Miami-Dade County

Miami historic preservation board to take up fate of Tequesta circles

An archeological dig in downtown Miami is underway at the MetSquare development to unearth Tequesta Indian structures.
An archeological dig in downtown Miami is underway at the MetSquare development to unearth Tequesta Indian structures. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Days before a meeting that could decide the fate of the newly discovered prehistoric Tequesta Indian village remnants in downtown Miami, historic-preservation officers for the city and Miami-Dade County have come out in favor of saving the entire site.

The official boost for preservation of the 2,000-year-old village site, regarded as one of the most significant archaeological finds in the country, puts the city and county at odds with the owner of the property, MDM Development Group, which plans to erect a hotel and commercial complex over it.

On Friday, MDM will ask the city historic preservation board to approve its plan to salvage one of the circular arrangements of postholes uncovered at the site — believed to be the foundation for a large Tequesta dwelling — by cutting it out of the bedrock and putting it on display in an adjacent “plaza” that would be tucked between two high-rise structures.

The plaza would also hold steps and brick veranda footings from industrialist Henry Flagler’s 1897 Royal Palm Hotel, which gave rise to the city’s founding. Those items were also unearthed at the site. Doing more would be too costly and disrupt lease agreements already in place, MDM says.

But preservationists, who have dubbed the site the birthplace of Miami, are instead calling for a redesign of the project to salvage and exhibit in place most of the archaeological finds.

They say removing the circle and displaying it out of context is inadequate, especially given the most recent discoveries at the site. Those include seven other such circular features, hundreds of additional postholes arranged in linear fashion, thousands of Tequesta artifacts, and the original rocky shoreline at the point where the Miami River and Biscayne Bay once met, a spot long ago obscured by fill.

Archaeologists postulate that the linear elements represent the foundations for boardwalks or walls, and believe the site represents a significant chunk of a rustic village that the Tequestas were previously known to have continuously occupied for more than 2,000 years. The last members of the tribe left for Cuba after the Spanish surrendered Florida to the British in 1763.

The preservation officers instead are backing alternate proposals, some developed in cooperation with MDM, that would pull back the development’s footprint so that the building either sidesteps or is cantilevered over the archaeological site, which occupies roughly half the two-acre property. That approach, they say, strikes the right balance between the site’s importance and the property owner’s development rights.

Preservationists have cited numerous cases in Europe in which ancient or historic sites are preserved and displayed under or inside new developments, serving both to attract and educate visitors. One local example: the expansion of the historic Surf Club, in which a new eight-story hotel structure is partially suspended over the facility’s original main building.

“We recognize it’s a difficult position for everyone involved,’’ said Miami-Dade preservation chief Kathleen Slesnick Kauffman. “We encourage any redesign option that fully preserves the site so it can properly be interpreted for public use and enjoyment.’’

The idea of removing just one circle — conceived of long before the newer circles and linear features were identified in recent months — is no longer appropriate, she said.

“It’s a game-changer with what’s been found,” she said. “You have the evidence of an entire village, not just one feature. It’s like Stonehenge. Would you would take one of the monoliths, remove it and say, ‘OK, we saved it’?’’

What’s unclear is precisely what the city preservation board, which has legal authority over archaeological and historic sites, could do about the competing ideas. The only item on its advertised agenda for Friday is whether to approve or reject MDM’s plaza plan.

But the board could also ask the city preservation officer, Megan McLaughlin, to take preliminary steps toward designating the site as historic, including a study of its merits. The designation would not prevent MDM from building but would effectively require a redesign to protect all or most of the village site. That redesign would have to be approved by the preservation board.

In a report released this week, preservation officials note that the original development approvals issued to MDM in 2002 included a condition under which the developers agreed that the city board could require preservation of any significant archaeological findings on the site, which is located within a broader area that has long been designated as an archaeological zone.

But MDM officials, who helped develop some redesign scenarios, say all would be too costly or impractical. MDM has received various zoning and development approvals for the MetSquare project, the fourth and final phase of its massive MetMiami development — but not a building permit.

The report cites MDM as saying that any delays or redesigns would imperil signed agreements with cinema, hotel, and restaurant operators and put the viability of the entire project in question.

Another option, the report says, would be to purchase the entire site from MDM. That’s the route the state and county took in saving the Miami Circle, believed to be the foundation of a ceremonial Tequesta structure, on the opposite side of the river from the village site.

The state bought the Miami Circle site for $27 million from a developer, and eventually turned it into a park. But the circular foundations themselves were reburied for protection from the elements because there was no money to exhibit it properly, a resolution no one appears to want to repeat this time.

“We do not want to see another Miami Circle scenario,’’ Slesnick Kauffman said.

The MetSquare site, which unlike the Miami Circle site is not on the water, is valued at just under $10 million by the county appraiser’s office. But its selling price could be significantly higher, and financially strapped local governments are unlikely to spring for it.