Court rules development can proceed on West Berkeley Shellmound

Photo of Ohlone Shellmound site in Berkeley
Vanessa Lim/Staff
A ruling by California Court of Appeal for the First District allows for a housing complex to be built on the parking lot on a sacred Ohlone shellmound and historic village in West Berkeley.

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A state appellate court ruled April 20 that a proposed housing and retail complex can be built in the parking lot on a sacred Ohlone shellmound and historic village in West Berkeley.

The West Berkeley Shellmound at 1900 Fourth St. has been a site of contention over the past four years. The development was initially halted by the city of Berkeley in 2018, and its decision was upheld by an Alameda County judge in 2019.

The California Court of Appeal for the First District overturned the decision in a 3-0 ruling. According to the Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline, the decision was made due to “the state’s housing crisis and frustration with local governments’ interference with that goal.”

The development would entail 260 housing units — half of which are intended for low-income households — and about 27,500 square feet of retail and parking, according to Jeffrey Anhalt, risk manager for Rue-Ell Enterprises, which has managed the contested property for decades.

Last month, approximately 100 Ohlone protestors of the development gathered at the site and held a candlelight vigil featuring poetry recitations, music and dance. They also tied banners and ribbons around the barbed wire surrounding the property.

“It’s imprisoning our sacred space,” said Corrina Gould, tribal chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan (Ohlone), at the protest. “(We want) these walls to come down, for all walls to come down. We want access to this land to do prayer as we have for thousands of years.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, or NTHP, listed West Berkeley Shellmound as one of the 11 “most endangered historic places” in 2020. According to its website, the site dates back 5,700 years. In the early 20th century, UC Berkeley archeologists removed 95 human burials and 3,400 artifacts prior to leveling the shellmound in the 1950s.

The shellmound is still an active space for Ohlone prayer and ceremony, according to the NTHP website. The city of Berkeley landmarked the site more than twenty years ago, and burials remain under the paved parking lot currently in the area, NTHP website stated.

The Ohlone people hope to see the lot become a green space and cultural park with areas to reflect and hold ceremonies, as well as memorialize and rebury removed ancestors.

“It’s important to have this history known,” Gould said on the Save West Berkeley Shellmound website. “It’s been an erased history—part of the continuous erasure of our people.”

According to Anhalt, “extensive” archeological and historical investigations were conducted and no evidence was found of intact cultural resources or remnants that were part of a structure.

Anhalt added that while there is evidence of shellmounds in the area, they are not present in the site of development.

“The (court) decision recognizes that Berkeley violated state law and wrongfully denied a property owner its statutory and constitutional right to proceed with an affordable housing development that is badly needed to help alleviate the state’s and indeed Berkeley’s own affordable housing crisis,” Anhalt said in an email.

Contact Lauren Good at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @lgooddailycal.