Days after a nearby condo tower collapsed in the middle of the night, Marash Markaj lay in bed with his 9-year-old daughter, holding her close as nerves kept her awake and her mind raced about the implications of the unsafe structure violation Miami Beach inspectors had just placed on their own condo tower.
Markaj had seen cracks in the basement garage of the Port Royale Condominium, where he has owned an eighth floor unit for five years. But management had recently told residents the building was safe. So, though he wasn’t sure what exactly to make of the July 6 warning that his building could be demolished if repairs weren’t forthcoming, he soothed his little girl.
“I said no baby, relax,” Markaj told the Miami Herald on Tuesday. “I swear, I had to go to bed and hug her for one hour before she fell asleep.”
Though building failures are rare, the devastating June 24 collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South in Surfside has created unease at aging condo towers slapped amid a reactive wave of building inspections with alarming, difficult-to-understand violations — and undercut trust in assurances from property managers and government officials that identified problems are under control.
In Miami Beach alone, inspectors have recently visited more than 500 older buildings undergoing Miami-Dade County’s 40-year recertification process, which requires structural and electrical evaluations of older buildings after 40 years, and every 10 years after that. The city has ordered evacuations at two apartment buildings, and identified others, like the Port Royale Condominium at 6969 Collins Ave., as working to address structural issues and safe for occupancy.
At Port Royale, where a July 6 violation was placed on the front lobby window with bright red tape reading “IMPORTANT NOTICE,” gashes are visible in a concrete column of the parking garage, a chunk of an exterior wall is broken off, and cracks are visible in the garage and near multiple windows. Cited issues at the tower, constructed in 1971 with 164 units, included “structure deterioration” and “concrete spalling.” The building’s management has since stressed that it remains safe, and a spokeswoman for the city government told the Miami Herald on July 9 that crews had done “shoring” — reinforcing areas that need repair — to fix the problem.
Still, Markaj said he and some of his neighbors occupying the building’s one-bedroom units remained uneasy about the situation as specific details and documents illuminating the problems at the building and any efforts by the homeowners association to address them were in short supply. The shoring didn’t actually begin until Wednesday, when crews installed a system of steel posts in the garage. And efforts to glean more information took time or were met with resistance: Miami Beach City Hall took four days to release building records and pictures detailing the violation and the building’s response, and a property manager has refused to discuss the building with the Herald, going so far as to warn Markaj not to speak to a reporter.
“Be careful what you say,” Amarilys Oliu, a Port Royale condo owner who serves as building manager, said to Markaj on Tuesday morning, pointing her finger at him. “You’ll be sorry.”
The flow of information
In an email to owners on July 9, Oliu disclosed the violation but said city inspectors had on July 2 told management “everything was fine” after a walk-through. She wrote that the building’s engineering firm had already responded to the city about the violation, though that response was not attached to the email.
Meanwhile, other buildings with similar sounding violations have been evacuated. On July 3, the city cleared out the three-story building at 1619 Lenox Ave. in South Beach after inspectors found a flooring system failure in a vacant unit and exterior wall damage.
In the case of the Devon Apartments, a low-slung 1931 building at 6881 Indian Creek Dr., the city recently gave tenants one week to vacate the two-story, 30-unit building over deficiencies in structural components. Officials said the building is not in danger of imminent collapse, but the city still ordered about a dozen residents to vacate the property. The unsafe structures violation described “evidence of structure deterioration,” including “spalling concrete.”
Spalling occurs when salt water seeps into porous concrete and causes the reinforced steel rods known as rebar in the support beams to rust and expand. That expansion can then cause the concrete to break up, weakening beams. While it is unknown to what extent, if any, the issue contributed to the Champlain’s collapse, concrete spalling was observed in inspections of the parking garage before the tower fell.
Some of the Port Royale’s spalling is visible from a neighboring property. A piece of exterior wall is gone, revealing a mesh of rebar.
Markaj said a city building inspector visited the building in the last week, but when he tried to speak to the inspector, Oliu interrupted the conversation and escorted the inspector away.
“She don’t want nobody to talk to nobody,” said Markaj.
When Beach administrators finally released records Wednesday morning — one week after the violation notice — they revealed more than 20 photos showing the cracks and spalling, and a July 8 letter signed by an engineer with an assurance about the Port Royale’s safety.
“Based on our structural visual inspections and the measurements of safety taken by our contractor, we believe, at this time this building can be considered safe,” wrote Hialeah-based Arshad Viqar of Inspection Engineers Inc.
A Wednesday letter from the same engineer said that some columns in the garage need repair, necessitating the shoring, and that a complete structural report will be prepared within a few days.
When asked about the violation Tuesday morning at the Port Royale, Oliu declined to comment or provide an engineering report. Oliu and other building employees referred to the Herald’s previous reporting on the violation as incorrect, even though the violation is logged in a public municipal database and as of Wednesday afternoon, the violation remained open.
Laura Veitia, another Port Royale condo owner, was not as concerned about the violation, though she said other owners have been sending the city pictures of cracks and spalling since the Surfside collapse.
She does worry that any expensive repairs could be difficult for some of the building’s owners. She said the Port Royale underwent a “painful assessment” in 2011 for the building’s 40-year recertification — just over $50,000 per unit — that included major concrete restoration, railing replacement and window replacement.
“That building is probably one of the most frugal in terms of spending money,” Veitia said. “We do have a lot of owners there on fixed incomes. It is hard for some people to come up with $50,000.”
Public records show that process was not completed until 2014. The building is currently going through the 50-year recertification.
Miami Herald reporter Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.