Developers of Florida building added penthouse at last minute

The developers of the Florida condominium tower that collapsed last week sidestepped local codes by adding a penthouse to the top off the waterfront building, a new report says.

The Champlain Towers South in Surfside was designed to have 12 stories in 1981, but developers got local officials to sign off on a last-minute addition — a penthouse level that added 15 feet and violated local height restrictions, the Wall Street Journal said in a report Monday.

It is unclear if the addition of the penthouse contributed to the collapse of the building four decades later, the Wall Street Journal said.

But veteran Miami mechanical engineer Tom Henz said it was typical at the time for developers to try to work around height restrictions, and often failed to consult engineers on the changes.

“If you go back to the ’60s and ’70s, South Florida was a Wild West,” he said.

The revelation comes as rescue workers comb through the rubble following the collapse of the building early Thursday — killing at least 10 and leaving more than 150 still unaccounted for.

Roberto Leon, a professor of construction engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, said additional weight from the penthouse at the Champlain condo tower was accounted for in a revised design.

But, Leon added, columns and reinforcements in the design were typical for that time — although Florida strengthened those requirements in recent years.

If the columns were to fail, Leon said the roof could have limited capacity to distribute the weight and the entire structure could collapse, the outlet said.

Champlain Towers South after the collapse.
It is unclear if the addition of the penthouse contributed to the collapse of the building.
Larry Marano

Manuel Jurado, an engineer who worked on the Champlain project, maintained there were no flaws in the design — and if there were they would’ve surfaced earlier.

“If there was a major error, it would have surfaced within a year or two,” he said.

The added penthouse to the collapsed building was approved by Surfside’s then-mayor, Mitchell Kinzer, the Journal said, citing a Miami Herald report at the time.

Kinzer, however, said Sunday that he could not recall the specifics.

Developers cherish penthouses atop the beach front buildings because they add value — one at the Champlain Towers South sold last month for $2.9 million, the outlet said.

In a report this weekend, The Washington Post reported that the building’s developers were also accused at the time of paying off local officials to get permits for the site.

Among the principals of the firm was Nathan Reiber, a Polish-born Canadian who fled to Florida after being accused of evading taxes in Canada.

He later returned and paid a $60,000 fine to settle the case.


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