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Shellmound’s intangible value is spirituality

By John Geluardi Daily Planet Staff
Friday February 09, 2001

Environmental studies of proposed developments frequently consider things like traffic, noise and pollution. But at least one Landmarks Preservation commissioner would like to add a new category – spirituality. 

Commissioner Robert Kehlmann said the spiritual consideration is warranted in this case because a 21,300 square-foot retail building is being proposed by Rue-Ell Enterprises on a portion of the West Berkeley Shellmound. According to archeologists and Shellmound advocates, the site is a repository of Native American artifacts that go back to 3700 B.C. The City Council designated the site a Berkeley historical landmark in October. 

Kehlmann said the site was a Native American burial site and therefore is spiritually significant. He would like to see a focused Environmental Impact Report that considers the aesthetics and cultural aspects of the site. 

“Gothic cathedrals were often built on the site of Romanesque churches, which were built on top of a spiritually significant places.” Kehlmann said. “Berkeley should try to increase the vocabulary of environmental studies and go into areas of spirituality that are clearly important to  

its residents.” 

Planning and Development Department staff updated the Landmarks Preservation Commission with a Draft Initial Study of a proposed retail building at 1900 Fourth St. on Monday. The one-story building would be located on the northeast corner of Spenger’s Parking lot bounded by Fourth and Third streets and Hearst and University avenues. 

Because the site is a local historical landmark, the California Environmental Quality Act calls for study to determine if a Environmental Impact Report is necessary,said Interim Deputy Director of Planning Vivian Kahn. EIRs are costly and time consuming and usually developers prefer a Mitigated Negative Declaration, which is prepared by the Planning Department and is less thorough. 

Kahn said the California Environmental Quality Act usually requires only physical impacts be considered and that she was unaware of any EIRs that consider spiritual impacts. 

The Zoning Adjustment Board will ultimately decide which study is required. 

According to a preliminary study by archeologist Christopher Dore, of Garcia and Associates, the building foundation will not go deeper than four feet. The same report estimates that the upper limit of cultural deposits, such as shells, parts of tools and possibly human remains, begin at approximately six feet below the surface.  

The study concludes that there would be little or no affect on the site provided a series of measures are applied. One measure, the report suggests, is the presence of an archeologist who would be capable of identifying artifacts during excavation. If for example, human remains were discovered, all construction would stop and not be allowed to resume until approved by the Alameda County coroner and a supervising archeologist. 

But Stephanie Manning, who wrote the 75-page document the LPC used while considering the designation of the Shellmound, said that so far developers have only addressed whether there is a physical presence of artifacts on the site and not the intangible components. “The history of the site is much more important than how many bones they might or might not find,” she said. “They need to get Ohlone descendants involved, they’re the ones who know about the land and its value.” 

Manning said there may be ways to avoid compromising the historic value of the site and still build the retail building. But she said Berkeley will have to be more creative than Emeryville.  

The City of Emeryville has approved a 325,000 square-foot mall directly on top of Shellmound that still contains 200 human remains, according to Manning. 

“They’re going to drive piles 70 feet into the ground, right through the burial grounds.” she said. “And all they’re doing to make up for this is erecting a statue of an Ohlone Indian, painting a mural on a wall and putting up a web site.” 

Charles Kahn, of Kahn Design Associates, the architect for the 1900 Fourth St. project, did not return calls from the Daily Planet.