One of the most well preserved Native villages in North America, where the Tequesta lived in Florida for 2,000 years, may soon be found beneath a luxurious hotel and entertainment center. The decision to go forward with the plan was approved behind closed doors and deemed illegal by some. In a two-day mediation, archaeologists, preservationists, and MDM Development agreed to enclose small portions of what remains of the largest ancient village ever found in Florida.
A complaint filed against the City of Miami by William J. Pestle, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Miami, states the mediation agreement is null and void, as it ignored Florida’s Sunshine Law, which requires certain government meetings remain open to the public. Pestle said the city commissioners invented this mediation process to exclude the public. “That was illegal,” he said. “The parties involved in the mediation were gagged from making any public comment, there were no minutes or any record at all; it’s peculiar. This stinks to heaven.”
Before the mediation, the Preservation Board continually ruled in favor of preserving the site, Pestle said. Ralf Brookes, Pestle’s attorney, said, “The Historic and Environmental Preservation Board meetings showed that public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of preservation. This mediation process had no precedent, no legal basis, and… we allege violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.”
The Tequesta site, which is often referred to as “The Birthplace of Miami,” was situated where the mouth of the Miami River meets Biscayne Bay. Last fall, Robert S. Carr, executive director of the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy for Florida, began to uncover the nine circles ranging from 21 to 41 feet in diameter. The circles are comprised of hundreds of post holes that were cut into the limestone with shells. “They didn’t have metal tools, so they used conch shells to hollow out the holes. We made shell tools and they could actually cut stone,” Carr said.
The circles were found beneath a parking lot that was about 500 by 500 feet, and at the original shoreline. Carr said the circles could have been habitation structures. “The whole town appears to have been elevated,” Carr said.
Jeff Ransom, County Archaeologist for Miami – Dade County, said, “There were platforms and residences connected by boardwalks, and there were lots of fish bones, shark teeth, and conch shells at the site; they were tapping into the coastal resources. The significant aspect is the architectural features carved into the bedrock. You just don’t find that, and here we have perfectly preserved features that are 2,000 years old. It’s amazing that we still have it.”
For a city as densely built as Miami, Carr said the site is amazingly intact. Many other sites have been destroyed by construction and except for the parking lot, there are no other undeveloped areas in the city.
“You have a robust downtown for more than 100 years, and except for a portion which was the Royal Palm Hotel (Miami’s first hotel built in 1897) the asphalt preserved it,” Carr said.
As the mediated plan exists, most of the site will remain under the building, with one section destroyed. There will be a crawl space available to archaeologists, but it is unlikely that exploration will continue. If the building were ever to come down, the site could be uncovered for future discovery.
Gregory Bush, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Public History, University of Miami and associate professor of history, feels more could have been done to preserve the site for the public. “One of the biggest and grandest circles will be covered with concrete. It is the home of the Tequesta, heart of the Seminole Wars, Fort Dallas was here, the Royal Palm Hotel.”
“The mediator browbeat the mediation group,” Bush said. “He kept saying, ‘This is the best you can do,’ and he avoided the lawsuits. The bottom line is, it was a site of major proportions, and the building could have been redesigned to preserve most of it, it could have been a win-win, it could have been a park or a heritage site, but the developer didn’t want to redesign it. It’s a major travesty and a perversion of governmental processes.”
Bush hoped the Seminoles or the National Parks Service would save the site, “something that showed respect for what was there before. The developer knew all along this was a potentially significant site. To have given it such short shrift was unconscionable to me,” he said.
Before the mediation, the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami had called for a year’s delay before determining the site’s outcome. “What was the rush? Obviously, the developer’s money,” Bush said.
Gary Bitner, spokesperson for the Seminoles, said they look at all archaeological sites as important and of direct interest to them, and are involved in the research and discussion that comes out of that. “The tribe hasn’t taken a position, there are a variety of positions throughout the tribe about it, and it is not appropriate to just state one,” Bitner said.
The building that will sit upon the remains of Tequesta will be a $600 million hotel, restaurant, retail and entertainment complex. The building will take up the whole site, and at the ends, the Tequesta’s circles will be exposed and preserved with glass, and there will be a small museum area.
The results of the mediation have left many preservationist parties concerned for the future. “People are afraid this will set a precedent. If you can run around outside the laws, this has a potential impact on future sites,” Pestle said.
Elizabeth Merritt, deputy general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation agreed the way the mediation came about was unusual, but was better than litigation. She said, “We reserve judgement because a successful mediation depends on everyone agreeing. I was surprised the mediation reached a consensus so quickly.”
Merritt called the end result a creative solution. “We have seen some examples in other countries where you can look down in glass, and using glass is a way to protect as well as to allow the local public to see it,” she said. About Pestle’s lawsuit, she said, “There will be a lot to come, and it will be very interesting.”
Carr said the decision was better than seeing everything destroyed. “It preserved several specific aspects, and in a sense it was a victory for preservation.” Thousands of artifacts have been removed from the site, which will continue to offer clues about the Tequesta people. Carr’s findings were recently been published in Digging Miami.
Carr is concerned about the lawsuit lodged by Pestle. “If we were to overturn it, we don’t know what the end result would be. We would be back at square one, and there isn’t a guarantee we’d end up in the same place.”