Surfside residents fight to keep their town’s character, worry about the future after condo collapse – Anchorage Daily News

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The Bougainvillea Apartments on Collins Avenue in Surfside, Fla., were constructed in 1940. Photo for The Washington Post by Octavio Jones.

SURFSIDE, Fla. – More than seven years before the collapse of Champlain Towers South rocked this small beachfront community, a battle waged over the fate of a hotel less than 30 yards away.

The Biltmore Terrace Hotel, designed by three of Miami’s most famed architects, became a community landmark soon after it was constructed in 1951. In 2014, a developer who wanted to build an upscale condo on the site made a promise: He would restore the 10-story hotel as part of the project.

Instead, in a surprise to town leaders and residents, the developer demolished the hotel, which did not have protected status as a historic landmark. Kirk Paskal, of the North Shore Historic District Neighborhood Association, remembers 2015, when construction started on the luxury condominium complex now known as Eighty Seven Park, which at 18 stories looms over Champlain Towers and surrounding structures. Condos in the complex, just across the border that separates Surfside from Miami Beach, sell for millions.

“The idea of having a taller building towering over that space wasn’t appealing. The trade-off was that we were getting a renovated [hotel],” Paskal said. “It was a bait-and-switch in that regard. That’s how many in the community felt.”

Preservationists and activists have been fighting for years to protect historical buildings in Miami-Dade County from eager developers amid an explosion of opulent high-rises and hotels along the coast. This effort is perhaps no more evident than in the town of Surfside, which for decades has successfully fended off some of the massive buildings that are prevalent in surrounding communities.

Yet longtime homeowners here say a surge of luxury development on Surfside’s coast has already altered the town’s character, and has even been a point of contention among local elected officials. As residents await details on the cause and impact of the June 24 collapse of Champlain Towers South, many wonder what other challenges loom.

“There have been some tumultuous meetings over developers moving into Surfside and sacrificing older, quaint apartments and hotels,” local historian Paul George said. “People take pride in the fact that [Surfside is] not as glamorous. Suddenly, it’s booming on the east flank. That has really torn up a lot of long-timers in the community.”

In 2018, for example, a developer proposed building a $33.5-million complex on the site of the town hall, which is half a block from the beach and was renovated in 2001. The town hall would have been enveloped by a “mixed-use” development, including a parking garage, gym, and 10,000 square feet of retail stores and restaurants.

Residents rose in a successful fight against the project.

’Surfside Strong ’ is seen on the side of a container box at a home in the beach town Surfside, Fla., on July 1, a week after the collapse of Champlain Towers South. Photo for The Washington Post by Octavio Jones.

Surfside was incorporated in 1935 by just a few dozen people and today is home to just under 6,000. Nestled between the city of Miami Beach and the wealthy village of Bal Habour to the north, the community spans about 11 blocks, with a modest business district that consists primarily of mom-and-pop establishments and a single supermarket. In contrast, the shopping mall in Bal Harbour is considered of the most expensive in the United States.

Most of its residents are White and Hispanic, and over the years, a large Jewish community has formed, giving rise to several synagogues and attracting retirees from across the country. About 30% of the Jewish residents in Surfside’s northern neighborhoods are Hispanic – most from Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina.

Residents characterize Surfside a friendly, tightknit community with the benefits of an urban area and seclusion of a small town. However, prices for the multicolored single-family homes that line the blocks away from the shore have ballooned over the years as property values increased, with some now listed for nearly $1 million.

Doug Eilertson moved to Surfside from Akron, Ohio, in September to be closer to his children. For years, he visited monthly and would drive by the colorful sea turtle statues outside the community center. He found himself admiring the sunsets over Biscayne Bay, west of town. Each time he visited, he said he told himself: “When I get older, this might be a nice place to live.”

He narrowed his decision between a six-story condo on Collins Avenue and the 12-story Champlain Towers South, across the street. He chose the smaller building to have slightly more distance from the beach.

“It’s a small intimate community, I think a square mile exactly, and there’s lots of kids here,” said Eilertson, 66. “I think the environment in Surfside is so nice. It keeps people in a good mood.”

Champlain Towers was one of the only mid-rise buildings in Surfside when it opened 40 years ago, and its construction set off a building boom, George said. The developers behind the property overcame a local building moratorium by paying $200,000 – half the amount needed – to rebuild the town’s overtaxed sewer system, according to local news reports. The arrival of the project, which included three towers total, was met with excitement from residents at the time.

Champlain Towers also marked the beginning of a period of denser development in the community – albeit slower than its neighbors. As glass and metal high-rises sprouted up across the South Miami shore, Surfside clung to its strict building codes that barred the construction of properties taller than 12 stories.

The town’s quaint, almost nostalgic beach town feel was a point of pride for former mayor Paul Novack. Determined to maintain the “integrity” of his neighborhood, the 62-year-old said proudly that when he served from 1992 to 2004, he did not approve a single zoning variance or grant any exemptions to the many developers who sought to bypass the building regulations.

The silver-haired father of three, who is among those core residents who live in Surfside year-round, said he moved here as a 2-month-old. His mother became the longest-serving female member of the town council, pushing a “slow growth” strategy that would eventually become her son’s political cause celebre.

But he wasn’t able to completely stymie change. Since about 2014, several upscale properties have opened in the town, including the Residence Inn by Marriott, the Grand Beach Hotel and the Fendi Chateau Residences. Earlier this year, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner bought a unit in a luxury apartment building nearby. Lynda Carter, TV’s original Wonder Woman, bought a $15 million condo at the Four Seasons residences just blocks away from Champlain Towers.

“It’s been changing, bit by bit,” Novack said, driving through the town a few days after the Champlain Towers South collapse. “But if you allow much, much taller and bigger properties, you start to change the core of the community.”

Jonah Stremel and Cameron Lewis, who are visiting from Kansas City, have lunch in the Surfside town center on July 1. Photo for The Washington Post by Octavio Jones.

Local leadership had a new look after the election last year – with a new mayor and three new town commissioners who defeated incumbents. The mayor and all five commissioners say they share a vision of keeping Surfside “the amazing small-town jewel that it is,” as Mayor Charles Burkett wrote in a memo to residents in April 2020.

But they differ in how to maintain that character. Burkett has pursued ballot initiatives that would require voters to approve everything from paying commissioners’ salaries and health insurance costs to leaving it up to voters to approve the sale of public land to developers.

There has been tension and personality clashes among town leaders, including Burkett claiming some commissioners were trying to “cancel him” when they demanded he shorten his monthly messages to residents in the town’s newsletter. Commission members also wanted to be allowed to write their own messages.

Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer, who has been a public face and voice in national media coverage of the Champlain Towers tragedy, made national news last year when she held up both middle fingers during a Zoom commission meeting after Burkett muted her. In last month’s town newsletter, Salzhauer celebrated the return of in-person commission meetings, “freed from the Mayor’s Zoom mute button.”

The active town center of Surfside on July 1. Photo for The Washington Post by Octavio Jones.

Burkett owns a property renovation company that has restored several Art Deco buildings on Miami Beach, where he grew up; Salzhauer is an attorney. Burkett wrote about “clucking chickens” in last month’s newsletter, apparently referring to commissioners who disagree with him. Their sniping at each continued during an emergency commission meeting last week, 14 hours after the tower collapse. But Novack, the former mayor, said their differences have been subsumed, at least for now, and that everyone is working together to address the disaster.

“I think a lot of people would say that those dysfunctional meetings left a lot to be desired,” Novack said. “But in terms of addressing this emergency, we’ve seen everyone coming together. Many towns and cities and villages have political issues, and sometimes they get out of hand.”

He noted how commissioners were initially divided over the proposal for redeveloping the town hall site but came together in the end.

Sarah Jacob moved to Surfside from South Beach in 1998 for the same reasons as many of her neighbors: it was quiet, walkable and close to the beach. Her Spanish-style bungalow on Harding Avenue is about a block away from Champlain Towers. On Monday, she and her husband watched from their porch as rescuers desperately searched for survivors in the rubble of the collapsed tower.

Sarah Jacob, 55, who lives just a block away from the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South, makes afternoon tea to share with her husband Darrell Arnold, 57, at their home in Surfside, Fla., on June 30. Photo for The Washington Post by Octavio Jones.

Jacob, 55, lamented the “exponential” growth of luxury dwellings, often owned by newcomers who do not live in the community year-round.

She remembers going to the Biltmore Terrace Hotel that used to be at the site of Eighty Seven Park and taking yoga classes in a rented space there.

“These are multimillion-dollar apartments, so it really changes the personality of Surfside,” she said, pointing along the coast. “It’s interesting how the nature of the community has to change because of unbridled wealth.”

Her husband, Darrell Arnold, 57, agreed.

“Since they’ve been building these condos, there are two Surfsides,” he said. “You see it in the races for commissioner – where some people are more representative of new developments – and you’ll also see mobilization to get commissioners who are trying to protect residential neighborhoods and who have a more cautious approach to development.”

Peter Neville, 88, remembers when there were no medium- or high-rise buildings at all in Surfside. He moved to the town to work on yachts in 1965, when he says, the tallest building was a two-story motel on the beach. He met his wife that same year, and they purchased a home on Abbott Avenue, a couple blocks from the shore.

Now retired, Neville said the building boom and growth have brought more traffic and even changed the way the water used to lap up against the sea wall. He and his neighbors have been vocal opponents of those who have threatened to buy up beloved landmarks like the tennis courts and community center.

“We take pride . . . we don’t like too much change here. We had to fight like hell sometimes to stop people from who wanted to make it more commercialized,” Neville said. “They’ve been trying to go above the 12-story limit for a long time, but we’ve held out against them. It would never be Surfside again.”

Preservationists say areas like Surfside that lack strong ordinances to prevent historical buildings from demolition are at risk for rapid transformation, threatening the mid-century architecture that once defined the area.

The Miami Herald reported in 2014 that some condo owners at the Seaway Villas on Collins Avenue, the first apartments built in Surfside back in 1936, were paid more than $1 million to abandon their units so the building could be sold. But after the newspaper revealed that the developers attempted to use a loophole to pressure three holdouts to sell, Miami-Dade County’s preservation board designated the building as a historic landmark, preventing demolition or exterior changes.

At the time, the Herald called it a “David-and-Goliath win” for the owners who refused to sell.

The Bougainvillea Apartments on Collins Avenue, constructed in 1940, also earned a historic designation that year after the county’s preservation chief struck a deal with the developer who sought to build a large condo building on the site. Activists fought to maintain the structure’s Art Deco front that is visible from Collins Avenue, the newspaper reported.

“Developers are coming in, buying condos, and lots of people are having to find other places to live,” said George, who has been on the Miami-Dade County Historic Preservation Board since 1996. “The area inland is not being as impacted, but psychologically, people are pissed off about it.”

Nina Matorcevic bought her home on Byron Avenue in 1989 after living on South Beach. In the years since, the 79-year-old has watched as some of her neighbors sold their homes to deep-pocket buyers who demolished them or made major renovations. Matorcevic, who is originally from Bosnia, still receives letters from people eager to buy her home, which she says has experienced increasing flooding over the years. She built a barrier at the base of her garage to prevent water from seeping in.

Surfside, Fla., resident Nina Matorcevic, 79, bought her home in 1989. Photo for The Washington Post by Octavio Jones.

Matorcevic remembers how some of her neighbors protested developers who lobbied to build a shopping center and high rises along Harding Avenue. Fearing changes in the community and the increasingly aggressive climate, some of her friends headed west, to Naples.

“They once had a motto: ‘Surfside is not for sale,’ ” she said. “They were worried about not being able to afford to live here – it’s not peaceful like before. They didn’t want Surfside to become like Manhattan.”

Dan Stankovic, who has owned his home on Harding Avenue for 10 years, said the town’s building height ordinance makes the luxury condos that have sprouted up within view of his property more palatable.

He used to live in Sunny Isles, to the north, where some buildings tower over 50 stories.

“We also had an ocean view there at one point, and they built these monster buildings in front of us and we couldn’t see anything,” he said. “You never saw sunshine, actually.”

When he moved to Surfside, Stankovic watched developers try to lobby officials and influence elections to raise the building height limit.

“We in Surfside have tried to elect mayors and people in the governing body to resist increasing the number of floors,” said Stankovic, 55. “I’m not against development, I think it’s good for the economy and good for the people. But the higher the building is, no one gets to see anything.”

• • •

Surfside Vice Mayor Tina Paul won her first election to the city council in 2016 with the help of people who want to save the town’s historical buildings. She called the preservationists her “community.”

Paul grew up in Surfside. Her parents moved to a house a few blocks from the beach when she was seven months old. Her family’s home lacked air conditioning, but they didn’t need it: their jalousie windows let in the sea breeze.

“Then in the late ’60s and ’70s, the condominiums started going up. They blocked the breezes,” she said. When she left Surfside for college and returned in 2011 to care for her parents, she saw even more changes to the town. Developers were buying up oceanfront properties. She soon joined with preservationists to try to save buildings designed in the Art Deco Streamline Moderne style as well as Miami Mid-Century Modern, or MiMo.

Victories were met with just as many losses, she said. People who live in buildings for which preservationists are seeking historical designation are usually divided between those who want to make money off their property and those who want to stay put.

“The Surfside I grew up in . . .,” Paul said, “was like a different world.”

Late Friday, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the still-standing portion of Champlain Towers South had become too unstable and that she had signed an order authorizing its demolition as soon as engineers sign off.

Already, some in the town have begun asking the difficult question of what should become of the site. Should there be a memorial to honor the lives lost? Should it be rebuilt? Or will yet another developer swoop in with plans for a luxury beachfront property?

Novack, the former mayor, is most concerned about finding answers and helping his town heal.

In the days following the collapse, he logged 16-hour days, speaking to families, meeting with officials and arranging support from local and federal agencies. His wedding anniversary was spent mostly among the dust and debris at Champlain Towers. So was his 63rd birthday. His eyes were swollen from crying with neighbors and friends, who like himself were desperately searching for answers, and hope.

“I think eventually‚ it’s going to come out that it was a number of factors that combined simultaneously like a perfect storm to cause this,” Novack said of the collapse. He nodded at a local police officer who waved him past a checkpoint. “Each and every detail will be addressed. We’ll spare no expense. We’ll get the answers and we’ll face them – no matter what they are.”