Archaeologist working on plan to reopen Miami Circle to public
By Marilyn Bowden
The state will consider restoring public access to the Miami Circle now that a federal study is under way to determine long-term strategies for the Brickell archaeological find.
Ryan Wheeler, chief of the state's Bureau of Archaeological Research, said he is working on a short-term plan to give the public access that could be ready for discussion in a month.
The Miami Circle, a 2,000-year-old artifact of the area's aboriginal settlers, was unearthed nearly six years ago during an archaeological survey at the site of a planned condominium tower near the confluence of Miami River and Biscayne Bay.
The find captured the public imagination, and after an intensive media campaign, Miami-Dade County officials claimed the 2.2-acre site by eminent domain. Public access to the landmark has been stymied as federal, state and local governments debated its fate.
"The question of whether or not the site would be included in the National Park Service has made making decisions about what to do difficult," said Mr. Wheeler.
A bill authorizing a feasibility study into whether the site should be part of Biscayne National Park passed in October, he said.
Normally, it would have gone to the bottom of a list of projects awaiting funding, Mr. Wheeler said, where it might have languished for five or six years. But the Florida Department of State agreed to foot the cost of the study, he said, pushing it to the top of the Park Service's priority list.
The study is expected to take about 18 months.
Meanwhile, the Florida Division of Historical Resources leases the site from the Division of State Lands.
"Under the formal terms of the lease," Mr. Wheeler said, "we are required to develop a management plan that takes the feasibility study into consideration. We're working closely with the parks people on this. We want to avoid developments there that couldn't be easily reversed - concrete paths, buildings and so on."
Feedback from hearings held by the Miami Circle Planning Group indicates "there are divergent opinions about what kind of access is appropriate," he said.
"The Miami River Commission has suggested a trail along the seawall, but that isn't too close to where the circle is. We also need to balance access against Native American views that this a sacred site.
"It's difficult because this is outside the normal state park model," he said. "It can't be like Jose Marti Park, where people can go whenever they want with their dogs and Frisbees. I think it needs a minimalist approach."
Mr. Wheeler suggested scheduled tours and an onsite steward facilitating access as alternatives. Interpretative signage about the history of the property and the fight to save it could be included, he said. The Historical Museum of Southern Florida had offered to provide interpretive signage for an earlier plan, and Mr. Wheeler said it makes sense to include the museum in the new management plan.
"They have a terrific museum exhibit including a lot of information on the circle and indigenous peoples in the area, so it makes a lot of sense," he said.
Michael Spring, executive director of the county's Cultural Affairs Department, called Mr. Wheeler's approach "a breath of fresh air. He's truly interested in moving aggressively on interim access. Both that and the feasibility study bode well for getting the site open."
Mr. Spring said the US Department of the Interior has announced a study to designate the Miami Circle a National Historic Landmark, which would make it eligible for federal grants.
In the meantime, Mr. Wheeler said, repairs are about to get under way at the site.
"We need to replace the fence," he said, "and the seawall, which is deteriorating, needs major repairs."
The circle was reburied last summer under several layers of limestone and gravel to protect it from the elements.
"It would be terrific if the National Park Service took over the property," Mr. Wheeler said, "but the results of the study may indicate that's not the best fit. It's important to get it ready with minimal access so when we turn it over to the parks department or another manager, it will be an easy transition."