Bay Curious: West Berkeley Shellmound

Back in July, I wrote a piece about the battle over development of the West Berkeley Shellmound. Although the developer’s application for a  260-unit complex was officially denied in September by the City of Berkeley, the site remains under threat of development.

Curious to know any happenings between September and now, I searched a few of my usual news outlets and came across a recent episode of KQED’s Bay Curious podcast, which answers listener questions about the San Francisco Bay Area. The relative inquiry reads:

“There Were Once More Than 425 Shellmounds in the Bay Area. Where Did They Go?”

While it surprises me that people who frequent the Emeryville shoreline area don’t know who the Ohlone people are or have never heard of shellmounds, I’m happy that some are curious enough to find out. That said, the episode is definitely worth a listen; for more information, visit shellmound.org

West Berkeley Shellmound Development Update

The following article was written in July 2018 and published in the Fall 2018 edition of News from Native California

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, hundreds of people gathered in support of the West Berkeley Shellmound and Historic Ohlone Village Site, which is in danger of being developed.

A nearly 15-foot effigy of Dr. King blew in the light breeze on the overcast day as Ohlone activist Corrina Gould spoke to the crowd in the 2.2-acre parking across from Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto at 1900 4th Street in Berkeley. Against the backdrop of the University Avenue overpass, she asked supporters to imagine a five-story building on the site. “This entire space—not one inch will be left for us to come and say our prayers,” she said. “My children and my grandchildren, and other Ohlone people come, and many of you have come out at other times to lay down our prayers here for the ancestors that still remain under this asphalt.”

Gould, said the sacred site is 5,700 years old, the oldest of 425 shellmounds that used to ring the entire Bay Area.

For over five years, Gould, Indigenous activists, and other supporters have been fighting the development of the site by West Berkeley Investors, a subsidiary of Danville-based Blake Griggs Properties, LLC, who invoked Senate Bill 35 when filing its second application with the City of Berkeley in March.

SB 35, enacted in January, is designed to expedite the approval process for residential developments by requiring California cities that aren’t meeting state-mandated housing goals to approve more residential and mixed-use projects.

Jennifer Hernandez, an attorney who represents West Berkeley Investors, said the project is a prime example of the type of development SB 35 is intended to encourage and that it would single-handedly provide enough affordable housing for Berkeley to meet SB 35 standards, according to reporting by Mercury News.

However, the City of Berkeley Planning and Development Department issued a letter in June claiming the proposal could not be approved due to the submission of an incomplete Use Permit application and the site’s status as a city landmark.

In response, West Berkeley Investors refuted the city’s letter, stating that it will press charges against the city if the proposal is not approved by Sept. 4, the last of the 180-day legal time limit for the proposal to be considered. As of this writing, the project website, 19004thst.com, contains a countdown for city council approval under SB-35.  The slogan “Housing for People. Not Parking for Cars” overlays alternating images—one of an artist’s colorful rendering of the proposed site with people strolling, shopping, and generally enjoying the newly-developed space; the other, a black and white photograph of the Spenger’s parking lot populated with a smattering of stationary vehicles and no people in sight.

The website also contains a link to the history of project site, which illustrates through charts, historic maps, and other resources the developer’s position that the West Berkeley Shellmound was not located at the proposed project site:

“These areas were exhaustively excavated in 2014.  Ground-penetrating radar and hand excavation were used.  Shell residue in these locations had been deposited through secondary sources and did not constitute intact shellmound. No evidence whatsoever was found of the West Berkeley Shellmound on the site. Investigation was performed under supervision of an Ohlone Indian representative.”

Lauren Seaver, Blake Griggs Vice President of Development, echoed this message in an interview with KPIX5. “We’ve conducted five years of research—the most extensive research ever conducted—and spent millions of dollars doing so. And none of that research has ever showed that this was ever the site of the West Berkeley Shellmound.”

Human remains have been recently discovered in the area, however, according to Andrew Galvan (Chochenyo Ohlone), the curator of the Mission Dolores Museum in San Francisco and on-site Indigenous artifacts consultant to developers. One of the project sites for which Glavin consulted, the redevelopment of Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto and adjoining parcels, was under scrutiny in 2016 due to “pre-contact” Indigenous remains found by construction workers while digging a trench on Fourth Street near Hearst Avenue, according to reporting by Berkeleyside.com. Jamestown, the corporate owner of the property, commissioned a bone expert, who determined that the remains, which lay among remnants of the ancient shellmound that sat for centuries in the area, were human. The Alameda County Coroner’s office has since confirmed the finding.

Seaver said Blake Griggs has spent over half a year working with tribal leaders and have made various offers, including an offer to give the tribe the entire property subject to a ground lease on which the developer would build the project, and then the tribe would own the entire parking lot thereafter.

Gould said there could be no further compromise and disputed the legitimacy of Blake Griggs/West Berkeley Investors’ claim that the land is not tribal property. She said it is unfortunate that the developers are still fighting to build on a historic site.

News’ Roundhouse Outreach Coordinator, Vincent Medina (Chochenyo Ohlone), works with Galvan as an assistant curator of the Mission Dolores Museum and is the spokesperson for one-third of the autonomous Ohlone Family Bands vowing in a letter released in late 2017 to stand together in opposition of the development of the West Berkeley Shellmound. Representatives of the united front—the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, represented by Gould, Himre-n-Ohlone represented by Ruth Orta, and Medina Family, represented by Medina—have worked diligently to raise awareness on social media platforms as well as in public gatherings.

West Berkeley City Council

credit: shellmound.org

As with the MLK Day gathering, hundreds of people showed their support at June Berkeley City council meeting, packing city hall to protest Blake Griggs Properties’ invocation of SB 35 to develop the West Berkeley Shellmound. The council reportedly gave the Ohlone 35 minutes to advocate for the site.

“We stand united because we know that this is bigger than any one of us,” Medina said.  “Developers ask us—they say, ‘Why?  It’s a parking lot?’  They don’t understand the depth and the history that’s underneath that pavement.”

He continued, referencing a saying in the Chocheyno language, “‘The ground had turned to stone but below the world is still alive.’ We know this is a sacred site because we know our direct ancestors.  We know our direct family members. Our direct ancestors are buried there.”

Gould said she thought the City Council meeting went well. “I want to thank the hundreds of people that showed up and gave up their time, and the wonderful speakers that spoke. I want to thank our legal team, Michelle LaPenna and Tom Lippy for coming and explaining and sharing our legal strategy with the city council members, as well as their legal council and the city department manager,” she said. “One of the things we want people to do, in order to make sure that the city of Berkeley does the right thing, is to send letters to the legal staff, the city planning department and the city manager asking them to do the right thing, to not qualify this project for SB 35 and to do it in a good way!”

Note: featured image photo credit: Berkeleyside.com;  for the latest information, visit: shellmound.org