Indigenous groups gain win over site
Native American groups fighting to block a housing development on the West Berkeley Ohlone shellmound won a victory Thursday when the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the site as one of the 11 “most endangered historic places” in the United States.
The new historic designation comes after a threeyear battle over the asphalt lot, which for decades served as a parking area for Spenger’s Fish Grotto, the waterfront seafood joint that shut down in 2018 after 128 years in business. Property owner the Frank Spenger Co. is teaming with Ruegg & Ellsworth to develop 260 housing units on the site, 50% of which would be affordable.
Tribal members regard the shellmound as one of the most important and earliest known Ohlone settlements on the shores of San Francisco Bay, with a village dating back 5,700 years.
The site served as a burial and ceremonial ground, as well as a lookout with the repository of shells, ritual objects and artifacts forming a massive mound at the center of a string of fishing villages.
For city officials the Fourth Street conflict pits badly needed affordable housing against a desire to redress historic wrongs against the native tribes that lived along the bay for thousands of years. The Spenger’s project, with 130 affordable units, would be a significant addition to the city’s affordable housing inventory.
Between 2012 and 2019 Berkeley completed 1,300 units of housing, but just 90 were below market rate. There are another 1,047 under construction, of which 81 are affordable.
In a statement, Katherine MaloneFrance, chief preservation officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, called the shellmound “a cautionary tale that teaches the pain a people can experience when they are confronted with the loss of connection to their history, and in particular, their sacred sites.
“Halting the further destruction and desecration of the Shellmound and acknowledging this site as a sacred resource of the Ohlone people demonstrates that preservation can be a powerful force for reconciliation and justice,” MaloneFrance said.
While the designation doesn’t have any legal teeth, it has proven to be effective in drawing attention to vulnerable sites. Over the last 31 years the National Trust For Historic Preservation has included more than 300 sites on its most endangered lists. Of those, less than 5% have been “lost,” according to Brian Turner of the National Trust’s local office.
“In the case of the shellmound, there is a very clear threat,” he said. “We are hoping this national recognition will validate what this local group has been doing to save the site and the attention will help the developer come to their senses.”
The latest twist comes as the future of the property is tied up in court. The property owner had hoped to speed up approvals under SB35, a state law that allows for streamlining transitoriented projects with elevated levels of affordable housing. But last October a judge rejected the streamlining application, agreeing with the City of Berkeley that it didn’t qualify because it would require the demolition of a historic structure, which is not allowed under SB35. The property owner has appealed that ruling, arguing that a shellmound underneath pavement doesn’t qualify as a structure. A decision on the appeal is expected in June.
Advocates would like the site preserved as a place to honor the past and serve ceremonial purposes and returned to a more natural state.
Ohlone leader Corrina Gould, spokesperson for the
Confederated Villages of Lisja, said the designation is “really important because we have been trying to save this site for many years.” Gould would like to “daylight” Strawberry Creek, an underground stream that runs through the property, as well as to build an Ohlone education, theater and cultural center on the property.
“We would like it to remain an open space where we can talk about our history and our culture and continue to pray and have connection to our Ohlone ancestors,” she said. “So often the Ohlone are talked about in the past tense, when the truth is we still live right here in our territory and have an unbroken tie to this land going back thousands of years. Many Bay Area residents think we don’t exist any more.”
Jennifer Hernandez, an attorney for the property owner and developer, said her client declined to comment on the historic designation. While the city of Berkeley landmarked the site as part of a broader historic district 20 years ago, the property owner commissioned an archaeological study that found the shellmound was not located on the 1900 Fourth St. property but to the west, northwest and northeast of the parking lot. The city’s landmarked shellmound district includes a threeblock area from University Avenue to Hearst Street, and Interstate 80 over to Fourth Street.
Berkeley Vice Mayor Sophie Hahn said the designation “really validates the city of Berkeley’s position and my position that this is an extremely important historic and cultural resource that should be protected.” She said that she hopes the property owner will be willing to sell the property to the city or to a nonprofit, which would allow advocates to go after public and private money.
“I hope it will inspire the people who own this property to work with us to find a way for them to realize some of the value they see in the property, but also protect the historic and cultural significance, which we feel has an even greater value,” she said.