In­dige­nous groups gain win over site

San Francisco Chronicle - - BAY AREA - By J.K. Di­neen

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.

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