After the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, city officials across South Florida are scrambling to get older buildings into compliance with safety standards. Building officials in Miami Beach placed this notice on one non-compliant building.
In the coastal condo city of Hallandale Beach alone, more
than half of all condos older than 40 are delinquent on
In many cases, warnings from residents of cracked concrete, rusted rebar, and continuously flooding underground parking garages have had little effect, as officials either ignore residents or find themselves hamstrung by the laissez-faire spirit of county regulations.
When Champlain collapsed on its residents, a torrent of concern swept up the coast.
Like other coastal cities with seaside towers, Hallandale Beach went into overdrive to track down how many buildings were behind on their 40-year recertification.
The numbers, laid out in a June 29 email to city commissioners from City Manager Jeremy Earle, were stunning. Of 591 buildings that needed recertification, about 390 had not done it, Earle said. The list included all types of buildings, he noted, not just condos, and the city was still working through the list to double-check. Scores of properties have ignored the city’s notifications since 2013, he said.
According to Earle’s memo, the city never heard back from at least 141 properties after they were notified. Another 54 responded, but their certification reports were rejected. Another 189 received notice from the city and have 90 days to respond.
Hallandale Beach resident Rob Raymond was horrified to hear from a reporter that more than half the aging buildings in his city were non-compliant.
“Oh my God,” he said. “That’s big.”
When the city of Fort Lauderdale delved into the files in recent days, evidence of age spilled out from the pages: spalling concrete, exposed rebar or wiring, cracks on garage beams and columns. Eight condos’ safety check-ups were not accounted for since 2016, officials told the Sun Sentinel. Turns out some of the repairs were already done and some were still in progress.
“None were in danger of imminent collapse,” said Anthony Fajardo, Fort Lauderdale’s building director.
Fajardo’s observation applies broadly across the region. Though many of the emerging reports of condo damage do not appear to be catastrophic issues, the cause of the Champlain’s collapse is still unknown. Experts have said a combination of damage and neglect can be dangerous.
Is your building in danger of collapse? Look for these warning signs »
Fort Lauderdale City Manager Chris Lagerbloom said the city has a routine “triggering process” to follow up with condo associations that need certifications, but ordered the audit in an abundance of caution. “We are doing everything we can to make sure we don’t have a Surfside,” he said.
The Essex, a 17-story condo tower on tony Las Olas Boulevard, is one of the eight problematic buildings officials found during that audit. The city’s list of problems with this condo is lengthy: spalling in the generator room, pool room, on balcony ceilings; slight to medium cracks on garage beam and columns; rebar corrosion in pool room and elevator room; low voltage wiring exposed; an improperly grounded generator and pool equipment panel; pool lights lack shock protection; rooftop raceways corroded.
Built in 1978, the Essex is still undergoing restoration work and in no danger of collapsing, city officials say.
The city’s list did not reflect the latest repairs made at Essex; some problems had already been addressed. For a time, residents couldn’t use the pool until shock protection equipment was installed, city records show. A portion of the parking garage is still off-limits to residents, under order of the city.
Essex and its condo board accuse a local engineering firm and general contractor of flubbing the building’s required certification, and a lawsuit has been filed.
Like other cities, Fort Lauderdale had not heard back from some condos, but took no action on them - until Surfside.
Pompano Beach reached for its files and found at least 61 condos that had not been certified safe at the 40-year mark. That would account for more than 25 percent of the city’s 226 condos that are larger than 3,500 square feet and older than 40, according to a Sun Sentinel analysis.
Do you have a tip about the safety of a South Florida condo building? We want to hear from you »
Thirty-eight of the buildings are labeled as “repairs required” in city documents, and some have been working to repair their buildings for as long as 10 years. City officials conceded they have not taken any cases to a special magistrate or unsafe structures board to enforce the requirement.
The situation is similarly delinquent in Dania Beach, where 60 older buildings are overdue for their 40 year safety certification.
When Hollywood received a complaint about the beachfront Quadomain towers after the Champlain’s collapse, a check of the building records indicated all four towers were out of compliance with the 40-year checkup, city officials said.
The finding exemplifies the disorganized system. Leaders for three of the towers supplied evidence to the Sun Sentinel showing they had indeed been certified. Hollywood officials late Thursday clarified that two of the towers had not paid a $300 fee, but did so Tuesday. The third had submitted its checklist three years early and was told in writing that it was set for 10 years, but the city now has reversed that position.
“I don’t really think that’s on the association, at that point,” said attorney Darrin Gursky, who represents one of the handful of associations at Quadomain.
“Clearly the city isn’t really operating [properly] if it took them a horrific event and six years to figure it out,” he said.
Aventura City Manager Ronald Wasson said a post-Surfside review revealed that his city has about 70 buildings over age 40, and 25 of them are late with their safety certifications. The city just sent 30-day notices out to them, he said.
“The tragedy got us to look,” he said, adding he’s in the process of hiring three additional building code inspectors.
While Palm Beach County does not have a 40-year certification requirement for buildings, the city of Boca Raton went out and closed a condo’s swimming pool on July 2, a few days after the Champlain collapse.
The safety enforcement action was no reflection on the tower itself and only shut off swimming for a day at the Pointe South Condominium, a five story, 66 unit structure built in 1975 and located at 1401 South Federal Highway, according to Anne Marie Connolly, communications manager for the city.
Former resident Midge Zanger expressed alarm. Her concerns are like those hanging in the minds of many in South Florida.
“Everything that happened down there [in Surfside] is happening here. The pool deck, the rebar, the spalling; I used to walk out my front door and see huge cracks on the catwalk,” Zanger said.
Zanger, a former board member for the Pointe South condo association, says large chunks of concrete have fallen in the building’s pool pump room.
But Eric Muñoz, the engineer hired to conduct concrete restoration on Pointe South, says the issues with the building are serious but have not compromised its structural integrity.
“It’s like a car, every building is going to have some concerns. It’s concrete; it will crack. But there is a difference if it’s structurally compromising or not.”
Some officials in Palm Beach County are pushing for adoption of a law similar to its neighbors to the south.
In many building departments, getting an extension for the 40-year certifications is as easy as writing a check for a few hundred dollars and sending an email.
William Pyznar, a principal engineer with the Falcon Group, an engineering and architectural firm, said there are no caveats to getting an extension, even if damage is serious. But he said a professional has an obligation to alert the city if the client refuses to make immediate repairs.
He said he now expects extensions to be granted “less and less” because of the collapse.
Officials said as long as a building has an open work permit for work related to its 40-year certification, it doesn’t face the usual deadline associated with the process.
“Once the repairs are completed we send our folks out to a follow up analysis, and then they get certified,” said Chris Feltgen, an administrator for Pompano Beach.
But as long as that work permit remains active, the recertification process continues - and buildings don’t have to check in with the city, Feltgen explained.
Consider the Decoplage on Miami Beach.
The building is 56 years old, and still hasn’t completed its 40-year certification. A multi-million dollar restoration has been under way for years. On Friday, June 25th - the day after the Surfside collapse - the city of Miami Beach red-tagged the condo, starting a seven-day timer to shore up cracked structural columns, city records show.
Lawyers for the Decoplage say the city tagged the wrong condo, and the Decoplage is structurally sound. The association is shoring up it’s columns regardless and hopes to complete all construction soon.
Kevin W. Brown, an attorney for the Decoplage, told the Sun Sentinel that the shoring requirement was new, and the city’s enforcement only reflected the fear that’s in the air.
“Cities are now panicking because they are asking themselves what could have been done,” said Russell Jacobs, another attorney for the condominium.
Brown said the work would take up to two weeks. He said the city would not be ordering residents to vacate the building, and if it tried to, he would fight the order in court.
Sometimes costly repairs are mired in condo politics. When condo boards propose hefty special assessments for repairs, entire condo boards are voted out and new boards postpone the work or look for a cheaper way.
“One board will come in and kind of blame the previous board for spending too much money or not being informative or taking advantage and a new board may come in and wish to change things around,” said engineer John Pistorino, the author of the 40-year recertification program.
It also takes time to bid out the work and raise the money to get it done, said David Haber, who specializes in construction and condominium law. He noted that the Champlain had been working on repairs that residents had long known were needed.