Residents at Evacuated Condo Building Dispute Structural Problems

by Msnbctv news staff

NORTH MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Miguel Jiménez was busy at work Friday, detailing a car, when a neighbor called in hysterics. They had an hour to evacuate their apartments at Crestview Towers in North Miami Beach.

He immediately started thinking about the loud cracking sound he heard last week, and the time a pipe burst, flooding all the units in the building. The floors were still ruined, and the building’s concrete columns have seen sturdier days.

“Everything is damaged in this building, everything” he said, standing beside the yellow crime-scene tape outside the building where Mr. Jiménez and his family have lived for six years.

Mayors in many cities and Miami-Dade County ordered audits of all buildings over 40 years old, which were supposed to be getting certifications at that age. Crestview’s certification was nine years overdue, and the building was cited by the city of North Miami Beach every year that it did not comply, a spokeswoman for the city said.

After the collapse in Surfside, seven miles away, the city nudged harder. North Miami Beach’s city manager ordered his own audit on Tuesday, and Crestview was sent another notice and fined.

Crestview’s building manager finally showed up at the city building department on Friday, with an 11-page engineering report that was dated in January. The report determined that the building was both structurally and electrically unsafe for continued occupancy.

The president of the condominium board referred questions to the board’s lawyer, Mariel Tollinchi.

Ms. Tollinchi said that the board disagreed with the need for the evacuation, and that the engineer’s report from January made the cracks and other problems seem worse than they were. She said the board had hired another engineer to provide more detail, and was gathering estimates for the necessary repair work.

The structural repairs were coming in at around $250,000, but the necessary electrical work was priced “in the millions,” she said, adding that unit owners were already paying up to $300 a month in assessments to finance the work. Residents should be back in the building within 30 days, Ms. Tollinchi said.

On its website, the management company posted a notice 11 days ago saying that it was working on improvements, including roofing, a new generator, and new lighting systems indoors and out. It said the city had demanded the lighting work for the 40-year certification, “which is something we could not postpone any longer.” The notice did not mention the cracked concrete and corroded rebar outlined in the engineer’s report.

Residents who evacuated on Friday were told that they could stay at a shelter on the county fairgrounds, a 40-minute drive away. “I would rather sleep in my car,” Mr. Jiménez said.

He wondered whether the unit owners, the city, the management company — anybody — would help relocate rental tenants like him who could not come up with at least $6,000 for security deposits and advance rent on another apartment.

Estefania Grajales, 25, and her husband, Holman J. Pérez, said they were napping Friday evening and heard about the evacuation order from a neighbor. Reporters were already outside, and people were rushing around with luggage. Ms. Grajales said it took an hour to get down from the eighth floor, because every time the elevator doors opened, the car was jammed with someone else’s prized possessions.

“Suitcases, bicycles, cabinets, children, everything,” Ms. Grajales said. “This did not happen one day to the next. It was one hour to the next.”

They stayed the night in an inn on Biscayne Blvd. “It was a mo-tel, not a ho-tel,” Mr. Pérez said.

Residents noted that many people in the building were fairly recent immigrants with no family nearby to stay with. Mr. Jimenez is from Venezuela, Ms. Grajales from Colombia, and Mr. Perez from Nicaragua.

Standing outside the building on Saturday hoping to get more information about what would happen with the building, Mr. Perez noted that he had less at stake than some residents did: “I’m a renter, thankfully.”

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