48 million. All of that money would go towards compensation for the victims and survivors of the collapse.

Meanwhile, a “consolidated class-action” case was filed Monday on behalf of the victims and survivors, but it still only names the Champlain Towers South condo association as the defendant.

A lawyer heading the class-action effort, Harley Tropin, said that other defendants will likely be added to the case after his team of lawyers and investigators have an opportunity to conduct a structural analysis of the Surfside property and the debris that was hauled off the site. The cause of the condo collapse is still unknown.

Currently, Miami-Dade County and its police department control the property as they pursue an ongoing criminal investigation, but county officials are expected to turn over the property to the receiver in early September so he can move forward with his plans to compensate the victims. The judge has final say over the property sale and the distribution of payments.

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