Ancient Native American site could stymie Miami high-rise developers

MIAMI Tue Feb 4, 2014 8:31pm EST

1 of 2. An archaeologist looks for ancient artifacts at a construction site in downtown Miami February 4, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - The unearthing of the remains of a 2,000-year-old Native American village where downtown Miami meets Biscayne Bay has thrown a wrench into a multibillion-dollar development project that survived the city's real estate and financial meltdown.

Archaeologists first discovered the Tequesta Indian site in 2005, when developers began excavation at what had been a parking lot. Since then they have uncovered eight circles of holes in the limestone bedrock where supports for huts may once have stood.

"We're getting a glimpse of what might be one of the earliest town plans in eastern North America," said archaeologist Robert Carr, who was hired to survey the site by the developer, Miami-based MDM Development Group.

The ancient site sits in the heart of Miami's latest real estate boom, surrounded by luxury condo towers with names like Icon and Epic.

Across the street is a luxury JW Marriott Marquis hotel, where professional basketball players stay when in town to play the Miami Heat, as well as some of Miami's newest high-end restaurants, where celebrities are spotted nightly.

A similar circle of holes drilled into the rock, called the Miami Circle, was uncovered nearby in 1998 and is thought to have once been a ceremonial Tequesta meeting place for the native American tribe. That discovery led to a developer being forced to sell the land back to the city. The site is now a city park.

MDM's plans for the site of the newly discovered Tequesta circles include a movie theater, restaurants and a 34-story hotel covering an entire city block, including the archaeological site. The tower is part of the four-phase Met Miami project, which includes the already completed JW Marriott, an office building anchored by Wells Fargo and a 447-unit condo tower overlooking Biscayne Bay.

Over the past nine years archaeologists have uncovered thousands of artifacts - as well as human bones - that show the Tequestas conducted trade with other parts of North America and the Caribbean.

"Accounts by Spanish (explorers) describe huts, a heathen, savage people. The big surprise is we're finding a very sophisticated people living in one location for a fairly long period of time," Carr said.

The city of Miami is under pressure to revisit permits issued to the developer in hopes changing the design to preserve the ancient village. The city's Historic and Environmental Preservation Board is expected to discuss the issue at a meeting Tuesday, and a vote could be held later this month.

"MDM's not going to be happy to hear that, but this is very important stuff for us," said one local historian, Paul George.

Archaeologists also found the foundation of the Royal Palm Hotel at the site, built in 1897 by industrialist Henry Flagler, who is widely credited with establishing Miami. Badly damaged in the hurricane of 1926, the Royal Palm was demolished in 1930.

"In Florida, we started in archeology late," said George. "That's all fill going back to the 1920s. I love the idea that our original shoreline is beginning to appear."

The developers have proposed carving out a slab of the limestone holding one or two of the larger circles on the site and displaying it once the building is complete.

The Historic and Environmental Preservation Board could recommend that the city take back the property. In a statement, the developer said that would be a mistake.

"The cost to us of a full or partial taking of this property is far greater than the public would ever be willing to spend," MDM said.

"Imposing such a staggering burden on a single company is neither lawful nor acceptable," it added.

(Editing by David Adams and Douglas Royalty)

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