Article Courtesy of The
By ANDRES VIGLUCCI
Published January 10, 2010
Shortly before the Christmas holidays,
residents of Miami's landmark Palm Bay Towers condo -- a bastion of
privilege where the monthly maintenance fee exceeds most folks' mortgage
payment -- found a letter taped to their doors outlining what one unit
owner later called "extremely unpleasant'' news:
The city had condemned the building. Water
and power would be cut Jan. 3, and the building would be torn down.
"I never had such a fright in my
life,'' said classical music impresaria Judy Drucker, whose Palm Bay
living room holds a Steinway grand concert piano at which stars like Plácido
Domingo and Pinchas Zukerman have performed and rehearsed.
|The building hasn't
been shut down, though it took an emergency court order
and the unusual intervention of the City Commission to
override, temporarily, the actions of its own chief
building official, who declared the ultra-posh tower
unsafe under a law typically used to condemn blighted
But the holiday saga exposed a
bitter, years-long feud among Palm Bay's residents over
aging windows that threatens the building's future, a feud
that has seen some of the city's leading lights trading
cold shoulders and worse -- lawsuits, accusations of
lying, even allegations of undue influence.
a travesty and we all should be ashamed, all of us,'' said
Palm Bay resident and Wolfsonian Museum founder Mitchell
"Micky'' Wolfson Jr., describing himself as neutral
Switzerland in the dispute. "This is a caricature of
real problems. It's scandalous when you think of the real
tragedy of real evictions and people suffering and having
to leave their homes.''
Bay Towers, a condo project that has been home to many rich and
famous Miamians,has been hit with a demolition order from the city
of Miami. It failed to comply with an order to replace the windows
and now only a court order has stopped a Jan. 3 demolition date. Bob
Flanders has been battling with the condo association to try to get
the association to fix the windows for years.
few believe the city will demolish the building -- for one thing, it could
cost millions of dollars and excise a valuable property from the tax rolls
-- the order remains in force, and at least some residents believe the
threat of a shutdown is real. Under the emergency court order, the building
has 45 days, until mid-February, to end the squabbling and convince the city
that it's serious about assessing and fixing long-unresolved problems with
The feud -- and Miami building
official Mariano Fernandez's condemnation order -- centers on the 26-story
tower's nine-foot-tall windows, at least some of which are badly
deteriorated and unsafe in a hurricane.
Because this is no ordinary
building, these are not just any windows -- but 1,875 floor-to-ceiling
sliding doors and glass panels that constitute the exterior walls of the
three-cornered tower, which rises dramatically on massive pylons sunk into
Biscayne Bay at Northeast 69th Street.
The aluminum-frame windows,
installed when the building was constructed in 1972, have been pummeled by
hurricanes and corroded by salt air to the point where, some owners
complain, they have been forced to resort to duct tape or caulking to keep
wind and rainwater out.
THE LONG BUILD-UP
Depending on whom you
ask, and how you interpret engineering studies commissioned by dueling
resident factions, the windows have been in need of repair or replacement
since 1992, when Hurricane Andrew blew out several panels, or since 2006,
when the one-two punch of hurricanes Katrina and Wilma did further damage.
Though the building staff subsequently installed full-metal shutters, it's
under standing orders to evacuate in a hurricane warning.
For several years, one Palm Bay
faction, led by Upper East Side activist Robert Flanders, who has served on
several city boards, has been pushing to have all windows replaced. For just
as long, Flanders and his supporters have been stymied by an equally
determined faction that remains unconvinced of the need for full window
replacement -- a job that, by some estimates, would cost around $5 million.
And there's the rub. Because the building has just 72
units, most as big as a house, that works out to special assessments ranging
from $60,000 to $100,000 for each owner -- and even more for some residents,
like banker and philanthropist Jay Kislak, who own more than one unit.
In spite of the building's hoity status and history --
it was constructed as a private club for a select slice of the city's social
elite -- some longtime residents are now elderly or ill, no longer wealthy,
and say they would be forced out of their homes or into foreclosure because
they cannot afford the assessment.
After Wilma, the condo board approved a plan to
replace the windows. And all hell broke loose. Led by 84-year-old Bacardi
heir and longtime board member Jorge Bosch, dissenters got a majority of
unit owners to recall the board and nixed the replacement plan.
"Several of these people took personal umbrage at
this, and it became very unpleasant,'' Bosch said in an interview,
contending that Flanders and his group had tried "to ram this thing
down unit owners' throats.''
The reconstituted board commissioned an engineering
study that suggests many windows, perhaps a majority, may not need
Flanders sued the board to force replacement, saying
he did so only because leaky windows were damaging his wood-parquet floors
and mildew was sprouting on his cloth-covered doors. The suit is pending.
"It's a terrible position to be in, to sue your
neighbors,'' Flanders said.
But Flanders said residents of a plush building like
Palm Bay should be able to afford the cost.
"This building was built for rich people. We had
to prove we had a minimum net worth of $1 million to move in in 1980,''
Flanders said, referring to a club requirement that has been rescinded.
Then someone on Flanders' side called in the city. And
the group, bolstered by resident and attorney Jorge Ramos, began pressuring
Fernandez to take action.
Ramos boasted of a childhood friendship with
Fernandez, according to several building residents who say he also told unit
owners who could not afford the assessment to move out.
Fernandez did not respond to repeated requests for an
interview, though he e-mailed a chronology of enforcement actions. Ramos did
not return messages left on his home phone and his wife's cellphone last
Some residents saw sinister motives at work, and said
so out loud.
"Ramos caused the building to be put under a
microscope. The object is to have people leave the building and have new
blood come in,'' said resident George Meller, a retired aeronautical
engineer who maintains that most of the building's windows are fine.
"It's a total put-up job. It's Miami corruption.''
According to letters he sent the condo, Fernandez
determined that the windows indeed may require total replacement, and he and
other building officials issued a succession of deadlines for the building's
new board to come up with a plan -- none of which were met.
"The association board basically stuck its head
in the sand and ignored all the documents,'' Flanders said.
Bosch acknowledges as much, blaming the death of the
board's engineer and the building's inability, amid the nationwide fiscal
crisis, to secure financing. The building got a permit to replace windows on
the first three floors but did no work.
In May, the Palm Bay association appealed Fernandez's
orders to the county's Unsafe Structures Board, a quasi-judicial body
empowered to order buildings torn down, but received an ultimatum: Fix the
problem, or face eviction and demolition.
Bosch and his board again failed to act. In early
December, Fernandez issued his eviction and demolition notice, catching many
people in the building by surprise.
"The whole thing was absolutely scandalous,''
Bosch said. "The county sometimes takes three or four years to get a
permit to demolish a drug house. What is this?''
BROUGHT TO A HEAD
Some believe Flanders' faction got more than
they bargained for.
"This is a very serious game of brinksmanship,''
said South Beach restaurateur Tim Hogle, a Palm Bay resident uninvolved in
the feud who recruited Coral Gables attorney Paul Savage to help negotiate a
solution with the building department. "I don't think any reasonable
person really believes this building is unsafe.
"But they basically called the police on
themselves, and, like in a domestic dispute, you call the police and someone
will get arrested. The building went to jail and got the death sentence.''
At least one city commissioner faulted Fernandez and
his superiors at the building department for failing to notify higher-ups of
the impasse. City Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes
Palm Bay, said neither he nor City Manager Pete Hernandez learned of the
notice until after it was issued.
"I was astounded, shocked,'' Sarnoff said, but
added: "I think the building official was shooting a shot across the
bow to get the captain's attention, and he succeeded.''
At Sarnoff's request, the City Commission passed an
emergency resolution asking the city to put off action, though commissioners
have no legal authority to overturn the building official's determination.
After the meeting adjourned, Ramos hastily approached
the dais and berated Sarnoff, saying he was ready to move out the next day
if mass evictions would force the building finally to act -- astounding even
some sympathetic residents who found his words "callous.''
"Most unreasonable,'' said Bosch.
Hogle says he has since made "substantial''
progress in convincing Fernandez and other building officials Palm Bay is
serious about satisfying their concerns -- though it's still to be
determined whether the fix will be full window replacement.
A panoply of obstacles remains, he said: First,
winning the consensus of both factions, then securing financing. The
building's bank has pledged a $1.5 million loan, and some owners may be in a
position to front the amount of their assessment, but Hogle warns unpaid
assessments could result in building bankruptcy.
He has set up a town hall meeting with Sarnoff and
building officials at Palm Bay for Jan. 26. In the end, Hogle said, it will
be up to building residents to disarm.
"I have to prove to the city that we will get the
job done,'' Hogle said. "But the war has to somehow stop. I'm hoping
facts will prevail.''