Construction may begin on West Berkeley site considered ‘sacred’ by Ohlone tribe

Blake Griggs Properties/Courtesy

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A 2017 California state law could allow a real estate developer to begin construction of an apartment complex on a site in West Berkeley considered sacred by Ohlone people after years of controversy and debate.

Blake Griggs Properties plans to build a housing project at 1900 Fourth St. It would include 260 apartment units, half of which would be designated affordable units, according to Lauren Seaver, vice president of development for Blake Griggs Properties.

The law, California SB 35, mandates that if cities fall short of their state-required housing goals, projects in those cities that meet a set of objective criteria, including affordability, are streamlined in a “fast-track process,” according to a press release from state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, lead author of the bill.

The Blake Griggs project, the first major housing project to invoke SB 35, previously planned to only include 13 affordable units out of 155, but the developers increased the number of affordable units in order to use the fast-track abilities of SB 35.

Berkeley city staff received the project application Thursday and will evaluate it in compliance with all the relevant laws and regulations, said city spokesperson Matthai Chakko in an email.

Wiener said the bill does not affect local zoning laws.

“SB 35 … does not affect local zoning,” Wiener said in an email sent by his spokesperson, Jeff Cretan. “The City of Berkeley zoned 1900 4th Street for residential development at the scale proposed by the developer. Had Berkeley zoned the parcel as non-residential due to cultural significance, then no project could have moved forward there, even under SB 35. That zoning was a local Berkeley decision.”

Corrina Gould, a member of the Ohlone tribe, said the site of the proposed project is a sacred place where the Ohlone people continue to pray after thousands of years. Gould added that using SB 35 to streamline the development of the Fourth Street site is “horrific.”

The Shellmound, according to Gould, is the first fishing village of the Ohlone tribe and the first of the 425 shellmounds in the Bay Area. Gould said the Shellmound is older than the pyramids of Egypt and some of the first cities in the world.

“By wiping out our history and our sacred places, that’s what creates a genocide,” Gould said. “The city of Berkeley should be preserving it.”

Seaver said archaeological, geological and historical research found that the site is not the location of the West Berkeley Shellmound and “contains no culturally significant remnants or any trace of any Native American burials or artifacts.”

Instead, Seaver said the 1900 Fourth St. site was between two other shellmounds located at the intersection of Second and Hearst streets and at the area near Fourth  and Hearst streets, respectively. Seaver added that archeological finds were consistent with the 1900 Fourth St. site being underwater in the past and not a shellmound.

Gould said the area as a whole is sacred and “encomposses more than just the 2-acre parking lot,” but she added that indigenous people are not opposed to housing development and that the development could occur somewhere else in Berkeley.

The 1900 Fourth St. site is “an ideal location for housing production given its access to transit and excellent walkable environment,” Seaver said in a Blake Griggs document.

Previously, Gould led a coalition of activists in drafting an alternative to the development plan for the parking lot at 1900 Fourth St., including a 40-foot mound covered with orange poppies that would serve as a natural amphitheater.

The city has to respond to the project application within 180 days, Seaver said. Blake Griggs Properties is “expecting approval” of the project and would plan to start the two-year construction the first quarter of 2019.

Gould said she is opposed to the possible construction.

“It’s a cemetery,” Gould said. “Cemeteries are sacred to all people.”

Henry Tolchard covers race and diversity. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @htolchard.