Too close for comfort? Tower where crane fell was controversial before it even broke ground

FORT LAUDERDALE — The 43-story tower going up at 333 N. New River Drive sparked controversy long before a construction crane toppled to the ground, plunging downtown Fort Lauderdale into chaos.

One man whose car was crushed miraculously walked away with his life. But construction worker Jorge De La Torre was killed when a platform failed, sending him plummeting to the bridge below along with a large steel blue section of the crane.

Three people on the ground were injured and a van and Tesla crushed in the April 4 incident, now under investigation by OSHA.

Back in 2017, the Gables Riverwalk tower was just a plan on the drawing board — and a controversial one at that.

The original project called for a 499-foot-tall senior residential tower on a patch of land that’s only three quarters of an acre. Canadian developer Jean Francois Roy got the required approvals, then sold the site to Atlanta-based Gables Residential for $33 million in 2021.

The Gables Riverwalk apartments tower currently under construction will stand 465.5 feet high, dwarfing the 32-story WaterGarden condo tower to the east. The parcel, once home to a four-story office building, sits just east of the Third Avenue bridge on the north side of the New River.

Vice Mayor Steve Glassman was a member of the city’s Planning and Zoning Board at the time and remembers the chorus of critics who came out against the plan.

“I had several concerns,” Glassman told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “But the overwhelming concern was it was trying to squeeze way too much of a project in too small a parcel.”

The Gables Riverwalk building stands just 21 feet and 2 inches from the western wall of the WaterGarden condo tower. The new tower’s setback from its own eastern property line is a mere 6 feet, 2 inches.

In 2017, several WaterGarden residents spoke in opposition of the new tower, including Richard Eichner.

“In all honesty, we always knew the four-story office building next door could someday be redeveloped,” he told commissioners at the time. “Never in a million years did we think this innocuous little office building that sits on three-fourths of an acre, a postage stamp parcel, would be redeveloped as a tower with a 6-foot setback.”

A construction worker was killed and three people on the ground were injured on April 4 after a portion of a crane fell onto the Third Avenue bridge in downtown Fort Lauderdale. (Carline Jean/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
A construction worker was killed and three people on the ground were injured on April 4 after a portion of a crane fell onto the Third Avenue bridge in downtown Fort Lauderdale. (Carline Jean/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

‘Insanely’ close towers

Others fretted over safety concerns.

Stan Eichelbaum, a downtown activist who lives in the nearby Las Olas Grand tower, says the towers are “insanely” close.

Seven years ago, he urged the city to hire compliance officers to ensure safety protocols were followed while the tower is under construction.

“We want confidence that (the builder) will bear responsibility for any traffic monitoring needed and any damage to cars from construction mayhem,” he told city officials. “Life-safety agencies should review and present a construction staging plan to neighboring residents. The construction on 333 should not commence until the city has hired compliance officers to ensure monitoring.”

Officials with Gables Residential declined to comment for this news article.

“Gables appreciates your questions, but they have no further comments on the occurrence,” Courtney Crush, the local attorney for Gables Residential, said by text.

In 2017, Crush told commissioners the builder had a plan to ensure safety during construction.

“With all the downtown construction going on, we have committed to specific construction management protocols with our neighbors,” Crush said at the time. “They include luffing cranes, which do not have a boom swing that goes over the property line. And also something called a Doka system, which is essentially a wall that moves up the building. It controls debris, dust and that kind of thing.”

A Doka system has a large protective screen that goes around the perimeter of the building and acts as a barrier, the company’s website says.

“The full-area enclosure around the perimeter of the building enables all work to be carried out in complete safety, protected from all weather conditions,” the company says. “A loading platform can be integrated into the pro­tection screen for straightforward, safe repositioning of slab formwork, tools and other materials.”

Various safety measures are being used at the construction site, including scaffolding and netting, according to OSHA. The Doka system isn’t being used, a city official confirmed. When asked why by the Sun Sentinel, Crush declined to answer the question.

Albert DeChellis, president of the WaterGarden condo board, says the residents felt the Doka system would have provided better protection than screens and netting.

“The person on the (condo) board at the time requested a Doka system but it was never agreed to,” DeChellis said. “The Doka system is more rigid. I was told because of the hurricanes they need to have a netting system.” 

A crane hovers over the Gables Riverwalk tower on June 10 in downtown Fort Lauderdale at 333 N. New River Drive. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
A crane hovers over the Gables Riverwalk tower on June 10 in downtown Fort Lauderdale at 333 N. New River Drive. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Cement spills

WaterGarden resident Gary Grayson, a retired airline pilot, sent a letter to OSHA on July 24, 2023, about cement spills at the tower going up next door. He said he also warned about nails and boards falling from the tower.

“This is in regard to a downtown Fort Lauderdale high-rise construction site that has repeatedly dropped building materials outside the construction fence,” he wrote.

“One of the incidents involved a few hundred pounds (my estimate) of concrete falling from a height of over 60 feet onto the public sidewalk and balconies of the building next door. Two of the neighboring building’s employees walked down the sidewalk (between the buildings) about 30 seconds prior to the spill. They could have easily been injured or worse. … Hopefully, you will be able to do something before a bystander gets killed.”

OSHA sent a letter to Kast Construction. Kast officials responded with a letter to OSHA saying they had already put safety measures in place that included scaffolding, netting on the east and west sides of the property, adjacent property protective netting on the existing building, toe boards, tool tethers, and handrails and mesh netting on leading edges.

OSHA closed the case and sent Grayson a letter saying the company had corrected any potential hazards.

After the fatal crane incident, OSHA opened an investigation into Kast Construction, Phoenix Rigging & Erecting and Maxim Crane Works.

Grayson says he was not at all surprised by the crane accident.

“They’d been dropping objects outside the construction fence since they got to the second or third floor,” he told the Sun Sentinel. “We’ve had seven or eight spills of cement. Some lands on people’s balconies. Nails, little boards, screws drop too. They had to put up an overhead walkway on the sidewalk in between the buildings because they were dropping so many things.”

Grayson argues the tower should never have gotten commission approval.

“Somebody was on our pool deck on the fifth floor and a 3-inch chunk of concrete fell right next to them,” he said. “It’s a big pool deck. Will probably never see the sun again. There’s concrete and nails on everyone’s balcony over on that side.”

DeChellis, president of the WaterGarden board, says four balconies now have dried concrete splattered on their railings, but the contractor has plans to remove it soon.

“A heavy rain and windstorm came in and swept some of the cement over to the balconies,” he said. “No one’s happy about it. But there’s not much we can do.”

The Gables Riverwalk tower, left, sits right next to the WaterGarden tower in downtown Fort Lauderdale on June 10. Seven years ago, residents argued the towers would be too close. (Susannah Bryan/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
The Gables Riverwalk tower, left, sits right next to the WaterGarden tower in downtown Fort Lauderdale on June 10. Seven years ago, residents argued the towers would be too close. (Susannah Bryan/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

No stopping it now

DeChellis says some residents think there’s still a way to stop the building from going up. He disagrees.

“The time to fight it was back in 2017,” he said. “And the attorney we had then told us, ‘You’re not going to win. Don’t waste your money.’ But there are still people here who think we can stop it now. They’re on the 33rd floor. How are we going to stop it now?”

In August 2017, the city’s planning board approved the tower 4-3 after a four-hour debate. Glassman was one of the three who voted no.

“All I know is I vehemently opposed it,” Glassman told the Sun Sentinel during a recent interview. “I thought this building would be a nightmare and overwhelm the streets.”

But in September 2017, the commission gave its unanimous approval to the controversial project.

Mayor Dean Trantalis, a commissioner at the time, argued in favor of the new tower, saying it was exactly what city officials had in mind when creating Fort Lauderdale’s master plan for downtown.

“I noticed that it was a 4-3 vote at Planning and Zoning,” Trantalis said during the commission discussion in September 2017. “One vote would have changed the entire outcome of their decision. Clearly this is a controversial concept and proposal tonight.”

Work continues on the Gables Riverwalk tower on June 10 in downtown Fort Lauderdale, more than two months after a portion of a steel crane fell, killing a construction worker. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Work continues on the Gables Riverwalk tower on June 10 in downtown Fort Lauderdale, more than two months after a portion of a steel crane fell, killing a construction worker. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

‘Lost in the shuffle’

Trantalis noted “it’s never easy to squeeze in buildings” next to other towers on the block.

“I hear the voices of the folks from the WaterGarden,” he said in 2017, right before voting to approve the project. “When you live in a building, you don’t want to see your views obstructed. But at the same time, I think we all realize that the downtown was intended for a more dense use and there’ll be even more buildings coming down there. I think it’s important to realize that we’re a young city. And we’re building it from scratch.”

Trantalis now says the tragic crane incident might trigger more intensive safety protocols.

Two days after the accident, the mayor said the commission would discuss what the city could do to prevent future tragic mishaps, citing the need for the city to be more hands-on in terms of ensuring best practices are observed in constructing high-rise buildings.

But two months later, that discussion has yet to take place.

Trantalis blames it partly on the change in administrative leadership at City Hall, with the recent resignation of Greg Chavarria as city manager.

“No one brought it up,” Trantalis said when asked why the discussion didn’t take place in April. “This is the problem when you have transitional leadership. There’s a lot of confusion at this point. Any member of the commission can request something be put on agenda. It kind of got lost in the shuffle.”

Safety at construction sites remains an important issue the commission needs to discuss sooner rather than later, Trantalis said.

The Gables Riverwalk apartment tower, shown on June 10, sits to the left of the WaterGarden condo tower in downtown Fort Lauderdale. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

‘We can’t just be Big Brother’

But what, if anything, can the city do to prevent major accidents at construction sites?

Charlie Ladd, a local developer, says there’s not a thing the city could have done to prevent the crane accident.

“It’s a damn shame that somebody got killed,” Ladd said. “I don’t know anything more risky than erecting a tower crane. There’s no inspector in the world who’s going to climb to the top of a tower crane to observe them raising it. City building inspectors don’t inspect cranes.”

Fort Lauderdale’s building inspectors and code enforcement inspectors do visit construction sites to make sure the Florida Building Code is followed. But OSHA is the federal agency responsible for regulating crane use and operation.

“OSHA is tasked with making sure construction sites are operating with safety protocols in place for the benefit of the construction workers and those nearby,” said Chris Cooper, Fort Lauderdale’s director of Development Services. “We await the results of their report to better understand the circumstances and cause of the tragic fatal crane accident.”

OSHA representatives could not be reached for comment. It was unclear how long their investigation might take.

The crane accident has sparked at least one lawsuit. A woman who was in the backseat of the crushed Tesla is now suing the developer and four other companies overseeing the tower’s construction. The suit, filed in late April, seeks more than $50 million in damages.

The woman, a teacher and mother of four, was knocked unconscious and woke up with a bloody head injury. The accident left her with permanent facial scars and “organic brain damage,” according to her attorney.

As of this week, the defendants have not filed any responses.

The day of the crane accident, Glassman said he remembered having concerns about the project when it came before the Planning and Zoning board.

Today, Glassman said he welcomes a commission discussion on safety protocols at construction sites.

But he’s not sure what the city can do to increase oversight.

“I don’t think the city has the manpower to check every single piece of equipment on every construction,” Glassman said. “I think we need to have that discussion about construction safety protocols. How proactive is the city on every single construction site and how involved are we on each project? We can’t just be Big Brother and be involved in every single thing.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at sbryan@sunsentinel.com. Follow me on X @Susannah_Bryan