In the late 1970s, a group of Canadian developers swooped into Surfside, a golden-beached winter haven with a dysfunctional small-town government. There they laid the foundations for a cluster of high-rise condo buildings along the coastline just north of Miami Beach, three of which would carry the “Champlain” name. Their fourth tower, the Mirage on the Ocean, doesn’t have the same branding as Champlain Towers South, which partially collapsed in June, killing 98 people, or its sister towers, Champlain Towers North and East.

But the Mirage does share disconcerting similarities with Champlain South, including an L-shaped design by the same architect — who once had his license suspended for six months for “gross incompetence” — a cracked pool deck that leaked water into a below-ground garage, and a condo association described by some residents as secretive and inept. Over the past two years, the building’s gateway to the Atlantic Ocean has been reduced to a construction site, with large black tarps covering a pool area once advertised as a “free-form South Seas swimming lagoon with tropical waterfall and landscaping on the ocean.”

After Champlain South fell just two blocks south, Mirage residents began to wonder if the same perfect storm of design flaws, construction and degradation could be looming beneath the tarps covering their pool deck. But the town of Surfside so far hasn’t offered much help. The building department lost the Mirage’s original structural plans, despite a Florida law saying the records must be maintained for the life of a building and made available for public inspection. Employees working for the town said they were unaware the two towers had a shared history until informed of that by the Miami Herald. Engineering experts interviewed by the Herald said the cracking at the Mirage and its links to Champlain South deserve immediate attention.

The Mirage on the Ocean condo tower in Surfside, pictured Oct. 2, 2021, was developed and designed by some of the same players who built Champlain Towers South.

“The problems that we know about with the building that failed — putting that together with the cracks in this [Mirage] building — tell me that we do need to do a fairly thorough investigation of the structural design,” said Shankar Nair, an engineer based in Illinois with more than 50 years of experience designing large structures.

Still, Surfside has not asked its engineering consultant — whose charge is to examine the roots of the Champlain South collapse — to take a closer look at the Mirage, as it did for the similarly designed Champlain Towers North and East. Despite the overlaps between the buildings, Surfside will not even acknowledge that links exist between the Mirage and Champlain South. “Any connections between the Mirage and the Champlain Towers South are neither confirmed or dispositive at this point,” Malarie Dauginikas, the town’s spokesperson, wrote in an email. “The Town has not received any reports from the Mirage regarding the structural integrity of the building.”

Several residents at the Mirage have raised concerns to the building’s condo board since the collapse, including one email sent in October with the subject line: “Engineering and architectural links between Mirage and Champlain Towers.” “If you have any relevant information, I would appreciate your candor and honesty in answering these questions,” the resident wrote. He never heard back. Darrin Gursky, an attorney for the condo association, dismissed the connections, noting that the Mirage was built in 1995 under a newer building code, designed by a different engineer and overseen by a different general contractor than Champlain South, which opened in 1981. Gursky said the board has been “proactive,” hiring a consultant to monitor vibrations from an adjacent luxury condo’s construction in 2017 and asking multiple engineers to review the building’s condition after the Champlain South collapse. The engineers found the building was safe, according to Gursky, but the board declined to share copies of their reports or the building’s original structural plans with the Herald.

In the 1970s, Surfside was a sleepy, seaside community of mom-and-pop motels — with a town government in the midst of a crisis that left it ill-equipped to permit complicated high-rise buildings like the Champlain towers and the Mirage. The town’s building official was spread thin, working not just for Surfside but several other municipalities as well. Miami-Dade County had placed a moratorium on construction in Surfside until the town council hashed out a way to pay for mandated sewer repairs. At the time, the town’s sewer system leaked human waste onto the streets when pump stations broke down. Municipal workers resorted to hooking up pipes and draining the sewage into the Intracoastal Waterway. Surfside’s water system was inadequate, too, incapable of supplying adequate pressure to firefighters.

In the 1970s, a group of Canadian developers swooped into small-town Surfside with plans to build four condo towers. It took more than 15 years. By the end, one of the towers, the Mirage on the Ocean, had a different name than the three Champlain-branded projects — obscuring its origins from residents and town officials after Champlain Towers South’s deadly collapse.

Town council meetings grew infamous, serving as the staging area for a bribery caper involving the vice mayor, who was arrested in 1978. The town administration was helmed by a rotating cast of managers whose tenures often lasted only months. “Boy, were there fights,” Richard Aiken, who took over as town manager in June 1979, told the Herald. “Maybe not fistfights, but yelling and screaming at each other … We were caught in the middle so often and sometimes a glass of water was thrown at town councilmen up there on the dais, spraying back and forth. It was just mind boggling.”

Into this maelstrom of dysfunction stepped a group of self-made businessmen from Toronto, born in Europe. Several had survived the Holocaust. Nathan Reiber became the face of the consortium that would — through various partnerships and reconfigurations — build Champlain Towers South and Champlain Towers North, which both opened in 1981, as well as the Mirage on the Ocean and Champlain Towers East, which opened in the mid-1990s. A Toronto lawyer and developer, Reiber moved permanently to South Florida in the early 1980s after “abscond[ing] to Miami” when he was charged with tax evasion in Canada, according to a Hamilton Spectator article on his guilty plea in 1996. (A judge ordered him to pay a $60,000 fine.)

He had started investing in South Florida real estate in the 1970s and eventually focused on Surfside, where Canadian tourists, especially French speakers drawn by sun, sand and cheap rooms, flocked to what became known as “Quebec in the Tropics.” “They really took over our town,” said Mitchell Kinzer, then Surfside’s young mayor. Reiber’s partners included Nathan Goldlist and his cousin Isadore Goldlist, described by Kinzer as “chicken farmers” who made it big in real estate; Stephen Gonda, a Reiber family friend, according to the Globe and Mail; and R. Abe Blankenstein and Joseph Fialkov, owners of a Toronto electrical firm who parlayed their success into property development. (None are still living.) The men were risk-takers — and several planted roots in Florida in an impulsive way. While vacationing in the ‘70s, Blankenstein said he, Fialkov and Nathan Goldlist (“a good friend of mine from Toronto”) took a walk in what is now Sunny Isles Beach. “It was a gorgeous day. We did … what the brave or the foolish do — we bought three two-bedroom condominiums without telling our wives,” he wrote in a biography. “To some it may appear reckless and dangerous but we signed the papers and went back to the hotel to tell our wives. What happened? All I can tell you is that no one got a divorce.”

Back then, “Canadians were the cash du jour,” said Michael Colodny, a Miami lawyer who worked on the Mirage project. In 1979, flush with cash from Canadian and American lenders, Reiber and his partners bought the plots of land in Surfside that would become Champlain North and South, named after Samuel de Champlain, who founded Quebec. The developers were desperate to build.

Construction scaffolding is seen near the entrance of the Mirage on Oct. 2, 2021. The tower, which has ties to the collapsed Champlain South, has been under renovation for about two years.

They said they could help the town — offering to foot part of the bill for repairs needed to fix its beleaguered sewer system. But some elected officials were skeptical, worrying that any help they received from the developers would come with the expectation of something in return.

In late August 1979, the vice chairman of Surfside’s Planning and Zoning Board let loose as the board was grappling with the hefty task of reviewing Champlain South’s complex plans. “A lot of consternation has crept into this thing,” Joe Roberts said, according to meeting minutes. “What’s cooking here? … Nobody figures that the builder is going to give the town [funds] and not want something for it.” Aiken, the town manager, was a strong advocate for the approval of Champlain Towers North and South, according to newspaper articles and meeting minutes from the time. He pushed the town council to approve sewer repairs that would allow the towers to move forward and stayed on top of the Planning and Zoning Board — sometimes to the board’s annoyance. In late 1979, its chairman said the board felt “unduly pressured” by Aiken’s persistence. (Aiken was forced out of town government the next year after he was accused of peering through his neighbor’s window at their young daughter. He denied the accusation, saying he was looking for his dog, and the charges were dismissed. It was his second alleged infraction, having been arrested earlier that year by Fort Lauderdale police for soliciting prostitution as part of an undercover sting, an episode he described as “entrapment” at the time. Those charges were also dismissed.) Meanwhile, Surfside’s building department relied heavily on George Desharnais, its well-qualified but part-time inspector, to help its officials vet the plans. At points, Desharnais, too, showed his exasperation. A year after Champlain South was approved, Desharnais had difficulties arranging for bewildered planning board members to view the plans for the East tower in a timely manner, an episode he called “embarrassing,” according to meeting minutes.

The debate over sewer repairs and the building moratorium dragged into the summer of 1980, stalling Champlain South. When it was finally resolved, half of the repair funds, $200,000, came from the developers. Roberts, the vice chairman of the planning board, criticized exceptions granted by the town council, such as allowing a penthouse floor at Champlain South that pushed it beyond the town’s 12-story limit. “We were all sold a bill of goods,” he told the Herald in January 1981.



Champlain Towers South and North sold out after opening in 1981, helping launch Surfside’s revitalization. The Mirage was a different story. A partnership controlled by Abe Blankenstein, Joseph Fialkov, Isadore Goldist and his brother Harry Goldlist bought the land for the project in 1980, backed by a $12.5 million mortgage. The developers laid pilings and foundations. Then the bottom fell out of South Florida’s real estate market. “Fortunately, all we had on the site was a hole in the ground,” Blankenstein wrote in his biography. “Unfortunately, while we waited, we had financial obligations to the bank to make mortgage payments and that money came out of our pockets.” For the rest of the decade and into the early 1990s, the Mirage developers swapped interests in the land and traded mortgages with each other in a series of bewildering transactions. Peter Zalewski, a South Florida condo market analyst, said the sales appeared to be a common way developers protect themselves if they are worried about losing their land. “If someone is going to sue, they’re going to have to sue each particular corporation,” Zalewski said. “It will be complicated as hell for a creditor to go through and run down each of these corporations. It drags everything out.” (The Mirage condo association faced exactly that problem when it sued over construction defects years later, one former board member said. The court records were destroyed after the case was settled.)

Finally, with the market back on the upswing, the developers were able to restart construction in 1994, using the existing pilings and building a 12-story condo tower on top of the original foundation. The driving partners were Isadore Goldlist and Blankenstein, according to Jerry Kaufman, who joined their team as a partner in the early 1990s to handle sales and marketing. Goldlist and Blankenstein originally branded the project “Richelieu Towers” — after a character in The Three Musketeers — to distinguish it from Champlain South and its sister towers, since Nathan Reiber was not a partner. Other aspects remained the same: Once again, William Friedman was the architect, although the engineer and general contractor were different. Kaufman said he would have preferred another architect. “Friedman had a relationship with Izzie [Goldlist] and Abe [Blankenstein]. He was not my choice,” he told the Herald in an interview. “My choice would have been … somebody more contemporary.” Friedman’s architectural license was suspended for six months in the 1960s after sign pylons at a building he designed collapsed during a hurricane — something Kaufman said he was not aware of. (Friedman died in 2018.) Kaufman did make other changes, however. For instance, the project was renamed Mirage on the Ocean, to broaden its appeal beyond French-speaking Canadians. Reiber wasn’t formally involved in the Mirage, but he still intervened occasionally out of loyalty to his friends Goldist and Blankenstein. “He’d come into the sales office from time to time and give me unsolicited advice,” Kaufman remembered. “Nathan saw pricing as an orange to squeeze and not a seed to plant. He thought I was being too soft.” “He was one tough son of a bitch,” Kaufman said.

Where Reiber wore suits and ties, Goldlist and Blankenstein favored shirtsleeves. “They were quiet, reserved gentlemen,” said Kaufman, who added that he knew his former partners would be heartbroken by the disaster at Champlain South. “Most developers are extremely volatile,” he continued. “They were humbled by the fact that they were refugees. … Never did they say to me ‘cut this corner or cut that corner’ or do anything out of the ordinary, which was amazing to me. I grew up in the construction business and a lot of people cut corners.” The Mirage opened in 1995, a year after Champlain Towers East, which had suffered similar delays and been taken over by a company registered to Gonda, one of the original Champlain South partners. For Blankenstein, the Mirage was a bet that paid off. Risk was in his nature. In his biography, a friend remembered him as a passionate gambler. “Las Vegas was his domain. He loved the action,” the friend said. “He loved pitting himself against the dealer. The actual amount of money involved was secondary; the challenge of beating the house was the goal. And no one ever knew if he won or lost.”



When Champlain Towers South collapsed, at least one former Mirage resident connected the dots: Donald Chapman, a retired architect who lived in the building and briefly served on the board in the late 1990s. “There’s a lot of similarities in the buildings. The floor plans are very similar, a lot of cut and paste from one building to the next,” Chapman told the Herald. The developers, he said, appeared to be “tweaking those things as they marched up the street building one after the other.” The L-shaped design shared by all four buildings, he observed, was a way of “squeezing more units onto a relatively narrow site” within Surfside’s 12-story height limits, while also maximizing ocean views.

Frank Barreras, who moved to the Mirage in the late 1990s when the building was five years old, said there were problems early on: water leaking through the garage onto cars, balconies rusting, and a “huge crack” that opened up in the pool deck. “I feel very lucky that I got out of there,” said Barreras, who no longer lives in Surfside. The Mirage’s problems have persisted and gotten worse, records show. An engineer’s 2018 report found “numerous leaks” in the garage and pool area and substantial problems on the balconies, including spalling concrete, rusted steel reinforcement and three broken “post-tension tendons” sticking out from balcony edges. The Mirage, like Champlain East, was built using a method called “post-tensioning,” which strengthens reinforced concrete with steel bars, or “tendons,” so it can withstand greater loads and accommodate thinner slabs and longer distances between structural supports. Champlain South and North are simpler reinforced concrete structures. Engineers who reviewed the plans said the pool deck at Champlain South had been cracking since day one, because the slab was too thin and sagged in the large spans between columns, placed up to 30 feet apart to maximize parking space in the basement garage. The damage, and especially the similarity of the cracking on the pool deck, documented in 2018 is troubling, especially given the Mirage’s post-tension construction, said Nair, the Illinois-based engineer. “The whole point of post-tensioning is to limit cracks or to prevent them,” he said. The three broken post-tension tendons potentially indicate serious structural problems, Nair added. “If there’s any uncertainty at all about the post-tensioning, that’s a red flag and the structural engineer should take it very seriously,” he said.

Larry Kibler, the former president of Miller & Solomon General Contractors, which built the Mirage condo in the mid-1990s, said that all concrete structures crack — especially near the ocean — but it’s how condo associations respond that determines whether it will become a significant structural problem. “In my opinion, almost everything on these towers … is all about how they maintain them going forward,” Kibler said. “Do they do what they’re supposed to do? Or do they kick the can down road?” The structural engineer on revised plans for the Mirage in the early 1990s, Zvonimir Belfranin, told the Herald he doesn’t remember details of the building’s design, but said the current problems seemed “fairly typical” for beachfront construction — though post-tension cables breaking is “always a concern.” “These are maintenance issues that need to be taken care of as soon as possible,” he said. But large, deep cracks that form as a result of flawed design can’t be fixed with routine maintenance. Experts said the cause of the cracking at the Mirage is hard to pinpoint without reviewing original structural plans, the ones the town cannot currently find. Drawings that are on file with the town of Surfside and emails from the condo board detail plans to replace drains, remove planters to lighten the load on the deck, install new waterproofing and repair numerous cracks, including one that was 40 feet long. Those fixes — along with a roof replacement, fire safety repairs and a handful of other items — were part of a $3 million special assessment on unit owners. The building’s pool area, upper and lower decks, spa and cabanas closed in early March 2020 for repairs, according to an email to residents that estimated the work would take four months. But the project still isn’t finished.

As the repairs drag on, some Mirage residents say it has only become harder to get real answers from the board. Angela Elizalde Zavala, a longtime Mirage condo owner who practiced law in Argentina before moving to the United States in the 1980s, has long fought with the condo association, which she described as incompetent. “My impression is that the board, every year, makes this building worse, period, because they don’t know what they’re doing,” Zavala told the Herald. One of Zavala’s top priorities has been documenting the true cost of the building’s long-standing struggles with fire code issues. The building has been out of code, documents suggest, since at least 2016, when engineering consultants inspected the damper system and found that an attempted replacement had been botched. Residents interviewed by the Herald said that the condo association started repairs, but the work has stalled. Miami-Dade Fire Rescue inspectors visited the Mirage in 2019, noting that the smoke dampers violated code and that the association hadn’t properly tested its smoke control system, according to a report. An MDFR spokesperson told the Herald that the agency approved a permit for a new damper installation at the Mirage and “the other violations remain pending further enforcement.” Gregg Schlesinger, a Fort Lauderdale general contractor and attorney, said it’s rare for a building to remain out of fire code for several years on end. “Fire is one of the most important things in a building,” Schlesinger said. “You take care of it immediately.” Gursky, the condo board’s attorney, denied that the dampers were installed improperly and said the code violations were related to testing rather than problems with the fire protection system itself. When sent copies of the reports documenting the issues, Gursky did not respond. He contended that the board has been “completely forthcoming and transparent” about the ongoing repairs, citing construction updates emailed to residents and regular board meetings. Condo board troubles, much like corrosion and saltwater intrusion, are a staple of South Florida’s beachfront residential buildings. Chapman, the retired architect, said he moved out of the Mirage in the late 1990s because of a nasty board fight involving a building manager who was fired for alleged financial misconduct, then rehired at the next meeting. “It’s the worst politics in the world,” Chapman said. “Living here [in the Miami area] is like living in paradise, except for the condo boards.”


There are substantive differences between the Mirage and Champlain Towers South, experts told the Herald. Those include the structural engineer and general contractor who brought the project to fruition in the 1990s, as well as the building’s post-tensioned reinforced concrete construction. (It’s not clear from available records which engineering firm worked on the Mirage site in the early 1980s, but the names of an engineer and general contractor for CTS appear on early permits there.) Abieyuwa Aghayere, a Drexel University engineering researcher, said limited architectural drawings appear to show that the Mirage — like Champlain Towers East — has more robust columns and better-designed reinforced concrete core walls, known as shear walls. But engineers said that without reviewing the Mirage’s complete structural plans and conducting a thorough investigation, it’s impossible to know whether it might suffer from the confluence of design, construction and maintenance flaws that brought down half of Champlain South. To better judge a building’s structural integrity and possibly prevent another horrific collapse, engineers should review original plans, test concrete strength and scan for proper rebar placement, Aghayere said. Those steps often aren’t taken — and it’s not clear whether they have happened at the Mirage.

“Patching the external symptoms of what’s going on does not prevent the continuance of whatever is going on internally,” Aghayere said. The town of Surfside hasn’t pressed the issue beyond recommending below-ground and other structural testing, guidance that was distributed to all properties east of Collins Avenue in July. Dauginikas, the town’s spokesperson, noted that because the Mirage is less than 40 years old, the town has no obligation under current law to recertify that it’s safe. Allyn Kilsheimer, the engineer the town hired to investigate the Champlain South collapse, was directed in July to conduct cursory reviews of several buildings in Surfside. That included Champlain North — whose design most closely resembles that of Champlain South — as well as Champlain East.

But the Mirage was not on the list. Kilsheimer said town officials informed him recently about its ties to Champlain South, but told the Herald he believes those ties would be more significant if the buildings shared a structural engineer and general contractor. Nonetheless, Kilsheimer said, if the town directed him to look into the state of the Mirage, he would. Some residents hope that happens. “They need to check every building, every property, in the town of Surfside,” said Ernestina Jeronimides, 81, a longtime Mirage resident. “This is their job.”