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As Surfside Building Collapse Site Is Nearly Cleared, Debate Grows Over Property's Future

 A candlelight vigil took place on July 15, 2021 at the Surfside memorial to the victims of the Champlain Towers South collapse.
A candlelight vigil took place on July 15, 2021 at the Surfside memorial to the victims of the Champlain Towers South collapse.

Search teams have worked day and night to clear the land of building parts and debris. Now a Miami-Dade County circuit judge is hearing arguments about what should happen to the oceanfront property.

Loli Ripes grabbed a black marker and wrote a message on a wooden blue heart for her beloved friend, Hilda Noriega. The 92 year old lived on the sixth floor.

"Te recordaré con cariño," Ripes wrote, or "I will always remember you dearly." She signed it with her name, Loli. "Solamente el tiempo va apagando un poquito el dolor, pero es muy triste."

Only time will ease the pain a bit, she added, though she was still too sad to say much more. The memorial at 88th Street and Harding Avenue is the one place in Surfside that unites everyone to mourn.

People come to look at photos of the victims, bring flowers and light candles. Leo Soto created this memorial along the town’s tennis court fence. He also helped organize a candlelight vigil there July 15.

"Just to finalize everything that’s gone on here tonight, I wanna again thank everyone for coming here tonight," said Soto over a loud speaker. "I saw the community come together in love even when you’re experiencing unimaginable pain. That sort of lit a fire under me. It gave me energy. It took me from feeling sad, depressed, helpless to feeling like there's a mission for me."

His mission is to help people heal, he added. He told WLRN he would be eager to help plan a permanent memorial, wherever it will be. While neighboring cities like Miami Beach have offered a space for it, some people in Surfside want to see it constructed at the site of the collapse — at 8777 Collins Ave.

Four weeks ago, at about 1:30 a.m. on June 24, 2021, the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside collapsed, killing at least 97 people. Since then, search teams have worked day and night to clear the land of building parts and debris.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman wants the property sold, with money going to the survivors of the collapse and the families of those who died. Victims and families lost homes, personal things and in many cases, their home's primary breadwinner, in this collapse.

"All options are on the table so long as those options compensate the victims by paying fair value for the real estate," he said during a hearing this Wednesday at the Miami-Dade Children's Courthouse.

The property still needs to be appraised. He said a developer might buy it. Or, he added, government authorities — from the federal level down to local — may buy it and then build a memorial, if that’s what everyone agrees on.

"There's nothing I would like to see more than either the federal government through the CARES Act or the state government and, or, local or a combination of all three paying fair value for this property and putting up a memorial or doing whatever they feel is appropriate," said Hanzman. "I was concerned before that that might not happen fast enough. My experience typically is that the private sector makes decisions and moves at a much faster pace than most government bureaucracies. But if there is the political will that would be terrific. But again, it's going to have to be at a deliberate pace."

One thing’s clear about the victims, though.

"Certainly they’re not going to be compelled by this court to donate their real estate to the public," Hanzman said.

Yadira Santos told the judge she wants a place to live in again.

"Personally, my home was paid off completely. I had no mortgage and I had this sense of peace of mind knowing that I had a safe home for my son, and I didn't have to worry about that," she told the judge. "I'm in the health care field and I have worked my whole life to get where I was, but nothing has been given to me freely or handed out or born with a silver spoon. I worked hard for what I was able to accomplish. I'm thinking, why can't we rebuild where we called home?"

Outside the courthouse, former Champlain Towers resident Oren Cytrynbaum said he's part of a group chat with victims discussing what happens next.

"I just want to make clear I'm not trying to take any kind of lead role for my own," he told reporters. "I'm just trying to be helpful to my neighbors and my community. If there's anything I can do to explore these options other than a straight-up land sale, maybe there's an opportunity to find other structures that could potentially grow the pot to help the owners and help the victims that tragically were lost in this."

He said developers who are interested will be spoken to, to see if there's a way to get owners who want to stay in their property and pay out those who don't want to stay in. He said, personally, he would lean toward allowing a developer to buy the land, but he's open to all options that would generate funds.

"I bought this home with the understanding and the hope that this was going to be a long-term solution for me for my housing needs, for my dream home," Cytrynbaum added. "It was a large space on the beach in Surfside."

During the hearing, though, Raysa Rodriguez said she totally disagreed with redeveloping it.

"That is a grave site," Rodriguez said, adding she would never live on that land again.

"I saw with my two eyes the pancake," she said, about the way the building collapsed — one story directly on top of the other.

"I opened the stairwell door and I heard a woman crying for help that I couldn't help in pitch darkness," she said.

Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer is also adamantly opposed to rebuilding, too.

"First of all, who's gonna want to live there? I mean you couldn’t pay me to live there," Salzhauer said. "Who wants to live there? It's hard enough to live next door to that."

She said there needs to be special testing to make sure the ground is safe to build on before anything's done with the property. Experts still don't know what caused the collapse.

"As long as I’m in office, nobody ... nobody is rebuilding on that," she added.

While it may not be up to her alone, lawyers involved in the cases could not confirm who will have the ultimate say and how soon a decision will be made.

"There’s several competing interests between owners, renters and the judge is listening to everyone," said lawyer Marwan Porter, who's representing some of the victims.

The next hearing on the plans for the building site is expected to take place within the next two weeks.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Verónica Zaragovia