Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

History lessons


OUR OPINION: Miami needs to be smart about balancing its past and its future

Let’s just agree that whatever happens to the Tequesta remnants recently unearthed in downtown Miami, the city should not use the Miami Circle as a model, unless it’s for what not to do. After all the prayer vigils and drum circles and international uproar almost two decades ago to “save the circle,” it remains an unattractive, poorly used, publicly owned park. And “park” might be too kind a description.

Preservationists and developers are scheduled to make their cases before Miami’s Historical and Environmental Preservation Board on Friday on how to handle the latest discovery. Preservationists, by and large, want to keep the remnants for the village intact and right where it was found.

MDM Development Group, whose latest project is now stalled by the Tequesta village, wants permission to proceed with construction of the commercial component of its multi-structure complex. This building is to house a cinema, grocery and other retail stores to complement the residential towers already completed.

The Urban Environment League, for instance, wants the city to delay granting a building permit for 12 months. That’s an awfully long time given that MDM says that is already has leases signed for the building and is losing money as the debate goes on.

However, the site can’t be given short shrift, either. Miami is a still-young city that has been too dismissive of its past.

The one-acre site features limestone “circles” with uniform postholes at regular intervals. These are believed to be foundation holes for Tequesta Indian dwellings from 2,000 years ago. There are also linear arrangements of postholes stretching across the site that could mark the foundation for other structures, such as boardwalks that connected the dwellings.

Some state officials say that the site could earn National Historic Landmark status. Locally, some officials and preservationists believe it might qualify as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

That’s all high-flying talk for what MDM’s rep, attorney Gene Stearns, told the Editorial Board was a “moonscape,” barren and full of holes. Of course, Stearns also called the finding “hokum” and “a joke,” pretty low blows of desperation, it seems. Early on, MDM acknowledged the possibility of unearthing something that would be, at the very least, of archeological interest.

Here’s what must guide the conversation: Preservation for the sake of preservation is not enough to outweigh other rights, like property rights — or the interests of the taxpaying public.

The state, ultimately, ponied up $27 million for the Miami Circle, which now lies like, yes, a moonscape, under dirt and dog poo. It’s disappointing, and disrespectful of what officials, preservationists and archeologists all claimed was precious Miami history.

How valuable is this recent site in terms of Florida’s heritage? Who will make that determination? Will the city, county or state make a commitment to preserve and enhance the site so others can actually enjoy it? “Commitment,” by the way, means money.

MDM has offered to carve out some of the circles and preserve them in a public plaza with interpretive signage that highlights the history of the area. However, if experts determine that the site should remain intact, is the developer willing to redo the building’s design?

Other cities have found creative and lucrative ways to ensure their past could coexist with their future. Miami needs to get smarter about it, too.

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