FILE - In this Friday, June 25, 2021, file photo, rescue workers work in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Fla. The fight over whether the site of June's deadly Florida condominium collapse should be sold for development or turned into a memorial boiled over during an emotional court hearing Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, with some victims' relatives begging for time to find a buyer who won't put a new luxury high-rise there.(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
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Friends and family members of the 98 victims who died when the Champlain Towers South building collapsed in 2021, along with residents and former town officials, made it clear to the Surfside town commissioners Wednesday night that they wanted a future memorial park on 88th Street without the developer’s proposed loading dock sharing the solemn site.

In a 3-2 vote, following hours of impassioned testimony, Surfside commissioners agreed to conditionally approve requiring developer DAMAC International to modify its plans and preserve 88th Street for the memorial park.

The location of the loading had for weeks been a contentious issue for town commissioners reviewing the developer’s plans to build a luxury condominium project on the site of the nation’s worst building collapse.

For weeks, opponents fought against the plan by DAMAC International to place a loading dock on the same bordering street to the north, or 88th Street, which had been set aside by the previous town commission for the memorial park.

Those speaking out against the plan voiced their objections with raw emotions, saying the lives lost must be respected and remembered with dignity.

“Being here fighting makes me remember the 18 days that I waited to find my little brother and my cousins,” said David Rodan, amid tears, in opposing the loading dock plan. “I shouldn’t be fighting this fight. I shouldn’t be begging for this memorial.”

At the start of Wednesday night’s meeting, a spokesperson for Dubai-based DAMAC explained that garbage pickup had already been moved to an air conditioned basement, and that the loading dock would remain on 88th Street, which currently serves as a path for public access to the beach.

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DAMAC International purchased the 1.8-acre site for $120 million after a former Florida Circuit Court judge approved the sale as part of a settlement with victims’ families and property owners. It is building a 12-story luxury condo building with 52 units that range in size from 4,000 to 9,000 square feet. They will cost an average of $25 million each.

Surfside resident Louisa Agresti said she was moved to come to the Wednesday hearing because in the last public meeting, a town official questioned why more families of the victims weren’t showing up to testify against the plans.

Agresti read a letter from Jennifer and Daniel Urgelles, the children of victims Mercedes and Raymond Urgelles, urging commissioners to vote against the loading dock and garbage collection on 88th Street.

After she read the letter, Agresti said: “I’ve lived in Surfside since 2005 and I cannot believe some of the things that are going on. This would be a great disservice to all of these people who perished in our town because of shady things going on in the 1980s. And to think that they’re continuing on in 2023 is very disheartening.”

Commissioner Fred Landsman then proposed requiring DAMAC to revise the site plan as such: The loading dock and sanitary operations would go on the southwest portion of the property, accessible from Collins Avenue, and would have to comply with town code.

“I hope sincerely that we will continue to engage in dialogue to get to the moment we can open the memorial to all of the families and our Surfside community,” Landsman said.

DAMAC must now present the development revisions to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and to Miami-Dade County and copy the town on all communications. If FDOT and Miami-Dade County grant unconditional approval to the changes, DAMAC will need to make the changes to build their project.

Only emergency vehicles and utility services would be able to get onto 88th Street. Construction vehicles would not be allowed, and would access the property via Collins Avenue – a major thoroughfare that connects coastal Miami-Dade County.

If unconditional approval is not granted by FDOT and the county, DAMAC would be relieved of this obligation, explained Town attorney, Anthony “Tony” Recio.

“Why can’t we come back here again and have another meeting and listen to them once they’ve been able to go to FDOT and confirm whatever it is that they have to say?” asked Commissioner Nelly Velasquez.

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Verónica Zaragovia

Verónica Zaragovia is the health reporter at WLRN. Her work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.

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Verónica Zaragovia is the health reporter at WLRN. Her work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.