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Commission given 90 day deadline for shellmound

By John Geluardi Daily Planet Staff
Thursday February 22, 2001

The Landmarks Preservation Commission unearthed a problem when it considered awarding the West Berkeley Shellmound protective status last September - there were no city regulations for buried and paved-over landmarks. 

The shellmound was the city’s first site being considered for its buried archeological value and city planners suddenly realized there were no regulations to manage the site for potential development or city maintenance of buried electrical conduits, cable lines, water mains and sewer lines.  

In September the LPC refused to approve proposed amendments prepared by Planning Department Acting Deputy Director Vivian Khan, and an effort to amend the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance to accommodate the site stalled. Five months later, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to give the LPC 90 days to approve Planning Department amendments or come up with its own. 

“We have a Landmarks Ordinance that covers architectural structures but it doesn’t tell you what to do when you can’t see the landmark,” Khan said. “We need to set forth the procedures for excavation, grading and other soil disturbance on the site.” 

The Shellmound, bounded by Interstate 80, Fourth Street and University and Hearst avenues, was approved as a city landmark largely because of its subterranean archeological resources. The site is the repository of artifacts of the Ohlone Indians, who populated the Bay Area for 5,000 years. 

Until A.D. 800, Native American shellmounds were common sights around the Bay. They were usually characterized by large mounds of shells that could be as high as 15 feet. The area immediately around shellmounds were the site of daily routines, such as hunting, fishing and cooking. They were also used as burial grounds. 

The need for regulations and procedures for archeological sites has become urgent with Rue-Ell Enterprises’ proposal to build a 21,300 square-foot retail building that will partially encroach on the shellmound site. 

Landmarks Commissioner Robert Kehlmann said it was unfortunate the commission did not work with the amendments proposed by the Planning Department in September.  

“Staff really worked hard and came back with draft amendments and members of the LPC just kicked them in the teeth,” he said. 

Kehlmann said it was difficult for the overburdened Planning Department to take the time and put together the amendments. “Staff did their part and the amendments weren’t that far off. In the end we’ll probably approve a draft that is very similar to those we looked at six months ago.” 

Commissioner Becky O’Malley said the amendments presented to them by the Planning Department had not been reviewed by an archeologist. “We held a public hearing and there were at least two archeologists who said the draft amendments were deficient,” O’Malley said. 

She said the 90-day deadline was going to be tough to meet. “We have to get input from qualified archeologists who have enough technological knowledge,” she said. “You need scientists, not just planners, planners often just want things done from a planning perspective.