When warning signs flashed about structural and maintenance problems at Champlain Towers South, the information was muted and confusing, signaling that the condo owners didn’t need to remedy the situation urgently, according to a preliminary review by The Wall Street Journal of historical documents, eyewitness accounts and expert assessments.
The 136-unit building was a first-rate luxury high rise when it went up in 1981 on the ocean’s edge in Surfside, Fla., then-mayor Mitchell Kinzer recalled. Nearly four decades later, an engineer’s report would say a key part of the building’s design was flawed from the start.
A Surfside building official who was forwarded that 2018 report would tell the condo board gearing up for a major refurbishment that the tower was in good shape. Yet, there were complaints from residents about leaks and, more recently, worries about building-rattling construction work next door. By April of this year, the condo board president was warning residents the observable damage had grown “significantly worse.”
These mixed signals clouded the picture of a structure that in many ways seemed thoroughly unremarkable in this part of south Florida, a peninsula ringed with ocean-facing dwellings. Even the kinds of problems it developed as it aged could arguably be written off as unremarkable. Concrete wears. Steel rusts. The ocean is a corrosive force.
“Concrete spalling, rebar deterioration—these are not unusual events when you have buildings exposed to corrosive conditions,” Donna DiMaggio Berger, an attorney for the Champlain Towers South condo association, said in an interview. “This building was buffeted by water.”
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