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Native American landmark soon to shrink in size

By Hank Sims Daily Planet staff
Wednesday October 31, 2001

The West Berkeley Shellmound, a city landmark, will shrink a little in November.  

Earlier this month, in response to a petition brought by landowners, Judge James A. Richman of the Alameda County Superior Court ordered the city to revise the Shellmound’s designated boundaries to exclude four properties west of Second Street. 

The City Council must remove the landmark status from the properties in question before Nov. 16.  

The petitioners, who included Richard and Charlene DeVecchi, White West Properties and the 620 Hearst Group, a consortium that owns the property at that address, charged that the archaeological map the city used to determine the area covered by the Shellmound – which now lies underground – was based on “arbitrary and capricious” data. 

The city’s own maps, they argued, showed there was no record of the Shellmound ever extending onto their properties on what is now the west side of Second Street. 

Richman’s ruling does not question the landmark status of the Shellmound as a whole, and it leaves the door open for the city to redesignate the four properties if more proof can be found. 

However, the principal forces behind the Shellmound may not mount a campaign to re-list the four properties. 

“I don’t think this a bad outcome at all,” said Becky O’Malley, a member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. “It recognizes the commission’s authority to designate the Shellmound. It just means the boundaries on Second Street have to be fine-tuned.” 

“We’re going to have to give it a little thought and see if we want to fight for redesignation,” said Stephanie Manning, an activist who fought for the Shellmound’s landmark status. “It’s a time-consuming and costly process, and I’m not a rich woman.”  

The Shellmound was a center of Native American communities up until around 800 A.D. It served as burial grounds, landmarks and centers of villages. The remnants of the West Berkeley Shellmound, which was first built more than 5,000 years ago, mostly lie underneath Truitt & White Hardware and Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto’s parking lot, just west of the Fourth Street shopping district. 

More than 400 such sites, some up to 30 feet tall, are known to have existed around the San Francisco Bay in centuries past.  

Chris Carrigan, attorney for the petitioners, said he was pleased by the judge’s decision, and believed that it didn’t infringe on the Shellmound’s role as a cultural and spiritual resource. 

“I see this as a win-win case, and you don’t often see that,” he said. “All the important cultural resources are preserved, and the boundaries are still generous. 

“As a Native American myself, I think that’s the right decision.” 

O’Malley noted that if the petitioners do decide to build on their properties, they may still be required to verify that there are no archaeological resources on the site.