Developers and Preservationists Find Historic Common Ground in Miami

Opposing parties agree to a solution as historic as the ancient Indian site it preserves.

When an archaeologist unearths a significant find on the site of a multimillion-dollar development, it rarely ends with smiles and handshakes. But at Miami's Met Square development, where archaeologist Robert Carr recently discovered the remnants of a an ancient Tequesta Indian village, that's exactly what has happened.

Last night, the Miami City Commission approved an agreement hammered out in mediation last week between MDM Development Group and several private and governmental preservationist parties, and all sides agree that the solution is as historic as the site it preserves.

"This will be the most robust preservation of any site in the southeast United States," said Marc Sarnoff, the city commissioner who first suggested that the parties try to reach agreement through mediation. "It's a very well thought out plan."

The plan will preserve and showcase two areas where Tequesta Indians, who inhabited the area for two millennia, are believed to have dug postholes in the limestone bedrock to erect thatched buildings some 1,500 years ago. One area will be covered with a glass floor and managed as a public museum space by HistoryMiami, a local organization, and the other will be sealed behind glass walls and easily seen from an adjacent restaurant and the sidewalk. A third area will be preserved for future study. The developer, working with local historians, will also construct a museum plaza on the grounds, as well as interpretive exhibits explaining the history of the site.

"We wanted to have enough preserved that we could tell a story, and that's done," said Arva Parks, a local historian involved in the mediation. "And what's not preserved for people to see will be preserved underground for further reference."

Vent First

Carr, the archaeologist, said the agreement was "a pleasant surprise," given the contentiousness leading up to the mediation. "I was hoping that there would be an agreement, but I certainly wasn't overly optimistic. The mediator played a strong hand."

Everyone involved gave the mediator, Angel Cortiñas, high praise for his work over the course of the two-day mediation. "He has a way of keeping people engaged," said Sarnoff, the city commissioner. "For the first hour and a half of the mediation, he had everybody get their issues out with each other, and it was very effective. Everybody just needed to get their venting done." Then he separated the two groups and went back and forth between them with proposals and counterproposals—some 30 or 40 rounds, according to participants—until an agreement was reached.

Each side had architects present, and MDM presented architectural renderings that became the basis for negotiations. "The progress was largely a result of the architects talking to one another," said Carr. "If you think about it, as archaeologists we don't have a professional knowledge of architecture, so having the architects talking to one another really made a big difference."

Millions for History

"I've never walked out of a mediation where I felt more positive," said Eugene Stearns, MDM's representative. "I think everybody walked out with a sense that we'd done something important. The history here is extraordinarily rich, and it's largely unknown. Now people who come to see this site will see more than just holes in the ground."

The changes will cost the developer "millions," Stearns says, but he believes that the money is a good investment and that the development—which includes a 34-story hotel, a movie theater complex, and restaurants—will become an attraction that "marries the future to the past.

"Look at Miami Circle," he said, referring to a nearby Tequesta site that has been preserved as a National Historic Landmark. "It's covered in mud and used as a dog park, because the public hasn't allocated a dime to even complete the archaeology of that site."

What happens next? "We build," Stearns said. He expects the development to be completed in less than two years, once the city of Miami approves the final plans.

"You never get everything you want in a mediation," said Parks, the historian. "But I was very pleased at the end of the day. We all left shaking hands, and everything that we said that we didn't like about each other was forgotten."