No study of Brickell Park gravesites planned but development is unlikely
By Marilyn Bowden
The discovery in Brickell Park of graves thought by archaeologists to be connected to the Native American community that built the Miami Circle will probably ensure that the park remains undeveloped for the foreseeable future, experts say.
Environmentalists and civic activists opposed the city's decision last year to sell and allow development of the last remaining bayfront green space on Brickell. Now state law, public sentiment and thorny questions of ownership may save the park after an interested developer recently dropped his intent to purchase it.
State law makes it illegal to "willfully and knowingly disturb human remains," said state archaeologist James Miller.
Human remains that turn up unexpectedly fall under the jurisdiction of the county medical examiner or the state archaeologist, depending on their antiquity, he said.
"In this case," Mr. Miller said, "most of the remains are pre-European, so jurisdiction would rest with the state archaeologist."
During a pre-construction assessment the Archaeological & Historical Conservancy found the bones of at least 12 people interred at Brickell Park, said Executive Director Bob Carr.
Mr. Carr was county archaeologist when the Miami Circle was unearthed in 1998 at a nearby construction site.
Gotham Partners of New York, which was looking to buy the site for a condominium development, canceled the $18 million deal last week after the discovery.
Mr. Carr said his office has no plans to investigate the find further.
"We were retained to conduct an assessment of any archaeological remains. That is accomplished," he said. "We have no plans to remove any of the remains, in part out of regard to the law that protects them, but also because Native American groups have expressed their desire to see them undisturbed.
"There might be a time when DNA testing would be done at the request of these groups. But for the most part they will be left alone."
The archaeological survey was minimally invasive, Mr. Carr said. Visitors to the park will not find much evidence of it.
"We were very surgical in what we did," he said. "We made the test holes as small as possible and filled them immediately."
Though the law doesn't dictate what happens to the property now, Mr. Miller said, the fact that human remains were discovered in every sample area argues against construction.
"This is very different from finding an isolated individual or a single bone," he said. "It suggests that were there to be construction it would probably encounter or disturb remains.
"Practically speaking, what happens is someone will make a business or personal decision based on a number of different criteria.
"One prominent one is the Native American point of view, which is to leave these sites undisturbed."
In every similar case where the federal government has become involved, Mr. Miller said, the recommendation has been for reburial at or near the same site, if remains have been exhumed, or for leaving them where they rest.
Even if resale of the site were possible, said Chris Eck, director of historic preservation at the Miami-Dade Office of Community & Economic Affairs, it's not clear who holds title to the land.
"According to a settlement between the Brickell heirs and the city, the title has been conveyed to City National Bank," he said. "But the property appraiser's rolls for the county say it's owned by the city. So who owns Brickell Park?"
The park's 2.4 acres, separated from the historic Miami Circle site by the Sheraton Biscayne Bay Hotel, were deeded to the city in 1924 by Maud Brickell, daughter of settlers who opened a trading post on the Miami River in the 1870s and grew wealthy from the sale of land, he said.
"In 1922, prior to the deed, Mary Brickell had been buried there," Mr. Eck said. The Brickell Mausoleum was erected in 1923. But Maud removed her mother's remains to Woodlawn Cemetery in 1948 because Brickell Avenue had become too noisy.
Through the years, he said, the city has raised the question internally of what would happen if this property were ever to cease being parkland.
"In 1955," Mr. Eck said, "one of the city attorneys, John Smith, told City Manager J.C. Yelverton that any conveyance out of city ownership would be 'a violation of civic trust.'
"It was given for a park, and the Brickell family had put in a reverter clause that if the city tried to stop using it as a park it would come back to Maud's heirs."
When the city tried to sell the land for development in 1987, Mr. Eck said, the Brickell heirs sued. Various settlements were proposed, he said, but the issue remained up in the air until April 2000, when a federal court turned the property over to a third-party trustee, City National Bank.
"The bank was given full legal title to the property," he said, "and would have the power to convey it to a purchaser, with the Brickell heirs and the city splitting the net proceeds 50-50. That's where the developer came in.
"An interesting point about this agreement is a stipulation that it becomes null and void within 18 months unless a sale is executed. So it ends in October of this year."