Residents, activists pack meeting over historic designation for Brickell archaeological site

MIAMI – The city of Miami’s Historic & Environmental Preservation Board saw an unusually large crowd for its meeting Tuesday as it considered whether to move forward on designating a major archaeological dig along the Miami River as a historic site.

They ultimately voted late Tuesday night to designate a large portion of the area as a protected landmark, but not the portion of the site where the developer plans to build a pair of skyscrapers.

Board members withdrew a proposal for designation for that portion of the property, instead requiring developers “to bring an action plan back to the Board for consideration within (six) months from the completion of the excavation,” according to city spokesperson Kenia Fallat.

“Excavation is determined to be complete when a fieldwork completion report is submitted and reviewed by staff,” Fallat said. “In the meantime, staff will provide monthly updates to the HEP Board of the progress of the excavation.”

Tuesday’s meeting was held at Miami City Hall in Coconut Grove.

The discussion centered on Related Group’s 444 Brickell project, located at the corner of Southeast Fifth Street and Brickell Avenue, where archaeologists unearthed a trove of artifacts and fossils dating back thousands of years ahead of the planned development of three towers at the site.

On one side were Native American activists and Brickell homeowners, who wish to see the project stopped, delayed or modified — and developers, investors and builders, who were asking the city to allow the project to move forward.

A historic designation could delay or alter development plans on the site.

“Ultimately, this would allow them to place conditions on the developer on what can and cannot happen on the site as they build it out over the coming years,” William Pestle, an archaeologist and professor at the University of Miami, who co-authored a presentation making the case for a historic designation, told Local 10 News ahead of the vote.

Native American activists have asked for digging to stop completely on the site and have asked for it to be preserved, much like the nearby Miami Circle, which archaeologists have linked the 444 Brickell dig to.

“No one should profit from our ancestors,” American Indian Movement of Florida activist Robert Rosa said Tuesday. “No one should profit off our sacred artifacts.”

Pestle hasn’t called for a halt to the project, but argued that the developers could do more to preserve and showcase the site. He has said there is “ample precedent” for a historical designation.

At Tuesday’s meeting, supporters of the project pointed to “thousands of jobs” proponents claim the project will provide.

“I have seen what Related Group can do for the city,” a project supporter and opponent of historic designation said.

Supporters of the project also referenced Miami’s housing crisis, though opponents note that none of the units in this particular project, which includes the Baccarat Residences, will be affordable.

Related Group had asked the board to delay any steps towards historical designation until the archaeological work has been completed, calling any designation “premature.”

A presentation shared by the developers argued that they have kept Native American groups apprised of the process and have taken good care of the findings.

“(The) next step in the process is for the board to task the staff with preparing a formal report for designation which the board would then consider at a later meeting,” Pestle said. “Today is just one checkpoint on the way toward designation and we hope that the board would see the process through to its legal obligated conclusion.”

The Related Group put out a statement following Tuesday night’s vote:

“The Related Group appreciates the opportunity to continue collaborating with the City of Miami and the thoughtful members of the Historic Environmental & Preservation Board regarding our Brickell area properties. We are pleased with the Board’s decision allowing us to continue the archaeological excavation of the future home of the Baccarat Residences while developing an action plan to honor the site and secure the appropriate placement of the artifacts for future study.

We also agree that the 444 Brickell Site should be celebrated and honored. We will work with the city hand in hand on the designation of the 444 Brickell site. Our efforts will continue to be transparent and inclusive. We know that working together on the preservation of archaeologically significant sites is a collaborative effort that benefits everyone."

Jon Paul Perez, Related Group president

About the Authors:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."

Chris Gothner joined the Local 10 News team in 2022 as a Digital Journalist.