‘Why can’t we rebuild?’ Some Surfside condo owners tell judge they want to stay at property

·4 min read

Yadira Santos, who survived the Surfside condo collapse along with her 8-year-old son, stood at the courtroom podium, overcome with emotion. Many of her neighbors and friends perished in the collapse of Champlain Towers South. So did her condo unit — which she worked for years to pay off.

“I had worked my whole life. I worked hard for what I was able to accomplish,” Santos told a Miami-Dade judge Wednesday. “Why can’t we rebuild where we called home?”

Santos is part of a group of condo owners that’s now publicly advocating for working with a developer to rebuild Champlain Towers South on the beach-side Collins Avenue site. But as with condo unit owners anywhere in South Florida, consensus is hard to come by, even in wake of unprecedented tragedy.

Raysa Rodriguez, who escaped alongside Santos early on June 24, does not want a rebuild. Speaking via Zoom, Rodriguez told the court Wednesday that she remains haunted by the memories of that night, including an unseen woman crying for help from the rubble.

“I personally could never live in a building [there],” Rodriguez said. ‘’That is a grave site.”

The survivors aired their views Wednesday as part of a hearing for the slew of lawsuits filed in the collapse of Champlain Towers South, which killed nearly 100 people in one of the deadliest building failures in U.S. history. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman, who is presiding over the cases, has been pushing for the sale of the property, to compensate victims and relatives of the dead.

The property, which could fetch over $100 million in the open market, is nowhere close to being sold. The Miami-Dade Police Department technically has custody of the site, which has largely been cleared of the millions of pounds of concrete and metal that collapsed. Federal scientists tasked with determining the cause of the collapse are still poring over the site. A grand jury is also exploring the issue of building safety associated with high-rise building.

Still, talk of the sale has sparked backlash from some relatives and survivors, who feel the site should be turned into a memorial park or left undeveloped, instead of the site of a modern condo built on hallowed ground. High-profile Miami business executive Rodney Barreto and lawyer Manny Kadre have already been in talks with Florida’s governor, as well as federal and county leaders, about the possibility of using government funds to buy the property to turn into a memorial.

“We are balancing the desire to gets funds quickly, and to honor the memories of the people who have been injured and who have perished there,” Kadre said.

Hanzman has left open the possibility of a memorial, but insisted he wants fair market value to compensate victims, some of whom lost their homes and possessions, others who lost their lives.

“Victims are not going to donate their real estate to the public,” Hanzman said.

Hanzman seemed less optimistic about the possibility of rebuilding.

On Wednesday, condo owner Oren Cytrynbaum said a small group of owners had spoken “with some developers” about the possibility of rebuilding. “There is a method where owners who want to so stay can get units. Owners who want to get paid out as if a traditional land sale will get paid out,” Cytrynbaum said. “A developer will make profits and on top of it, a share of profits will go to a victim’s fund.”

Cytrynbaum was joined in court by Santos, and unit owners Paolo Longobardi and Marcelo Peña, all who spoke out in court and favored rebuilding.

Hanzman said he’s open to the possibility. But he also called himself a “pragmatist,” and worried that it could be a gamble to find developers who have financing and patience, as victims wait for compensation.

“I can’t wait eight years and hope that the real estate market is still strong and some developer gives me more of an upside,” Hanzman said.

Cytrynbaum, a lawyer himself, said he believes the possibility should at least be explored. He agreed to act as a spokesman of sorts for unit owners.

After court, he declined to say how many unit owners favor rebuilding, but acknowledged it’ll be tough to get everyone on the same page. On his phone, he flashed a group chat with homeowners — with messages that had streamed in during the hearing, which was broadcast on Zoom. “I stand with Oren,” some said. Others said he didn’t speak for them.

“No one is saying I speak on everyone’s behalf,” he said.

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