City Council Reaffirms Shellmound's Status

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Months of conflict over the preservation of the West Berkeley Shellmound, a Native American burial ground, as a historical landmark was finally settled at Tuesday night's City Council meeting.

The site has been the center of dispute since the Landmarks Preservation Commission first designated it as a historical landmark in July. The mound encompasses an area enclosed by Hearst and University avenues, Interstate 880 and Fourth Street.

Opposed to the restriction on the property, local land owners responded by issuing an appeal to the City Council to retract the commission's designation. Tuesday night, the landmarking of the mound was reaffirmed.

The mound is made of bones, stones and shells from the everyday life of Berkeley's original Native Americans, the Ohlone.

"From all the documentation and extensive public testimony, we learned about our own history and prehistory," said Leslie Emmington, a member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. "Now that it's a landmark, we hope the community at large can learn about the history."

The Ohlone Native Americans were a migrant tribe but used the Bay Area as a gathering place and shells as a form of exchange, Emmington said.

They built burial mounds along creeks, and one creek used to run parallel to University Avenue, near the shellmound, she said. The mound was originally very high, but it was levelled by early settlers, who used it for building materials in the construction of the city's original streets and buildings. Emmington marveled that pieces of the shellmound are now all around Berkeley. Though the exact date of its foundation is not known, the shellmound may be older than the Egyptian pyramids, said commissioner Robert Kehlmann.

"There is material down there that may very well help tell us how man came to this continent," he said. "This is quite a major thing."

The oldest materials are at the bottom and are still intact, he said. There are shellmounds all over the Bay Area, although Emeryville dug up one and built a strip mall. Kehlmann said he hopes Berkeley will treat its mound with more respect. A plaque is expected to be placed on the site in the future.

According to Wendy Cosin, a city staff employee, the City Council has a time frame of only 30 days, since the opening of public hearings regarding the shellmound, to affirm or reject a preservation designation. If no decision is made within that time frame, the site automatically becomes a historical landmark.

The City Council did not realize this and continued holding public hearings over the appeals, which have lasted well over 30 days. It was not until recently that this portion of the ordinance was brought to the council's attention. As a result, the original decision of the Landmarks Preservation Commission automatically became affirmed.


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