protest in berkeley to save the shellmound
A protest at the West Berkeley Shellmound. (Not taken recently). Photo: Brooke Anderson

The National Trust for Historic Preservation announced Thursday that it has put the West Berkeley Shellmound and Village site on its list of the 11 most endangered historic places for 2020.

The designation gives a morale boost to the efforts of various Ohlone tribes that are fighting the development of an apartment complex at 1900 Fourth St., better known as the Spenger’s parking lot. The trust’s announcement does not specify the boundaries of the shellmound, nor does it specifically mention that particular plot of land, which is embroiled in a court fight, but it clearly was included.

“Through this recognition, we are acknowledging the legacy of our ancestors and the continued importance of this sacred site for those in this present moment and for the next seven generations,” Corinna Gould, the tribal leader of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, said in a Zoom press conference. “This land is an important cultural landscape and this gives us a platform to tell our story, a story that has been erased and invisibilized… We must do everything we can to stop the desecration of this sacred site.”

That erasure is one of the reasons that Trust appears to have selected the shellmound as an endangered landmark.

“In many ways, the West Berkeley Shellmound is 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,” Katherine Malone-France, the chief preservation officer of the trust said in a statement. “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.”

tow women elbow-bumping
City Counclmember Sophie Hahn and Corinna Gould, the tribal leader of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, elbow bump in jubilation that 1900 Fourth St. has been recognized as endangered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Photo: Pete Rosos

City Councilmember Sophie Hahn was instrumental in helping Gould and others apply to the National Trust, which reviewed about 300 applications before selecting the final 11. Hahn said in a statement that her position as an elected official gave her a “heightened responsibility to acknowledge and help atone for government’s role in genocide, and to protect and preserve remaining sacred, cultural and historic Ohlone places.”

Spenger’s parking lot and its appropriateness for development has been a major issue for years.

In “pre-contact” times, about 5,500 years ago, numerous Ohlone tribes lived around the Bay Area. One of their primary food sources was shellfish, and they discarded the shells in piles. Some, like the pile in Emeryville, grew as high as 60 feet tall. Sometimes human remains were buried there. When the Spanish first arrived in the region, there were about 425 shellmounds ringing the bay. The one in West Berkeley was “removed, shovel by shovel, between 1853 and 1910 and sold as fertilizer, chicken feed, and grading material for roads,” according to the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project. “The mound’s oldest subterranean parts now rest beneath Spenger’s parking lot.”

In 2016, Blake Griggs, a development company based in Danville, presented plans to Berkeley to build a 260-unit complex at 1900 Fourth St. and offered Gould and various Ohlones a large chunk of land on which to create an outdoor sacred space. The Native Americans rejected the offer.

In order to make the development more palatable, the developer tried to get it approved under a 2018 state law, SB35, which stated that any municipality not meeting its regional housing requirements must allow over-the-counter approval of a project that meets zoning requirements and other criteria. At the time, Berkeley had only permitted 17 low-income units, which was “a mere 4% of the city’s low-income housing production requirement,” according to the developer. One of the other required criteria for fast tracking was that a project make 50% of its units “affordable,” which the developer did.

City project sign scrawled with graffitti hangs at 1900 Fourth St.
Graffiti is scrawled on a city project sign for a proposed development at 1900 Fourth St. Photo: Pete Rosos

When the city of Berkeley rejected the SB35 application, the developer pulled out of the project. The rights returned to the property owners, Ruegg & Ellsworth and the Frank Spenger Company. Berkeley one again rejected their bid to build a complex with 130 affordable units on the site. The two owners then sued Berkeley for rejecting the SB 35 designation. In November 2019, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled that Berkeley had acted properly. The property owners have appealed that ruling and a decision is expected next spring.

The dispute over the importance of 1900 Fourth St.

The central question at the heart of this battle is what lies below the asphalt of the parking lot at 1900 Fourth St., although the Native Americans think the question should be put in broader terms. Officially the lot is located within the boundaries of the West Berkeley shellmound, a two-block area that stretches from Hearst Avenue to University Avenue and Fourth Street to Second Street. Berkeley landmarked the shellmound in 2000. A larger area, extending west toward San Francisco Bay and east to Fifth Street, is listed in the California Register of Historical Resources because archeologists found cultural and natural deposits there indicating an Ohlone settlement.

The lot at 1900 Fourth St. is the only part of the West Berkeley Shellmound that does not have a building covering it. The land was paved over between 1946 and 1958 and served as the parking lot of Spenger’s Restaurant for years. Because what lies under the ground is relatively undisturbed, many Ohlones and their supporters are fighting to preserve it and transform it into a modern sacred space that will honor the Ohlones’ past and celebrates their present.

But no original shellmound objects have been found on the site, according to three separate archeological excavations done by the firm Archeo-Tec at the behest of the developers. The borings only uncovered objects that appear to have been carried there by water or grading activities, according to the archeological reports. The reason no shellmound objects have been found, the developers believe, is that Strawberry Creek and a willow grove marshland covered most of the lot. The developers base their findings on an 1856 U.S. Coast Survey map. Other maps placed the shellmounds elsewhere, according to the developer.

No human remains have been found at 1900 Fourth St. either, while just across the street at 1919 Fourth St., outside the West Berkeley Shellmound boundary, construction workers uncovered four burial sites with human remains while building a new complex in 2016. (The bones were moved to the Ohlone Cemetery in Fremont.) That has led some to argue that there is no reason to not put housing there, especially since Berkeley says affordable housing is a city priority.

But those who believe the lot should be preserved argue differently. Richard Schwartz, a local historian and author, said an 1876 article from the Oakland Tribune references the fact Alphonse Pinart, a French scientist, said 300 skeletons had been found at the shellmound. In addition, the Consolidated Tribes of Lisan filed a brief in a 2019 court case stating that Dr. Allan G Pastron, the man who prepared the Archeo-Tec studies, said in the 2000 report that he had discovered evidence of midden (shellmound remnants) but redacted that statement in a 2014 report paid for by developers.

Three women stand in front of sign hung on metal fence
Ohlone elder, Ruth Orta, (left) Corrina Gould, (center) and campaign worker Claire Greensfelder (right) stand in front of a banner at 1900 Fourth St. designating it as part of the endangered West Berkeley Shellmound site. Photo: Pete Rosos

More importantly, Gould and other native elders believe focusing on the lot is too narrow a scope. They believe that the lot is sacred and should be preserved because it is the only open space in what was once a larger village settlement used by the Ohlone people for thousands of years. If looked at as part of a larger whole, it is clear 1900 Fourth St. should not be built upon, critics insist.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been designating the U.S.’s most endangered historic sites for 35 years, In that time, fewer than 5% of those sites have been destroyed,  said Malone-France at the virtual press conference.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...