The site of the 2021 Surfside Collapse—the structural engineering failure of a 13-story condominium building in Surfside, Florida—will not include a memorial after a developer’s plans to move forward with a Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) design will continue following a dysfunctional town commission meeting.
As AN reported last month, ZHA released renderings of their two potential designs of the building, whose setbacks differed, and included a rooftop pool spanning a gap between the building’s two protruding towers. The final detail now seems cruel as the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released their first preliminary findings, which found “design understrength,” particularly in the original condo building’s rooftop pool as the “largest” cause of the building’s structural failure. The NIST found that in the pool deck, “design strength does not comply with the original codes and standards, with many areas of severe strength deficiency.” While a final report will not be issued until 2025, the NIST’s preliminary findings also suggest that misplaced slab reinforcement, extensive heavy planters on the pool deck, added fill and paving, and corrosion of the slab reinforcement could all have been contributing factors to the building’s collapse.
Regardless of the pool, as Smuly Ainsworth, whose parents died in the collapse, said in the town commission meeting on July 25, “I think it’s terrible that we are negotiating with, whatever it is, the devil, and I think that it’s extremely disrespectful that they bought the building.” The negotiation Ainsworth was referring to dictated the two-hour session in which mayor Shlomo Danzinger battled with fellow commission members and took ire from the public over the lack of memorial space on the site. The meeting came only a few weeks after the second anniversary of the collapse, which was reflected on at a public gathering which featured an appearance by Ron DeSantis. The State of Florida has said that it will fund $1 million for a memorial.
Emirati developer Damac purchased the site following a court-mandated May 2022 auction. This came two months after Danzinger won the mayor election, defeating incumbent Charles Burkett in a close race. Near the end of 2022, Danzinger became embroiled in a scandal after traveling to the United Arab Emirates to meet with Damac—a move that many described as being far too friendly toward the developers if not outright corrupt.
One version of ZHA’s design, which took a more traditional wedding cake approach to setbacks, while another design was more flat-fronted, and would have required zoning variances. To proceed on the matter, the town commission considered an ordinance which would have allowed for Damac’s setback requirements to shift on the south side of the site, saving up to 10 feet on the north side of the site for a memorial (40 feet next to the site would also host the memorial). The ordinance, whose debate was in the depths of municipal code minutiae, would have provided for more floorspace on upper levels if it could pass arguments about secondary frontage. Formally, it would have allowed the town manager to sit down with Damac and attempt to negotiate the extra footage of the site for the memorial in exchange for a less setback-heavy design. This drew criticism from town commissioner Nelly Velasquez, who described the addition of prime floorspace as a move to “increase their profits.” Velasquez also noted that the entire process of considering the ordinance was odd given that Danzinger had prepared the presentation himself, not the developer.
The other oddity, central to the entire debate, was that it was an ordinance, not a variance, under consideration. This meant that changes to setback requirements would apply to future projects in Surfside, not just the Damac project, though the proposal was clearly in reference to Damac. While Danzinger said that Damac “doesn’t owe anything to the town,” most residents who stood up in the public comment portion of the meeting disagreed.
Martin Langesfeld, whose sister died in the collapse, said that Danzinger had told him he was trying to “sleep with the devil” for his “own political gain” in response to requests to have a memorial on the site of the collapse rather than on an adjacent site. Langesfeld’s mother, Andrea Langesfeld, said: “98 people died here and we’re asking for something respectful.” Many speakers, the majority of whom lost family members in the collapse, were confused by Danzinger’s proposal. Other spoke out against the fact that the site was being developed to begin with, citing that as the original sin of the town commission’s response in not providing a space for the victims’ families to reflect.
The meeting escalated when Burkett, who is sympathetic to requests for a more substantial memorial on-site, was asked to sit down after a technical infraction against the commission’s parliamentary procedure. Burkett refused, calling out Danzinger’s objection to letting him speak due to opposing viewpoints on the memorial, and had to be escorted away from the lectern by police officers. Immediately after, and at numerous other times during the meeting, Office Mike, a fluffy white service dog owned by the police department walked in front of the camera recording the session wearing a red necktie.
David Rodan, who lost four family members in the collapse, asked Danzinger to use a different lot for his setback reduction scheme, and spare the victims’ families the zoning debate around where they died. Others, including Ainsworth, said that at this point in the process, they supported the ordinance so that they could salvage at least a sliver of the site for a memorial—a view Danzinger supported. Deborah Cimadevilla, whose close friend died in the collapse, told Danzinger: “You don’t have the support of your community.”
The town commission members went on to debate the ordinance, with two commissioners offering alternate plans. Danzinger encouraged their alternate plans to be intentionally vague so as to not back themselves into a corner with legal language, which caused pushback, with commission members saying that they could not trust Damac to interpret vague ordinances with the best interests of Surfside residents in mind.
The ordinance failed after a 3-2 vote, with Danzinger and political ally and developer Jeffrey Rose also voting in favor. As The Real Deal reported, Damac chose to move forward with the wedding cake design, meaning no space for the memorial on site, following the rejection of the setback ordinance. The ordinance could come back at the next commission meeting on August 8, but there would still be no guarantee that Damac would change its mind.