Miami-Dade County

Intense mediation leads to agreement on historic Tequesta site in downtown Miami

The owners of a downtown Miami site where archaeologists found remnants of a prehistoric Tequesta Indian village have agreed to a plan that will preserve and display “critical” pieces in place while allowing development of a long-planned hotel and entertainment complex, a mediator said Thursday evening.

The announced compromise, which appeared to end weeks of controversy over the site’s fate, was hammered out over two long days of intense mediation talks this week among the developer, MDM Group, consulting archaeologist Bob Carr, preservationists and state, city and Miami-Dade County legal and historic-preservation staffers.

In a significant concession that mediator Angel Cortiñas called “historic,” MDM agreed to redesign its complex to install glass enclosures over a pair of circular arrays of carved postholes in the bedrock that archaeologists believe mark the foundations of Tequesta dwellings or other structures. A brick-lined well believed to have been part of a 19th Century U.S. Army fort will be covered with a glass floor.

The glass enclosure over the circle at the site’s southwest corner will be two stories tall and allow views of the archaeological feature from the street and from an adjacent restaurant within the commercial complex.

MDM also agreed to allow HistoryMiami to operate a public museum on site. The developer will also build a public plaza east of its complex to present the history of the site, which Cortiñas described as the “birthplace of Miami.” The plaza also will hold steps and other artifacts from industrialist Henry Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel, which also occupied the site and prompted the incorporation of the city.

The mediator said the plan received “overwhelming” support from all parties.

“It’s a good outcome,” said Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who proposed mediation as a way out of the impasse. “Everybody’s satisfied. The mediator said not one person in the room objected. This is the best way government can react.”

Historian Arva Moore Parks, a participant in the talks, called the deal “a history making agreement’’ in an email. She said the resulting plan “will help people understand and appreciate Miami's beginnings as they build its future.”

MDM’s attorney, Eugene Stearns, said: “Everyone left the room with a sense that something important was accomplished.”

The agreement still must be approved by the city commission at its March 27 meeting, though given the endorsement by all parties in the negotiation, approval would seem assured. No elected officials or members of the city’s preservation board participated in the talks because they might need to vote on the issue and related matters.

Under the agreement, if any future disagreements arise, the parties agree to return to mediation.

Two mediation sessions, each lasting about 12 hours, took place Tuesday and Thursday under the guidance of Cortiñas, a former state appellate judge who served as mediator in the recent resolution of a legal case over the rights of the homeless to congregate downtown.

The mediation, which was privately conducted, was not without bumps. A University of Miami archaeologist, Will Pestle, who sought to watch the proceedings Thursday with a group of students was turned away by the mediator. Pestle said he believes the mediation sessions should have been public under state law.

Sarnoff said he understood the negotiations also fell apart at one point before the parties agreed to reconvene.

The agreement came after months of accruing archaeological finds on the site just north of the Miami River attracted worldwide interest and increasing demands for the preservation of significant finds, including some of the hundreds of postholes that archaeologists say were likely carved in the bedrock by the Tequesta.

Also unearthed were remnants of the Royal Palm Hotel, and of Fort Dallas, which was used during the Seminole Indian wars, providing what preservationists say is a rare window into more than 2,000 years of the city’s history.

But MDM, which has long planned to build a hotel, dining and move-theater complex called Met Square on the site, adopted a strongly adversarial stance after the city’s preservation board, which has legal authority over archaeological and historic sites, began moving to designate the property as a protected landmark. Their attorney, Stearns, ridiculed archaeologists’ conclusions over the site’s significance, and initially argued little of it was worth saving.

The board first rejected a plan by MDM to cut out a circular posthole arrangement from the bedrock for display in a nearby plaza, then asked the developer to come back with a better plan.

It also asked the city’s preservation officer for a preliminary report on the merits of designating the site. The city attorney, however, halted a hearing at which the board was to discuss the report — which concluded the site meets the criteria for historic designation — prompting an outcry from preservationists.

The city commission was set to hear MDM’s appeal on March 27, but Sarnoff won support for trying mediation first.

Under the terms of the agreement, MDM will ask the preservation board to vacate its three resolutions so that it can apply for building permits. But MDM will not object to historic designation so long as it doesn’t interfere with the agreed plan.

The developer also will pay for a scale model of the Royal Palm Hotel for exhibition on site, and to fund a history of and film about the site. Markings on the complex’s ground floor will trace the original shoreline at the point where the river once met Biscayne Bay before it was obscured by fill. The shoreline was also uncovered during the archaeological dig, which was funded by MDM pursuant to local and state law.