Condo in crisis

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Peter Franceschina
Published April 12, 2005


Riviera Beach A green flash card means save it. Red, toss it out. Purple, the owner wants to take it, whether it's a small keepsake, personal papers, treasured pictures or jewelry.

One by one, condo owners from the 42-story Tiara on Singer Island are getting their first good look at what is left of their belongings, six months after hurricanes Frances and Jeanne shredded and soaked the luxury high-rise.

The owners don't get to touch the items themselves, at least not until they are decontaminated of hazardous mold and spores. The owners sit on a barstool at a window and watch as workers in special suits, hoods and masks unpack the boxes and sort through their possessions in a sealed room.

"It looks like something from outer space," says condo board member Jerry Labuhn, who is overseeing the decontamination process.

Items that will be saved are sent to one of six decontamination chambers, then stored in a 120,000-square-foot, air-conditioned warehouse while the massive reconstruction project continues.

For now, that is as close to their former lives as the condo owners are going to get. It might be another year before they are able to move back into their tower, but board members and owners hope it will be sooner.

"We are all living in anticipation of going back and having it returned to its splendor," says Susan Bennett, president of the condo board.

Once the crowning jewel of Singer Island's condominium row, the Tiara is slowly being reborn.

The price tag? No one will hazard a guess, while the board negotiates with Citizens Property Insurance. Citizens had come under criticism statewide for not settling insurance claims more quickly, but company spokesman Justin Glover said large claims involving commercial residential properties are more complex. "We continue to try to resolve this claim as quickly as possible," he says.

The Tiara was the talk of the town after it was blasted. The cost of bringing it back is still the subject of rampant speculation around the island.

"I've heard the boat captain on the water taxi go by and quote 9 million, but we just laugh at that because we are way past nine million," Bennett says. "There are a thousand stories and a thousand rumors, and I spend most of my time quelling the rumors."

Citizens has advanced $17 million toward the reconstruction, Bennett says, and the board got a line of credit from Bank of America. That keeps the money flowing to the crews from Southern Construction, the company that already was refurbishing the exterior when the hurricanes hit. Some of the building's hurricane shutters had been removed as part of the renovation. There was a question whether that contributed to the tower's damage, but the damage was as extensive in some of the units that were shuttered.

Eddie Kisco, the board member overseeing the reconstruction, says the engineers who analyzed the damage concluded wind speeds reached 200 mph from the middle of the building to the top. Some units with windows facing west and east blew out completely, sending couches, furniture and everything else sailing out onto the sand, into the pool or onto the parking garage.

Frances peeled away huge swaths of the synthetic stucco and foam exterior, letting rain into the building. The roofs were damaged as well. Drywall turned to mush and mold swiftly took up residence. What Frances started, Jeanne finished: The building was declared uninhabitable.

Now there is a race against time to seal the exterior before this year's hurricane season, which officially starts June 1. An improved exterior has been designed for the tower, and it is now being put on in layers at a cost of about $8 million. It's more than one-third finished and should be completed by the end of July. New hurricane-resistant windows also will be installed.

"The engineers have spent many months designing this so it can withstand whatever Mother Nature throws at it," says Phil Davidson, a loss consultant hired by the condo board. "It is the most modern system available, specifically designed for this building."

Construction workers swarm over the Tiara. The workhorses are the gigantic, self-propelled elevators that climb the outside walls. They're used to put up the new exterior and haul the contents of four apartments a day down to ground level. The contents are loaded into semi-trailers and trucked to the warehouse for decontamination.

"Trucks are here on a daily basis, multiple runs," says Kisco. "We're talking about major tonnage."

For the board members who have taken responsibility for various aspects of the project, it has become a full-time job.

"I find myself working and in as much stress as any job I held," says Bennett, a retired international consultant. "The challenge is to run a multimillion-dollar venture with a volunteer organization."

Bennett says about 35 percent of the owners of the condo's 320 units were full-time residents, so they have been forced to find other places to live.

Many of them have, like Bennett, signed one-year leases in other condos. And the unit owners still don't know how much they will have to shell out of their own pockets to cover the reconstruction costs.

"It's challenging because you are living without your personal things that you really want," Bennett says. "You are making do in a furnished rental at a time in life when you thought you were going to be relaxed and spending more time in leisure."

Labuhn agrees.

"I don't have a place up north, as they say, to go back to. It has been rough. It has been really rough. I am not comfortable. I want to be back in my home," he says.

After the hurricanes, there was conjecture that the building was tilted and twisted, that it could never be repaired, that it would be condemned.

"We had a lot of sand-based armchair engineers sunning themselves and looking up at the Tiara spreading all kinds of hypotheses that went down the beach and became [considered] fact," Bennett says.

Even now, unit owners still are peppered with questions about the status of the landmark building.

"You can't go shopping, you can't go to a restaurant, you can't go to any social gathering," Kisco says. "If they know you are from the Tiara, you are bombarded by questions, from when are you getting back to how much damage."

The Tiara

1973: Architectural design approved

1976: Construction completed

Stories: 42

Tallest building in Palm Beach County: 390 feet

Units: 320

Two-bedroom: 240

One-bedroom: 80

Market value: In the $500,000 range for two-bedroom units before the hurricanes

Workers on site: 150-200

Workers at decontamination warehouse: Approximately 75