Miami Luxury Complex Hits Prehistoric Roadblock




The Miami site where a 2,000-year-old Tequesta village once stood. Archaeological and Historical Conservancy/European Pressphoto Agency

MIAMI—The developer of a $1 billion luxury project promoted as key to reviving this city’s downtown is set to start building its final phase, which includes an upscale hotel, cinema and restaurants.

There is just one hitch: archaeologists have found the remnants of what may be one of the most significant prehistoric sites in the U.S. buried beneath the vacant lot.

The discovery of the Tequesta tribal village markings threatens to trigger a battle involving the city, the project’s developer and preservationists about what to do on the site, a complicated situation that pits efforts to save the area’s past against its economic future.

The developer, MDM Development Group, has proposed carving out some vestiges of the village for display in a plaza, but otherwise wants to proceed with its plans. Preservationists are pressing MDM to keep the remnants intact and redesign the project around them, or to consider selling the parcel.

“It probably is the first settlement in Miami,” said Gerald Marston, vice chairman of the city’s historic and environmental preservation board.

The site lies in a designated archaeological zone, where the Tequesta tribe is believed to have lived for about 2,000 years before dying off or migrating in the 18th century. As a result, the developer had to hire archaeologists to excavate the entire four-block tract before erecting any buildings.

During more than a decade of digging, researchers found thousands of relics, including pottery shells, tools and human remains. The most notable discovery, however, came on the final plot of land: eight large circles of holes carved into limestone that likely held posts for dwellings, said Robert Carr, the lead archaeologist hired by MDM.

Next week, the parties are expected to present their proposals at a meeting of the historic preservation board, which could force MDM to alter its plans. The developer could appeal to the city commission, which can overrule the board.

A similar dispute played out in the late 1990s, when a Tequesta circle was discovered on property just across the Miami River that was slated for condos. The developer ultimately sold the land to the state. A park occupies the site and the circle was covered to preserve it, so the public can’t actually see it.

MDM director Ian Swanson said that while no one disputes the value of the most recent discovery, preserving the entire village is unrealistic because if it is left exposed to sun and rain, the soft limestone gradually will deteriorate.

Over the years, “thousands of artifacts taken from the site have been cleaned, labeled and cataloged” for eventual viewing in a local museum, said Eugene Stearns, an attorney for MDM. All that remain are the limestone carvings. “An archaeologist can get teary-eyed about them, but the reality is they are holes in the rock,” he said.

Redesigning the project would deal a serious financial blow to the developer, which already has leased all the commercial space, Mr. Stearns said. The site is a key part of the larger $1 billion complex—including luxury condos and a Whole Foods WFM +1.54%supermarket under construction—that is transforming a once drab part of downtown, he said.

Still, MDM could have avoided the quandary if it had waited for the archaeological work to be completed before designing the project, said Jeff Ransom, the Miami-Dade county archaeologist, who has overseen the excavation. In his view, the developer should redo its plans to preserve the Tequesta village.

“It’s quite a dilemma,” Mr. Ransom said. “But we believe the development can still exist with the site being preserved.”

Write to Arian Campo-Flores at

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