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    Tuesday, January 31, 2023

    Surfside mayor quietly met in Dubai with developer of Champlain Towers South site

    Surfside, Fla. — Surfside Mayor Shlomo Danzinger traveled to Dubai late last year to meet with the developer hoping to bring ultra-luxury condos to the site of the Champlain Towers South collapse, an unusual trip for a small-town mayor that several town officials and victims’ family members said they knew nothing about.

    Danzinger said he met in late October with Emirati billionaire Hussain Sajwani to discuss the possibility of placing a memorial to the 98 collapse victims at least partially on the site. DAMAC Properties, the company Sajwani leads, gave Danzinger a tour of Dubai to see buildings developed by the firm, a company spokesperson said.

    The mayor said he took the trip at his own expense ahead of a planned visit to his son in Israel.

    “I wanted to see the kind of person he was,” Danzinger said of Sajwani in a text message. “Who I met was a family man who seems to care about the community he builds in.”

    Sajwani seemed open to letting a future memorial stand partially on the former Champlain property, Danzinger said. That was part of a request made last year by a committee of victims’ family members formed by town officials to offer input on a memorial.

    Victim family members say they were unaware

    But members of the seven-person committee told the Miami Herald that Danzinger never told them he met with Sajwani in Dubai or disclosed details of the excursion — and wished he had done so.

    “There is zero transparency with the town mayor,” said Martin Langesfeld, a committee member whose sister, Nicole Langesfeld, and brother-in-law, Luis Sadovnic, died in the collapse. “It is excruciating for the families to find out about secret meetings.”

    Langesfeld’s father, Pablo, sent a series of emails to Danzinger over the past month as rumors swirled about the mayor possibly having met with Sajwani. The emails asked repeatedly if Danzinger had met with the developer, either in the United States or the United Arab Emirates.

    When Danzinger first responded on Jan. 8, he acknowledged that a meeting with the developer had taken place “at my own expense,” but didn’t specify the location. Langesfeld replied by asking if the meeting was in Dubai.

    “I have responded to your questions to best of my abilities,” Danzinger wrote back. “I am sorry if they are not the answers you are looking for.”

    Asked about the meeting by the Herald earlier this week, Danzinger offered the same response he had given to Langesfeld and did not respond when asked where it had occurred.

    He ultimately acknowledged Thursday that it took place in Dubai after DAMAC confirmed the details to the Herald.

    The DAMAC spokesperson, Niall McLoughlin, said the meeting came about because Danzinger was “passing through Dubai en route to Israel.”

    “We suggested that if he was in the region, he meet with DAMAC to discuss the City Council’s vision for real estate and architecture in Surfside and to meet with Mr. Sajwani,” he said.

    The company has not yet filed a development application with the town. When it does, Sajwani will attempt his first foray into U.S. real estate. He bought the Champlain site for $120 million last year as its lone bidder.

    Sajwani, a friend and business partner of former President Donald Trump, has completed flashy residential projects across the Middle East, as well as partnerships with luxury clothing lines Versace and Fendi and the development of two Trump-branded golf courses in Dubai.

    “We know we cannot replace what was so painfully lost in Surfside,” said McLoughlin. “However, our development can and will add meaningful value to the beachside haven that is Surfside — and, indeed, all of Miami.”

    Mayor says he informed committee members

    Danzinger, who was not the mayor when the collapse occurred, told the Herald he informed committee members of his Dubai plans during a closed-door meeting late last year that was not recorded.

    “Of course they knew about it,” he said.

    Some committee members said they didn’t recall.

    “I didn’t know of any trip to Dubai, and I was part of every meeting of the committee,” said Raquel Oliveira, who lost her husband, Alfredo Leone, and their 5-year-old son, Lorenzo, in the collapse.

    Oliveira said she couldn’t weigh in on the merits of the trip without knowing more about it but said communication between Danzinger and the committee has been sparse in recent months.

    “It’s frustrating that we are not moving with transparency and with communication,” she said.

    Several Surfside officials said they weren’t aware of the trip, either.

    Elected officials are allowed to meet with developers, including on their own dime. But traveling to do so is rare in a small town like Surfside, said Commissioner Nelly Velasquez.

    “If you’re going to conduct town business in another country and people are asking you about it, why are you hiding it?” Velasquez said. “That’s what I don’t understand.”

    Commissioner Jeff Rose said he was less concerned.

    “It’s our responsibility as elected officials to meet with people who are going to be doing work in town ... especially on a sensitive site like this one,” he said.

    Still, Rose added: “Me, personally, I wouldn’t be flying out on my own dime to do it.”

    Memorial discussions continue

    The town commission voted last March, shortly after Danzinger was elected, to create a committee of victims’ family members to make recommendations for a permanent memorial to the 98 people who died when Champlain Towers South suddenly collapsed overnight on June 24, 2021.

    At a public meeting last September, family members met for the first time with representatives of DAMAC, urging them to honor the victims with a memorial located at least partially within the former Champlain footprint, where their loved ones’ apartments stood. Sajwani did not attend that meeting.

    The DAMAC representatives seemed reluctant to heed the family members’ request, which would mean putting a memorial about 50 feet into the site’s northern property line near 88th Street. The town commission designated that street as the site of a future memorial last January.

    Danzinger floated an alternative arrangement that would place some of the memorial on the property— if not directly on the former building’s footprint — by having the developers give up about 10 feet near the northern property line and having the town modify its setback requirements to the south or west, essentially shifting the footprint of the new project.

    Jeffery Rossely, a DAMAC representative, said at the time that the developers would be willing to consider that type of deal.

    Danzinger said the purpose of his meeting with Sajwani was to discuss such an arrangement directly with the company’s founder and chairman. Sajwani was “very open” to the idea, he said, though further details of the discussion weren’t clear.

    The memorial has been a point of contention since a few months after the tragedy.

    Before the site was sold, some victims’ family members demanded that a memorial occupy the land instead of a new luxury high-rise. But Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman, who oversaw the sale as part of a massive class-action lawsuit, said it was important to maximize the site’s value and, in turn, the payout to families.

    A $1 billion settlement that included the property sale was finalized last June.

    Oliveira, the committee member, said she wants to make sure the memorial remains a priority for the town, as she commemorates what would have been her husband’s 50th birthday this week.

    “This memorial is very important for us. It’s the only thing we can do to materialize the ones we loved and lost,” she said. “Our lives don’t move on at the same pace as the town.”

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