October 17, 2021

McKenzielee Blog

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Florida’s Champlain Towers South was doomed from the start with contractor, developer, and architect

8 min read

The Champlain Towers South was doomed from the start: The contractor lost his license amid fraud and negligence claims, the developer was charged with tax evasion, and the architect had previously been suspended after a structure he built collapsed, according to a report on the collapsed Florida condo building.  

Contractor Alfred Weisbrod worked on the Champlain Towers in Surfside for three months. The general contractor’s 20-year career was riddled with accusations of ‘negligence,’ ‘incompetency or misconduct,’ and abandoning projects midway, according to court records and newly released documents from the state licensing agency, the Miami Herald reported.  

Weisbrod was fined three times and threatened with suspension for various offenses, which forced him to surrender his license in 1998, Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation records show. 

The licensing agency filed three administrative claims accusing Weisbrod of completing specialized work without the proper permits, licenses, and inspections, and of failing to complete the contracted work, mismanagement, incompetence and fraud throughout the 1980s and 90s, according to the Herald. 

The contractor, developer, and architect of the Champlain Towers all had careers laced with controversy and legal issues 

Contractor Alfred Weisbrod surrendered his license three years after the towers were finished after years of complaints and lawsuits against him

Contractor Alfred Weisbrod surrendered his license three years after the towers were finished after years of complaints and lawsuits against him 

An investigation to determine the cause of the collapse of the residential building is underway

An investigation to determine the cause of the collapse of the residential building is underway 

The initial phase of the construction took less than a year and was overseen by three contractors. The first building permit for Champlain Towers South was issued on November 13, 1979 listing Jorge Batievsky as contractor. 

But on May 15, 1980, records show that Weisbrod signed on to the project, the day that Batievsky resigned from the project. While there was no explanation given for the change in contractors, records show that a 13th story penthouse, which violated town ordinances, was added to the drawings the day before.    

Weisbrod had only been licensed as a Florida general contractor for nine months before signing on to the Champlain Towers project. After three months working on the Champlain Towers, he was replaced by Arnold Neckman on August 18, 1980. All three original contractors have passed away. 

Dawn Lehman, professor of structural engineering at the University of Washington told the Herald that it is ‘unusual’ to for a contractor to quit a job. ‘It rarely happens because it means your whole crew is out of work.’ 

Weisbrod was named in two dozen civil lawsuits between 1981 and 2000 mainly involving small-scale construction work at single-family residences, according to records maintained by the Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts. 

He was also accused of abandoning projects midway and performed work which he was not licensed for such as repairing roofs. Weisbrod was fined by the licensing agency so often that many of checks, including one or $14, bounced. 

Batievsky, the original contractor, and his wife, Susie, a Realtor, later sued various people and entities involved in the project, including developer Nathan Reiber, but the records have been destroyed, according to the Herald. William Friedman, the architect for the Champlain Towers also sued Reiber, but those records have also been destroyed, according to The Real Deal

The Surfside condominium complex was completed in 1981. The project went through three different contractors which is very uncommon

The Surfside condominium complex was completed in 1981. The project went through three different contractors which is very uncommon

There is no evidence to suggest that Weisbrod, Reiber, or Friedman's work caused the collapse

There is no evidence to suggest that Weisbrod, Reiber, or Friedman’s work caused the collapse 

Developer Nathan Reiber was charged with tax evasion in Canada and sued by Champlain Towers contractor Jorge Batievsky and architect William Friedman

Developer Nathan Reiber was charged with tax evasion in Canada and sued by Champlain Towers contractor Jorge Batievsky and architect William Friedman

Reiber was a Canadian attorney who managed real estate on the side. He was arrested in January 1981 for skimming money from coin laundry machines in his apartment buildings and failing to appear in court. 

He allegedly evaded taxes and was involved in making fraudulent entries for companies. Reiber did not cooperate with the investigation into three tax charges and was forced to resign from the Canadian bar in 1984, according to an Ontario Law Society document. 

But his legal troubles did not end in Canada. In 1975 he was hit with claim of $3,850 for unpaid landscaping work at three residential properties he co-owned in Miami. From 1975 to 2009, three mortgage foreclosure lawsuits and five contract and indebtedness suits were filed against him and his partners in real estate ventures, according to records. 

In 2014, Reiber died in Miami at the age of 86.  

The Champlain Towers architect, William Friedman, was also a man whose career involved controversy. 

More than ten years before the Miami Surfside condominium had been built, Friedman was suspended for six months after a structured that he designed collapsed during a hurricane.

When he was a young architect in his 30s he designed commercial sign pylons that were part of the rooftop of a building in downtown Miami. The pylons toppled following a storm in 1965 as Hurricane Betsy struck south Florida.

One week after Betsy blasted through the area, a sign pylon which had been attached to the building collapsed and fell down the side. Another single story building in a different part of town also had a similar pylon structural failure. The pylons were being used to hold promotional signs perched atop the building’s roof.

The collapse was serious enough for at least one prominent Miami architect to alert the Florida State Board of Architecture who then suspended him for ‘gross incompetency, in that he negligently, improperly, and carelessly’ designed the 20-foot tall pylons.

The pylons were ‘insufficient and grossly inadequate’ to withstand the wind pressure of the hurricane force winds, and were not in accordance with building code for the location or ‘to accepted standards of architectural practice,’ the Florida Board of Architecture wrote in its suspension order in 1966.

Friedman was then suspended for six months between June and December, 1967 some 12 years after he received his license in 1955. In 2018, Friedman died in Miami at the age of 88.

William Friedman was suspended following the collapse of sign pylons at two Miami buildings

William Friedman was suspended following the collapse of sign pylons at two Miami buildings

The pylons designed by Friendman who would go onto design Champlain Towers South came down after Hurricane Betsy stormed through in 1965 (file photo of Hurricane Betsy in 1965)

The pylons designed by Friendman who would go onto design Champlain Towers South came down after Hurricane Betsy stormed through in 1965 (file photo of Hurricane Betsy in 1965)

Windows of the Carillion Hotel on Miami Beach were knocked in by Hurricane Betsy (file photo)

Windows of the Carillion Hotel on Miami Beach were knocked in by Hurricane Betsy (file photo)

Betsy caused $1.42 billion worth of damage in the Bahamas, Florida, and Louisiana, earning the storm the nickname 'Billion Dollar Betsy' in September 1965

Betsy caused $1.42 billion worth of damage in the Bahamas, Florida, and Louisiana, earning the storm the nickname ‘Billion Dollar Betsy’ in September 1965

The documents have only recently come to light following a public records request filed by The Real Deal. Fort Lauderdale architect Kaizer Talib said the suspension was serious. 

‘Most of the time you end up getting a letter of warning from the state department or something,’ he told The Real Deal. ‘If you had done something small wrong, in the process of permitting, then you might get a warning letter. But a suspension is a bigger thing because it’s decided by a committee. It’s not decided by an individual.

‘Some people know about [the suspension], but the general public doesn’t know,’ Talib said. An architect ‘just keeps quiet and he is not going to tell anyone except his wife.’ 

There is no evidence to suggest that Weisbrod, Reiber, or Friedman’s work had anything to do with its collapse. However, the background information could provide a useful element for investigators still attempting to discover what led to the fall of the tower block that killed 98 people.

So far, that has been one indicator of a ‘major error’ that was discovered in the original plans for the building which were prepared by Friedman and the project engineer.

A 2018 engineering report on the 12-story condo suggests a concrete slab in one part of the building had not been placed at a slope to allow water to drain.   

‘The question comes down to: Was it a design error or deferred maintenance that was the approximate cause for the collapse?’ said Frank Schnidman, retired urban planning professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

Despite the six month suspension in the late 60s, his obituary described him as a ‘very unique architect’. Friedman went on to design many ‘unusual properties’ across Miami. Alongside apartment blocks, he also designed a shopping center, a hospital and various townhouses. 

When Champlain Towers South was completed in 1981, it was described as being  one of the largest condo projects in Surfside’s history. 

Residents of Champlain Towers East revealed photos of cracks that have appeared in their building after collapse of Towers South.

Residents of Champlain Towers East revealed photos of cracks that have appeared in their building after collapse of Towers South.

Construction lights surround the area of land where the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South building stood in Surfside, Florida

Construction lights surround the area of land where the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South building stood in Surfside, Florida 

Twisted pieces of metal bars protrude from the remains of walls in the area of land block stood

Twisted pieces of metal bars protrude from the remains of walls in the area of land block stood

The site of the Champlain Towers is mostly cleared and debris has been relocated to a new site

The site of the Champlain Towers is mostly cleared and debris has been relocated to a new site

Shortly after June’s disaster, it became clear that warnings about Champlain Towers South, had gone unheeded. A 2018 engineering report detailed cracked and degraded concrete support beams in the underground parking garage and other problems that would cost nearly $10 million to fix.

The repairs did not happen, and the estimate grew to $15 million this year as the owners of the building’s 136 units and its governing condo board squabbled over the cost, especially after a Surfside town inspector told them the building was safe.

Investigators have yet to determine what caused about half of the 136-unit highrise to cave in on itself in one of the deadliest building collapses in U.S. history. The portion of the structure that was left standing, but unstable, was deliberately demolished about 10 days later. 

A 2018 engineering report found structural deficiencies that are now the focus of several inquiries, including a grand jury investigation.

A complete collapse was all but impossible to imagine. As many officials said in the catastrophe’s first days, buildings of that size do not just collapse in the U.S. outside of a terrorist attack. Even tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes rarely bring them down.

The ultimate fate of the property where the building once stood has yet to be determined. A judge presiding over several lawsuits filed in the collapse aftermath wants the property sold at market rates, which would bring in an estimated $100 million or more. Some condo owners want to rebuild, and others say a memorial should be erected to remember the dead. 

The site has been mostly swept flat and the rubble moved to a Miami warehouse. Although forensic scientists are still at work, including examining the debris at the warehouse, there are no more bodies to be found where the building once stood.

Except during the early hours after the collapse, survivors never emerged. Search teams spent weeks battling the hazards of the rubble, including an unstable portion of the building that teetered above, a recurring fire and Florida’s stifling summer heat and thunderstorms. 

They went through more than 14,000 tons of broken concrete and rebar, often working boulder by bounder, rock by rock, before finally declaring the mission complete. 

Brad Sohn one of the plaintiffs’ court appointed attorneys said in a statement to DailyMail.com: ‘Many buildings have shoddy construction but almost none of them collapse. Although our investigation remains ongoing, I am hopeful we will identify what may well prove to be multiple factors that unfortunately led to the Champlain tragedy.’ 

The next court proceeding will take place on September 10. 

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9974995/Floridas-Champlain-Towers-South-doomed-start-contractor-developer-architect.html

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