Miami-Dade County

Miami historic preservation board moves to protect Tequesta site

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

Miami’s historic preservation board on Friday roundly rejected a developer’s plan to carve out and display a prehistoric remnant of a recently uncovered Tequesta village in downtown Miami, and instead set the stage for potentially designating the site a protected historic landmark.

The board’s decision, encapsulated in three separate votes after a seven-hour hearing, was a big win for preservationists and archaeologists who have been pressing the developer, MDM Group, to redesign a planned commercial and hotel project to accommodate the finds, regarded as some of the most significant traces of an indigenous settlement in the country.

But what exactly will happen on the site remains very much in the air.

The board also voted to ask the developer to come back with a revised plan that better protects and showcases the archaeology, which includes posthole patterns believed to have been the foundations of a 2,000-year-old Tequesta village, as well as remnants of a Seminole War-era U.S. Army fort and of Henry Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel, which gave rise to the city’s founding.

An attorney for MDM, however, said the developer intends to immediately appeal the board’s decision to the Miami city commission.

The votes came at the end of a daylong and sometimes contentious hearing at Miami City Hall marked by emotional pleas for preserving the site, which is possibly also the site of a slave plantation, from members of Native American groups, descendants of Miami pioneers and African American activists.

Some expressed amazement at the developer’s willingness to bury a significant Native American site, contending that doing so reflects a long history in America of eradicating such places.

“We need a place where we can say, yes, we were here,’’ said Malvin John, a member of the Plains Cree tribe who splits his time between Canada and South Florida. “It’s time the city take pride and embrace your own history.’’

There was little dispute about the importance of the site, which has been dubbed the birthplace of Miami. At the center of Friday’s debate, though, was the question of what exactly the findings represent, and what to do with them.

About 25 people spoke in favor of rejecting the carve-out plan and saving most if not all the Tequesta site, which covers just under half of the two-acre parcel owned by MDM. No member of the public spoke in favor of MDM’s plan to slice out part of the site and display it elsewhere, which University of Miami historian Greg Bush labeled “an inauthentic simulation in a fake plaza.’’

The testimony from 11-year-old Bella Greenberg, a student at Miami Country Day School, may have best captured the prevailing sentiment over preservation of the eight circles and other features at the site.

“Really, a hotel?’’ Geenberg said. “What’s more important? You’re cheating a generation by cheating us of our history. Please don’t destroy them just to see a movie or stay in a fancy hotel.’’

Members of the public and several board members directly appealed to MDM to embrace the archaeological finds as a stroke of good fortune, saying it would add to the value and commercial appeal of their project. During the hearing, preservationists and city and county preservation officials presented several examples of new development that succesfully incorporates ancient archeological remnants.

“How cool is this?’’ said board member Hugh Ryan. “We should be excited about this. It’s an exciting opportunity. It could be an international landmark.’’

But MDM’s representatives, who have said redesigning could imperil the project’s viability, seemed to be having none of it.

Friday’s hearing, which follows a series of previous board discussions over the findings, seemed to mark a turn in the tone of the debate over what to do about the site, largely unearthed over the past year, from largely cooperative to what one member called “adversarial.’’

Though MDM previously did not contest the validity of archaeologists’ conclusions about the significance of the site, they replaced their land-use lawyer with his partner, litigator Eugene Stearns, noted for his aggressive style.

On the eve of the hearing, during which Stearns seemed to be laying the groundwork for a lawsuit, the attorney called archaeologists’ conclusions about the site’s importance — including MDM’s own consultant, Bob Carr — “hokum’’ and “a joke.’’

The hearing began with extended and sometimes argumentative legal cross-examination by Stearns of lead site archaeologist Carr, Miami-Dade County archaeologist Jeff Ransom and county preservation chief Kathleen Slesnick Kaufman.

Stearns’ argument: that while the site is important, the postholes that Carr, Ransom and others have concluded were likely the foundations of circular dwellings and other structures are insignificant by themselves and not worth preserving.

MDM’s expert, Christopher Dore, an Arizona consulting archaeologist, conceded the site is “highly significant’’ and would qualify for inclusion on the honorary National Register of Historic Places.

But he said its archaeological value is nil once it’s been excavated, stripped of artifacts and analyzed. He called MDM’s plan to remove one of the circular posthole patterns from the bedrock and install it in an adjacent plaza “adequate mitigation.’’

“There is little value to the site as it is now archaeologically. It has little archaeological value to preserve. The data from the site has been removed,’’ Dore said.

But a board majority was evidently unpersuaded, with some expressing displeasure at Stearns’ extended legal wrangling and combative style of questioning, which may not have helped MDM’s public case.

Board member Gerald Marston, clearly irritated, interrupted Stearns to ask him whether he had an archaeology or engineering degree as the lawyer argued with an expert about how the Tequesta may have built their dwellings.

Another member, David Freedman, the lone vote in favor of the plaza plan, called Stearns’ “denigration” of Kaufman’s comparison of the site’s treatment to Stonehenge “offensive.’’

And UM archaeologist William Pestle, who spoke as a member of the public, said Stearns’ questions and arguments betrayed “a stunning lack of knowledge about archaeology.’’

Board member Jorge Kuperman challenged MDM’s claims of financial hardship, nothing the developers were aware from the beginning that they were buying property in a designated archaeological zone, took a “calculated risk,’’ and now should be responsible for safeguarding the archaeological finds.

“MDM knew precisely what they were buying into,’’ he said.

Kuperman then easily won approval for three consecutive resolutions rejecting the plaza plan, asking the developer for a plan that better balances construction with preservation, and instructing the city’s preservation officer, Megan McLaughlin, to begin drafting a report over the merits of designating the site as historic.

That legal designation would not prevent MDM from developing the site, but would protect the archaeological remnants in place. The preservation board would also have approval authority over any development plans on the property.