When the Miami City Commission voted 3-1 at its March 27 meeting to accept a mediated settlement of the controversy surrounding the downtown MetSquare site, the age-old question of costs versus benefits to the community was escalated to a level that will surely haunt us for years, if not generations to come.
With Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort absent, Commissioners Marc Sarnoff, Francis Suarez and Frank Carollo voted in favor of the settlement, which preserves some features on opposite corners of the site, while burying most of the others. Commissioner Keon Hardemon was the lone dissenter.
In a scenario not unlike the Miami Circle controversy of the late 1990s – which received much more press coverage – no less than eight circles and several alignments of postholes were discovered by the required archaeological investigation. The findings suggest an ancient Tequesta settlement at least 1,500 years old along the original north bank of the Miami River.
In addition, human and animal bones were found, including primary (original) burials of infants, along with many bones thought to have been reburied as part of the landfill when an ancient Tequesta burial mound was leveled to build Henry Flagler’s sprawling Royal Palm hotel in 1897.
Among other artifacts discovered at the site are parts of that hotel, including the original ballroom stairs, and items from the earlier era of Fort Dallas, which was built during the Seminole Wars on the site of the Richard Fitzpatrick sugar plantation.
That property was later taken over by Fitzpatrick’s nephew William English, whose enslaved laborers built a “slave quarters” structure that served as the fort’s barracks and still remains as the oldest standing stone structure in Miami; it has since been moved to Lummus Park.
In yet another layer of history at the site, it will be recalled that the property was also owned by Julia Tuttle, who is credited with the founding of the modern Miami, prior to Flagler’s takeover.
Historic preservationists and, most notably, the Native American community, have insisted that the orderly alignments and circles of post holes need to be preserved intact, and in place and not bulldozed, buried or partially removed and relocated, as the developers, the MDM Group, originally planned, especially since discoveries were still being made by archaeologists.
That opinion gained a major boost from the city of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Protection Board, a panel of experts who meet monthly at City Hall to review applications for historically sensitve projects.
After discussing this issue at several meetings, the board scheduled a day-long presentation and public hearing on Feb. 14, at which MDM’s attorney failed to discredit the archaeologists’ scientific findings in a bid to secure the board’s approval of a plan to preserve only a quarter of the known discoveries.
No one from the public, including several Native American speakers, supported that proposal, resulting in a resounding 7-1 rejection by the board which who directed the developers to return with a redesign of the project.
Rather than follow that directive, the developers opted to appeal the decision to the City Commission, which has the final say and where only three votes would be needed for approval, but which could curtail an even more energetic public discussion.
In preparation for that final vote, Commissioner Sarnoff, in whose district the site is located, recommended a mediation process prior to the March 27 meeting.
Representatives of MDM, Miami-Dade County, the Dade Heritage Trust, archaeologists and a selection of highly respected historic preservationists, over two contentious 12-hour sessions, hammered out a compromise, guided by the able mediator and former judge Angel Cortinas.
With much more fanfare than was accorded to the controversy up to that point, the settlement was hailed by some media and participants alike as a remarkable accomplishment, a supposed “win-win” situation for all concerned and essentially a “done deal.” That perception prevailed in the commission’s discussion and final vote.
But while the process may be credited with putting the controversy to rest, for now, at least, closer examination of it, and the precedent it sets, raises very serious concerns.
Most problematic of all is not only the glaring absence of any Native American representation in the mediation over what to do with a Native American sacred site but also the fact that the negotiators did not even seem to consider that absence to be a problem.
That absence only underscores the question of what legal authority this hand-picked group of participants had to negotiate away the reasonable demand that the entire archaeological site, a non-renewable resource, be preserved intact.
And that question, in turn, exacerbates the even deeper concern that this contrived closed-door mediation process, for whatever good it might have produced in bringing more light and less heat to the controversy, actually subverted and trashed all of the public deliberations of the duly constituted Historic and Environmental Protection Board in favor of the developers, whose appeal was not based on any faulty reasoning by the board but only on their dislike of the result.
The ease with which all of the hard work, time, expertise and citizens’ testimony that went into the Historic and Environmental Protection Board’s logical decision could be brushed aside by three commissioners will surely have a chilling effect on future deliberations by the board, as well as on what may remain of any hope or belief that the public may still have that we are living in a democracy representing all of the people.
Dinizulu Gene Tinnie is a Miami-based artist, art educator and historian. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org