Miami-Dade County

Tequesta site plan in downtown Miami moves ahead

The future for the downtown Miami site where archaeologists found remnants of a prehistoric Tequesta Indian village will combine a long-planned hotel and entertainment complex and a historic attraction for locals and visitors.

With developers overcoming a final major hurdle this week — Miami commissioners voted Thursday to approve a plan that would preserve archaeological finds at the 2,000-year-old Native American village — MDM Group expects to start building on the site in the coming months.

The expected completion date will be sometime in 2016, said Eugene Stearns, MDM’s attorney.

The preservation plan was agreed upon by MDM and preservationists after two days of mediation. As a formality, the commission had to vote on the plan.

The historic discovery triggered passionate debate over how to preserve Miami’s physical history in an increasingly urban environment.

In the end, both sides agreed that MDM would redesign its plans to include glass enclosures or “jewel boxes” in the southwest corner of the property, where archaeologists believe a pair of circles carved in the limestone bedrock 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 on the site will be covered with a glass floor.

The two sides also agreed that HistoryMiami will maintain a museum presence at the space, where a public plaza will also hold steps and other artifacts from Henry Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel.

And for visitors who want to discover the historical finds at their leisure, an app will be available to download for an interactive experience with a virtual curator.

“This can be used as a precedent for future instances of archaeological finds at development sites,” said local historian and Miami Dade College professor Paul George. “I love the idea of how they’re going to showcase the circles.”

Stearns said he was skeptical at first that his client and preservationists could come to a compromise, saying their disagreements seemed to unravel publicly and on a personal level as media reports documented the play-by-play.

“Once we sat down together, we realized we had much more in common than we thought.” said Stearns. “What the developer is doing is presenting a plaza, a public space which will present the history of Miami.”

Also in the works is a book tentatively titled The North Bank, to be written by Florida State University history professor Andrew Frank.

The book, commissioned by MDM, will tell the story of the various inhabitants who occupied the space over the years, including the Tequestas.

The site was once home to a plantation with at least 60 slaves who tended to acres of coconut trees, guava trees and sugar cane. It was also a hideout for runaway soldiers during the Civil War, and ragtag renegades and desperados used it as their home-base before fleeing to the Bahamas.

“There are lots of archaeological sites, not many as tremendous as this one,” said Frank. “The layers of history here are amazing. Many of the people who call Miami home can trace some part of their their history to this site.”

While many members of Miami’s local preservation community and the city commission laud the final plans, at least one city commissioner questioned if there were more discoveries to be unearthed and preserved at the site.

Commissioner Keon Hardemon cast the lone No vote against the plan, saying he did not want to trample on the history of Miami’s indigenous community, saying there could be more artifacts to find on the site.

Hardemon, who is African-American, noted that much of his own history is inaccessible to him.

“As an African-American, I can’t tell you what my family’s true name was,’ he said at a commission meeting Thursday.

Stearns acknowledges that not everyone will consider the final agreement sufficient, but he said it is one that most people will find acceptable.

“Every civilization is built on the shards of old ones,” he said. “The layers of history that exists in a place like this, the issue is, what will you preserve? A decent civilization takes care of history.”