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Developer of luxury condos offered next-door Surfside building $400,000 amid complaints over construction, documents show

The Eighty Seven Park building is seen behind Champlain Towers South on June 30. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)

The developer of a luxury Miami Beach high-rise next to the Surfside condominium building that collapsed last week was offering to pay $400,000 to the condo association of the older, smaller building two years ago, at a time when some homeowners were complaining about the proximity of the new building, the impact of vibrations and drifting debris, documents obtained by The Washington Post show.

Construction of Eighty Seven Park, which was finished in 2020, came “uncomfortably close” to the city boundary that bordered Champlain Towers South, the site of the catastrophic collapse, Guillermo Olmedillo, a former Surfside official, said in an interview with The Post this week. Champlain Towers homeowners complained on multiple occasions of plastic foam and other debris falling into the pool in front of their building, email records show.

“We are concerned that the construction next to Surfside is too close,” homeowner and condo association board member Mara Chouela wrote in an email to Surfside building officials in January 2019, part of a set of emails from Champlain owners released by the town since the collapse. “The terra project on Collins and 87 are digging too close to our property and we have concerns regarding the structure of our building.”

Amid tensions in 2019, the board president of the Champlain Towers South condo association sent a notice to members sharing a draft of an offer from the luxury high-rise to settle with homeowners if they “reasonably support and not oppose (directly or indirectly)” the project as one of several conditions, the documents show.

Board correspondence reviewed by The Post shows that the law firm representing the condo association had flagged clauses in the proposal that would bar owners from criticizing the development and ban them from discussing any financial settlement under penalty of losing the payment — terms the firm did not consider enforceable.

The proposed agreement was never signed, Max Marcucci, a spokesman for the condo association, said Thursday.

8701 Collins Development LLC, which was set up by Terra Group and its partners to develop Eighty Seven Park, has previously stated that it is “confident that the construction of 87 Park did not cause or contribute to the collapse that took place in Surfside.”

In a statement replying to questions about the offer terms and the amount, the developer wrote: “8701 Collins Development, LLC is not commenting on matters unrelated to the tragedy of June 24, 2021. Any further inquiries regarding this document should be directed to the Champlain Tower South Condominium Association and its legal counsel.”

A representative for Becker & Poliakoff, the law firm for Champlain Towers South, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Investigators tasked with identifying causes of last week’s collapse, which had killed at least 18 and left 145 unaccounted for as of early Friday, said they intend to scrutinize possible effects of nearby construction in their ongoing reviews.

Judith Mitrani-Reiser, a lead investigator from the federal National Institute of Standards and Technology, said Wednesday during a news conference that her team is looking at various possible contributing factors, including “environmental conditions that could have affected the structure” of Champlain Towers South.

Allyn Kilsheimer, a veteran engineer hired by Surfside, said he had yet to analyze the impact of Eighty Seven Park’s three-year construction process but “will eventually look at that.” Surfside’s mayor and two of its four town commissioners say they are also pushing investigators to examine whether Eighty Seven Park played a role, citing previous complaints about vibrations during the building process.

“When buildings are constructed, there are pilings driven into the ground,” Mayor Charles Burkett said. “We have to think about that. We can’t rule anything out, can we? Because clearly something here went very, very wrong.”

Sinisa Kolar, a structural engineer and vice president of the Miami-based Falcon Group, said he thinks it is normal for the development of a new high-rise to cause some shaking in adjacent properties, especially during the drilling of foundations. He said that proximity can influence the degree of vibrations and potential damage but that such vibrations are unlikely to cause an entire building to buckle. What happened at Surfside, he said, “is more likely a combination of factors than one big factor.”

Eighty Seven Park, at 16 stories, is the last building on Collins Avenue in the north end of Miami Beach. Champlain Towers South sits right across the municipal border, in Surfside, with 12 floors and a penthouse.

8701 Collins Development in 2013 paid $65 million to acquire the three-acre plot at 8701 Collins Ave., which was separated from Champlain Towers South by a 50-foot-wide street called 87th Terrace, public records show. The next year, 8701 Collins Development reached a deal with the city of Miami Beach to acquire the 18,042-square-foot plot that contained the public street in exchange for a $10.5 million “voluntary donation” to Miami Beach, part of which would go to revamping a city park.

Thomas R. Mooney, planning director for Miami Beach at the time, told city officials in a 2014 memo that “vacation of this [right of way] will not affect the parking or infrastructure needs of adjacent properties” or negatively affect the surrounding neighborhood. But Olmedillo, Surfside’s town manager at the time, said Miami Beach officials never reached out to Surfside to discuss the sale of the street, even though it hugged the side of Champlain Towers South, a Surfside residence.

Mooney did not reply to requests for comment.

In a recent interview, Olmedillo said he was so surprised when developers put up a fence blocking off 87th Terrace that he sent Surfside code enforcers to the site. He said he also called the land-use attorneys and surveyors associated with the project, asking whether it had crossed the municipal boundary — they told him it had not.

“It struck me as strange that they would close the street and sell it. ... It brought things uncomfortably close,” Olmedillo said. He added that he was offended at the time that Surfside officials were not notified beforehand about the closure of 87th Terrace, which had public parking for residents and served as one of the beach access points for town police.

“It was like, ‘Oops, sorry, we forgot about you,’” Olmedillo said. “When the fence came up, I saw it and said: ‘What the hell? What’s going on?’”

Photos by Surfside residents and satellite images show how, from 2016 to 2020, the open space narrowed between the 12-story Champlain Towers and the 16-story project next to it, which included an underground garage, two pools and a private garden. As construction got underway, homeowners raised complaints.

“Our pool is full of styrofoam,” another homeowner and board member, Anette Goldstein, wrote to the Champlain South building manager and local officials in February 2019. “Please call the building supervisor next door and remind them in no uncertain terms that they were supposed to clean it every day.”

Speaking after the collapse, Ellen Friedman, a Champlain Towers South homeowner, said that “there was dust, there was noise, there were vibrations” caused by the construction project.

From 2016 to 2019, Miami Beach officials received dozens of noise complaints from the construction at 8701 Collins Ave., city records show. The developers were also fined for excessive noise at least eight times. In April 2019, members of the Champlain Towers South condo association took pictures of plastic foam that had drifted from the construction site.

“Can you send these pictures to the person we are in contact with at Terra?” wrote board member Nancy Levin, who is among those reported missing in the collapse. “They should see this while they decide on our compensation.”

Board meeting minutes from October 2019 recount a contentious debate over the settlement, with the board initially indicating it would accept a deal and a group of upset homeowners hiring legal counsel to demand the release of more details.

In late October, then-board president Graciela Escalante sent an email containing a “Term Sheet for proposed settlement with CTS Association.” It said Eighty Seven Park developers would offer payment of $400,000 if homeowners agreed not to publicly oppose the project, accepted expanded hours of construction and “entered into a strict confidentiality agreement.” The Becker & Poliakoff law firm advised the association not to accept the deal, because it contained “an unenforceable confidentiality clause and a monetary penalty for any breach,” Escalante wrote to told members.

Further, she added, the Terra Group had decided not to move forward with the proposal, because it had heard that condo owners opposed it.

A compensation proposal from a developer is unusual when a project is already underway, said Miguel Brizuela, a Miami-based construction attorney. Developers typically ask for the support of neighbors when they are seeking permits, not in the middle of construction. An exception, he said, is if the developer suspects there could be “a non-frivolous claim for damages for bodily injury or property damage” caused by construction.

The document sent to the condo association “requires so much context to understand what prompted it,” said Mary Ann Ruiz, a Miami-area condominium attorney, including “whether it is the extended hours of construction and the nuisance involved or whether there were other more serious concerns brought forth.”