The collapse of Champlain Towers South has prompted a review of hundreds of older high-rises. Some buildings ignored or delayed action on serious maintenance issues.
Out of the smoke and cinders of a city convulsed by race riots and an immigration crisis, the towers kept rising, each new development remaking Miami's skyline in the early 1980s and marking an ambitious bet that the battered community would turn itself around.
Over the next 40 years, high-rises like Champlain Towers, in the sleepy, beachfront enclave of Surfside, stood witness to Miami's remarkable rebound, luxurious, multi story symbols of endurance — of booms and busts but also the harsh South Florida elements: scorching sun and driving rains, battering winds and slashing saltwater.
Florida's high-rise building regulations have long been among the strictest in the nation. But after parts of Champlain Towers South tumbled down on June 24, killing at least 24 people and leaving 121 unaccounted for, evidence has mounted that those rules have been enforced unevenly by local governments, and sometimes not at all.
Miami-Dade County officials said last week that they were prioritising reviews of 24 multi story buildings that either had failed major structural or electrical inspections required after 40 years or had not submitted the reports in the first place. But the county's own records show that 17 of those cases had been open for a year or more. Two cases were against properties owned by the county itself. The oldest case had sat unresolved since 2008.
In the tiny town of Bay Harbor Islands, two teardrops of land in Biscayne Bay that lie just north and west of Surfside, more than a dozen multi story structures or large commercial buildings that had been scheduled to turn in inspection reports had not submitted them as of last week, records show. One property appeared to be more than seven years late in filing.
The city of North Miami Beach had tried and failed for years to bring a 10-story condo building within its borders, Crestview Towers, into compliance with the 40-year recertification requirements. When the building's condo association finally submitted the required paperwork last week, about nine years late, it documented critical safety concerns, a city spokesperson said. Officials evacuated the building Friday.
Meanwhile, the same local governments were pursuing a haphazard approach to identifying other potentially unsafe buildings across the region, with the age and height criteria that would prompt added scrutiny varying from one place to the next. At least one local government, the village of Key Biscayne, was opting to conduct no extra inspections at all, an official there said.
Even if building auditors focus only on towers of 10 stories or more that were built in the 1970s and 1980s, the task would still be daunting. An analysis of property records by The New York Times shows that at least 270 such buildings dot the skylines of Miami-Dade County's cities, villages and towns, with dozens more in the county's unincorporated reaches.
Investigators have yet to determine whether the Champlain Towers South collapse was caused by inherent structural problems, a lack of needed maintenance or some other, unknown factor. They were forced to pause work at the site last week amid concerns that the portions of the building that were still standing had become unstable and could collapse at any time. On Sunday, officials demolished the remainder of the building as a tropical storm bore down on Florida from the Caribbean.
The patchwork response to the Champlain Towers South collapse, and lack of answers about what caused the building to fall, were doing little to ease the minds of South Florida condo residents, some of whom had begun to eye their waterfront homes with sudden fear. Such concerns only intensified over the weekend after local officials evacuated a second building, this time a three-story structure in Miami Beach with 24 condo units, after authorities found a failure in the flooring system and "excessive deflection on an exterior wall."
"Every time there is a noise or a rumble, you start to think, 'How safe is this building?'" Albert M. Barg, 77, said of his 23-story condo building in Sunny Isles Beach. The answer, he added, was "I don't know."
Dyann Piltser, 49, said she had put her Sunny Isles Beach condo up for sale. "I just don't want to live in such a large building," she said, "with so many elements beyond your control."
Built amid turmoil
Miami is packed with multi story buildings that have spent decades exposed to sun, rain, winds and saltwater.
Some went up during Miami's art deco heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. Others rose during an era of explosive growth in the 1950s and 1960s. Records show that more than 57 high-rises were built on barrier islands surrounding the city from 1970 to 1979.
The buildings of the early 1980s took shape against a backdrop of turmoil and economic uncertainty. In May 1980, rioters looted and burned large areas of the city, enraged at the acquittal of four police officers who had beaten an unarmed Black man to death during a traffic stop. Scores of Cubans and Haitians were coming ashore each day in a mass immigration event that would leave Miami's public safety and social service agencies overwhelmed under the weight of some 150,000 new arrivals.
The combined effect was an exodus that pushed down property values in the city and surrounding communities, which had their own problems. South Beach was so awash in crime in 1980 that many were afraid even to walk its streets, said Merrett Stierheim, who was the county manager at the time. "I remember putting my feet on the floor and asking myself, 'What in the hell is next?'" Stierheim recalled of those days. "It was a long struggle for Miami-Dade and all our cities to get a handle on this."
In 1981, the year the Champlain Towers buildings were completed, Time magazine published a cover story titled, "Paradise Lost?" that singled out South Florida for its high rates of violent crime and drug smuggling.
The project's developer, a Toronto lawyer and businessman named Nathan Reiber, who died in 2014, had run afoul of Canadian tax authorities before moving to Florida in the 1970s, and he eventually would plead guilty to a tax evasion charge in Canada, The Hamilton Spectator in Ontario reported. While the Champlain Towers were being built, other developers criticised city officials for accepting campaign contributions from the project in exchange for helping it along.
Grand jury inquiries through the 1980s and 1990s documented slipshod work by Miami-area building inspectors, though much of that scrutiny focused on inspections of single-family homes. Other criminal investigations have singled out government employees for taking gifts from developers, including, most recently, the top building official in Miami Beach.
Still, there was no evidence that high-rise buildings constructed during that era have been any more prone to problems than others, engineering experts and builders said.
Residents and visitors of older buildings across the Miami area in recent days have posted photos and videos of failing concrete and other problems on social media, but such defects are often superficial and not cause for alarm. "All concrete cracks — it's made to crack," said Allyn Kilsheimer, a structural engineer hired by Surfside to help investigate the Champlain Towers collapse. "The issue is to understand what the crack is, what might have caused it if anything, and then making sure it doesn't cause more problems."
Property data shows that more than 30 high-rises were built in coastal Miami areas from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, and records and interviews suggest that their states of repair vary widely from building to building.
Eleven of those towers were 12 stories or higher and built in the three years preceding the construction of Champlain Towers South. All are now past the age at which they should have submitted reports proving they had been scrutinised by an engineer for structural and electrical problems.
In one such report, an engineer noted last year that several concrete support columns had deteriorated in the parking garage of Winston Towers 700, a 23-story condo building in Sunny Isles Beach built in 1980. The problem most likely occurred as a result of pool chemicals leaking onto them from above, the engineer wrote, noting that while the columns appeared to have been properly shored up, they would have to be repaired before he would certify the building as safe. It was not clear whether the work was completed.
In another report, for the 19-story Bal Harbour 101 on Collins Avenue, less than 3.5km north of where the Champlain Towers stood, the engineering inspector documented a need for concrete repairs to the pool deck and waterproofing of the building's north deck but concluded that the overall building structure was in good condition. Even so, he noted, concrete spalling and corrosion of reinforcement metal in the pool's pump room would require significant structural repairs.
Recertification regulations required the building to complete an inspection report around 2018, when the building turned 40. But the process lagged, and records show that the village did not certify that the high-rise was in compliance until July 1 — a week after the Champlain Towers South collapse.
The condo building's manager, Igor Bond, said Friday that he had been getting calls from concerned residents for a week. "They're asking me about how safe the building is," Bond said, "and we're telling them, 'Absolutely!' "
The condo association's president did not respond to a request for comment.
Unlike the standards for single-family homes, which were blasted by critics after entire neighbourhoods were wiped out by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the regulations for multi story structures have been among the toughest in the nation since the 1950s, builders and engineers said. One major reason: Many of the area's first high-rises went up along the ocean, and officials wanted to be sure they could stand up to hurricane winds, flooding and rain.
"Permits and the codes were always tough in South Florida," said Oscar Sklar, an architect and builder who helped complete Champlain Towers East in Surfside in 1994. "I don't think it was any more lenient before than now."
The regulations became even tougher in the 1970s, when the collapse of a US Drug Enforcement Administration building led to the 40-year recertification requirements.
They were strengthened once more in the mid-1980s, after a condo complex in Cocoa Beach, which is about 60 miles east of Orlando, collapsed during construction, killing 11 workers. That change required developers to hire independent inspectors to monitor the structural integrity of multi story development projects as they progressed, but it was not in effect when Champlain Towers South was going up in 1981.
Even so, buildings across the region have racked up histories of violations, allowed to linger in some cases as a result of spotty compliance and enforcement.
Bay Harbor Islands, for one, has struggled to bring all of its buildings into compliance with the tough recertification rules. Fourteen structures were supposed to submit 40-year inspection reports in 2020.
Six of those never responded to notices, records show. The town sent certified letters to three property owners, but the letters were returned. Four other buildings submitted reports but were rejected because the buildings needed to do more work.
As of last week, town records listed only one building as having successfully completed the process.
"The small number of buildings that have yet to comply with the 40-year inspection have already received a notice of violation, and they are subject to fines if they do not timely comply with the certification process," Maria Lasday, the town manager of Bay Harbor Islands, said in an email.
In North Miami Beach, where Crestview Towers was evacuated Friday, the city said it had fined the building for noncompliance repeatedly, though it was not clear whether it had ever collected any money from the property.
It was only after the Champlain Towers collapse that Crestview turned in its 40-year recertification report, which had been completed in January. A lawyer for the condo board said the board had assumed the engineer conducting the inspection had shared findings with the city, but that was apparently not the case.
"The very first page of the report, once we got it, said, 'This building is unsafe,'" said Willis Howard, the spokesperson for North Miami Beach.
Holman J. Pérez, who had to leave his eighth-floor apartment Friday night with his wife and two children, faulted the building's management but also the city.
"Why did the city allow this?" he said, standing outside the building. "How can they have a report that was made in January and just not turn it in to anyone? Aren't they the ones in charge of this?"
The New York Times combined multiple data sets from Miami-Dade County's Open Data Hub for this analysis. Building footprint data was used to link structures to parcels. Each structure's age was obtained from county property records. When a building's construction year was not available, it was taken from Emporis, a website that provides building data for cities across the world. The building footprint data was last updated in April 2019, and some buildings in the data may no longer exist. For some recent large developments, the Times manually added those buildings to the data. In cases where a parcel includes buildings built over multiple years, the oldest construction date was assigned to all buildings.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Michael LaForgia, Adam Playford and Lazaro Gamio
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES