The remnants of a 2,000-year-old Tequesta Indian village, a U.S. Army fort and Henry Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel that were unearthed in layers of soil and bedrock in downtown Miami meet the criteria for designation as a protected historic site, the city’s preservation office has concluded.
The report by Miami’s preservation officer means it’s likely the city preservation board will opt to proceed with a full designation study when it meets Tuesday, setting the stage for what could be a protracted legal and political tussle over the fate of plans for commercial development on the site.
Developer MDM Group, meanwhile, said it intends to propose to the city a partial redesign of its high-rise hotel and entertainment complex to preserve and display a portion of the archaeological site, even as it continues to fight preservation on the legal front.
MDM attorneys have filed an appeal with the City Commission challenging a preservation board rejection last month of the developers’ plan to cut out a portion of the Tequesta and Royal Palm remnants — uncovered beneath what had been a parking lot for more than 70 years — and display them in a nearby plaza. The board asked MDM to come back with a plan that redesigns its building to preserve and appropriately display archaeological remnants in place.
MDM's attorney, Eugene Stearns, said Monday that the developer has asked architect John Nichols to explore ways of preserving two of the circular arrangements of postholes that archaeologists say were likely the foundations of dwellings in a 2,000-year-old Tequesta village.
One circle, in the southwest corner of the property, could be covered by a glass floor and lit up. The other, dubbed the Royal Palm Circle, could be enclosed and exposed to viewers from a balcony overlook, Stearns said. Both would be enclosed within the building because the limestone would otherwise degrade.
In addition, MDM has commissioned historians to work on materials to interpret the site for visitors, including a book detailing the site's history.
“They will let us know if that can be done,” Stearns said of the architects. “It's the right way to do things to solve the problem.”
Still, Stearns reiterated his view that conclusions by archaeologists that the hundreds of carved postholes on the site were dug by Tequesta are mostly “hokum,” “hysterical” and “based on no evidence whatsoever.”
He did say the company’s own research has found evidence that one of eight circular posthole arrangements found by MDM’s consulting archaeologist, Bob Carr, was indeed made by the since-disappeared Tequesta — the southwest circle they propose saving. He said Carr, who has supported preserving the site, “missed” the evidence — a depression that suggests the tribespeople used it as a hearth.
The other postholes, Stearns argues, are “noise’’ — random holes dug by the Army, Flagler's builders or other settlers with no special significance.
Nonetheless, Stearns said, MDM’s principals are willing to preserve that one circle and some other pieces of the site, which he acknowledged has some historic significance, though not enough to justify saving all of it.
“They’re good people. They don’t want to be fighting with people,” Stearns said of MDM. “The objective is not to win in court. The objective is to make peace and move on.”
Until last month, when news of the discovery made international headlines, MDM had not questioned the validity of Carr’s findings, which emerged gradually over the past year and have been backed up by Miami-Dade County archaeologist Jeff Ransom, state of Florida archaeologists and independent researchers. Stearns complained volubly in interviews on Monday that news coverage by the Miami Herald and other media has been unfair and inflated the site’s significance.
Stearns’ pugnacious approach has not endeared him to preservationists or archaeologists who say the site represents one of the most significant prehistoric finds in the United States, and has prompted questions about MDM’s tactics. Stearns’ arguments and sometimes aggressive questioning of Carr and Ransom were publicly criticized as “ignorant” by a University of Miami archaeology professor during a preservation board meeting last month.
But Stearns’ strategy appears to be predicated on cutting the preservation board, which has legal authority over archaeological and historic sites, out of the picture. The filing of his appeal to the City Commission, Stearns contends, means the board no longer has jurisdiction over the site. He said he plans to present the developers’ proposed alternative to the commission, bypassing the preservation board, which normally would review any development plans on a designated site.
The battle in some respects echoes the effort more than a decade ago to save the Miami Circle, a circular posthole arrangement on the south side of the Miami River opposite the more recent finds, also researched by Carr. Some critics dismissed the find as a hoax when preservationists and public officials rallied to save the site — later purchased for $27 million by the state and turned into a public park — from a planned high-rise condo development.
But one veteran of that battle, attorney Michael Kreitzer, who represented Miami Circle site developer Michael Baumann, said MDM’s legal position in this case is weak. Unlike in Baumann’s case, MDM signed an agreement with the city as part of its development approval that allows public officials to intervene in case of any significant archaeological finds, and MDM does not yet have a building permit, Kreitzer noted.
The city, meanwhile, has the power to proceed with designation, Kreitzer said — meaning that MDM could be forced into court for years, delaying its project significantly, if it chooses to fight rather than compromise. But he noted that designation doesn’t mean the developer can’t build.
“If reasonable minds prevail, then I think this land can be generally protected for the benefit of society, but at the same time, the developer should be able to develop most of his land. That has to be the goal, but I don’t see things moving in that direction,” Kreitzer said.
“The developer is pressing his heels into the ground. The government cannot easily disengage because it sees its role as protecting the city’s historic heritage. It looks like what’s ahead of us is not a mutually beneficial solution but World War III. World War III ends up costing everybody millions of dollars, and at the end of the day you end up in the same place you are today.”
If MDM were his client, Kreitzer said, he would advise negotiation.
“The lesson to be learned here is, you don’t need to fight that entire fight. Sit down across the table, have a thoughtful conversation and do something beneficial for everyone,” he said.
A preservation board vote Tuesday to formally consider designation would impose a development moratorium on the property — which encompasses most of a downtown city block on the north side of the Miami River — while a final decision is made. Eventual designation would not block development, but would likely require developer MDM Group to significantly recast its project to preserve and display the archaeological finds.
The staff report backing designation also recommends that the board ask Carr to prepare a detailed analysis within 30 days documenting the findings and laying out the evidence for their significance to help make the designation determination.