MIAMI — The Miami Circle, the 2,000-year-old remnant of the city's original inhabitants, has just been designated a National Historic Landmark, an honor that puts it on a select list of the country's most significant archaeological sites. Just don't bother strolling over to the Miami River for a look.
A decade after taxpayers paid nearly $27 million to save the 2.2-acre bayfront site from development, there's little to see there other than a weedy plot of land and a circular depression where the main feature was buried in protective fill.
But what you can see may not quite accord with the site's importance: a colossal new condo and hotel development that backs up to the site's southern edge with massive concrete walls, two yawning service garages and loading docks overlooking the ancient circle.
To dress up the garages, the Icon Brickell developers covered six tall columns fronting the circle with large, oblong metallic heads, a famous French designer's idea of tribute to the Tequesta Indians whose onetime village the round carving marks.
Supposedly inspired by the mysterious sculptures on Easter Island, they strike many observers as something else entirely.
"Giant potato men," groans Ryan Wheeler, the state's chief archaeologist.
Frustration is growing among some advocates and elected officials who say the state of Florida and Icon Brickell developer Related Group have not lived up to pledges to provide a public riverwalk and park at the site.
Related Group officials, who built an adjacent baywalk on their property that would provide public access to the circle, say they remain willing to put up money for improvements, but have not specified how much.
Meanwhile, there appears to be little immediate prospect for a riverwalk or park.
The Historical Museum of Southern Florida, which is managing the site under a contract with the state, says work will soon begin on replacement of a collapsed sea wall along the river that has hindered plans for public access. The museum is also hiring a landscape architecture firm to design a park.
But critics say those two initiatives will eat up virtually all the $2.2 million allocated for the site by the Florida Legislature, leaving little to pay for construction of a riverwalk or park. The work would also delay the opening of the site until at least 2012.
Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes the circle site, called the delays "unacceptable."
"Taxpayers have shown more than enough patience," Sarnoff said last week after the site's landmark designation was announced. "All stakeholders must step up and honor the agreements that have long been made to preserve the circle."
Bob McCammon, the history museum's president, says the national landmark designation from the U.S. secretary of the Interior will open the door to potential federal grants for the circle site. He's counting on Related CEO Jorge M. Perez to come through with money.
"Tell Jorge he can send us whatever they spent on wrapping those columns with whatever they're calling those things," McCammon said, referring to the Easter Island heads.
The Downtown Development Authority, a semi-independent arm of the city, and the state-chartered Miami River Commission are pressing the museum to forgo a master plan until more money becomes available, and instead build the riverwalk immediately after the sea wall reconstruction is done.
The state is sticking with its plans, however. In a December letter to the River Commission, Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning wrote that building a riverwalk without a broader plan to ensure compatibility or proper drainage would be "imprudent."
"We want to make sure whatever we do there is done the right way," Wheeler said.
No matter what happens on the site in the near future, the circle itself will likely remain invisible for a long time. The 38-foot-wide ground-level circle consists of carvings in soft limestone that archaeologists believe were postholes for a round Tequesta structure, which may have had ceremonial uses. It was buried in layers of gravel and sand several years after its 1998 discovery because of deterioration caused by exposure to the elements.
Conceptual plans call for the circle to remain covered up, with interpretive signs and a possible display depicting the carvings and explaining their significance. The state has no money for a climate-controlled structure that would allow the circle itself to be displayed, and American Indian tribal representatives have objected to construction on land they consider sacred.
The ancient circle was found when a 1950s apartment building on the site at the mouth of the Miami River was torn down for construction of a condo tower. Amid a public outcry, Miami-Dade County sued to take the property by eminent domain. State and county funds paid for its purchase in 1999.
Archaeologists believe the site — also the place where the pioneering Brickell family had its trading post — was a portion of a larger Tequesta village that occupied both banks of the river. Thousands of archaeological artifacts have been found on the site.
Efforts to open the property to the public have been delayed by lack of money as well as state indecision about how best to show off the hard-to-access site, which is tucked behind the Brickell Avenue bridge, while protecting the circle.
The 1,600-unit three-tower Icon Brickell project also complicated the task, sealing off access for three years of construction.