Opinion: No Ohlone artifacts are under 1900 Fourth St. It’s appropriate for affordable housing

The group that wants to build 130 units of affordable housing on Fourth Street says it offered several options to address Ohlone concerns but was rebuffed.

1900 Fourth St. rendering. Photo: West Berkeley Investors, an affiliate of Blake Griggs Properties

The proposal for 1900 Fourth St. will bring 130 units of affordable housing to Berkeley, a desperately needed addition to local housing options which have been mostly been market-rate. 1900 Fourth will more than meet Berkeley’s state-mandated goal for low-income housing, a category in which Berkeley has approved and permitted only 17 units. — far short of its state-mandated goal for low-income housing.1900 Fourth’s other components — another 130 units of market-rate housing and the 27,000 square feet of retail — are the economic engine that makes the affordable units possible.

Our team at Blake/Griggs has built thousands of units of housing throughout the East Bay and California, and for each and every project we work very hard to reflect the needs of the community while creating housing communities that will be attractive and successful for years to come.

First and foremost, when we first looked at the 1900 Fourth property over five years ago, we decided internally that we would walk away from the property if any of our initial research indicated that the site turned out to be a part of the primary shellmound location (as some local residents had previously surmised at that time) or if there was any reason to believe it was likely to contain other cultural remnants such as burials. We immediately hired multiple specialists — not employees of our firm, as some have implied — in the fields of archeology and geology, and also a well-known Ohlone representative to observe extensive onsite archeological and geological investigation and our historical research of the property. The intent was to determine if this site contained any resources.

This process was fundamental to our moving forward. The community is right to be concerned about the locations of cultural resources such as the shellmounds. Generations of Berkeleyans and many others have grown up thinking that the Spenger’s parking lot is where the shellmound(s) once was. For the first time in Berkeley’s modern history, extensive research and analysis show that it is not the case and that not one but two shellmounds were located to the west/northwest and to the northeast of the parking lot — but not at the parking lot itself.

After an exhaustive investigation, we found nothing of any significance on the Spenger’s parking lot site, and the experts concluded there are no historic elements buried there, and most importantly, the property was never a primary shellmound location. Rather, the research concluded that 1900 Fourth, in those pre-contact times, was predominately an estuary where the outlet of Strawberry Creek met the tidelands of the historic coastline. It is also interesting that the research shows that these particular West Berkeley shellmounds were abandoned by the Ohlone almost eight hundred years prior to outside contact. No one knows why.

The whole body of evidence was also reviewed by independent third-party archeological, cultural resource, and environmental experts retained by the city of Berkeley to analyze all of the data from a purely objective perspective. The city’s own experts have come to their own findings with respect to a large body of data that has now been prepared, published, and presented. Those experts have stated independently, in the government documentation, that the evidence shows there is not likely any cultural resources associated with the parking lot, which was formerly a lagoon. This independent analysis corroborates the extensive findings published by subject matter experts, including an Ohlone representative, and provided to the City of Berkeley and the University of California at Berkeley.

All of this evidence is available in the Environmental Impact Report on file at the City of Berkeley. It is a voluminous document so its findings are summarized for easier access at www.1900fourthst.com, and includes the cited sources such as the reports by Dr. Allen Pastron, a professional archeologist, and Eric Swenson and Core Dare, geology and geo-research experts, among others. The full report of archeological testing and results completed in June 2014 is located here.

One of our historical findings was a series of old government survey maps from three different time periods in the mid-to-late 1800’s, providing an exact location of the West Berkeley shellmound. We found by overlaying these maps they all very closely approximated the same location. Furthermore, when these maps were overlaid on a Google Maps georeferencer showing the street and location of the shellmound today, it is very clear that the shellmound did not encroach into the 1900 Fourth Street property. The map showing the overlays can be seen on the 1900 Fourth Street website and in the city of Berkeley’s documentation.

Our research is based on maps created by professionals who were alive in the 1800’s and who actually saw the shellmound in place. Our current-day professionals pin-pointed the actual location of the shellmound in relation to the 1900 Fourth parking lot.  The “new map” created a few weeks ago by a landscape architect to support the opponents’ position is an interpretation, not an expert document. That said, even the “new map” indicates the shellmound is not under the parking lot.

Another issue which has not been fully illuminated is the extent to which our team tried to find a solution that could incorporate concerns of Ohlone descendants.

Our team fully appreciates the perspective of Native Americans and the Ohlone, and as mentioned above, we would not have taken any steps in the development of 1900 Fourth St. if our research indicated a shellmound existed there or any other important tangible cultural resource was found at the site. In spite of the facts that support development on this site, for several months last summer, we met with Corrina Gould, from the Confederated Villages of Lisjan/Ohlone, to listen to Gould’s concerns and to try to determine if there was a way to help her in her fight for preserving the Ohlone heritage. As such we offered up several ideas, culminating in an offer which, in real estate circles, is seen as an incredibly generous and win-win proposal – perhaps the first of its kind in California development history.

In two steps the proposal would basically give all of the the land at 1900 Fourth St. to Gould’s group (required to be an Ohlone Cultural Trust) over a period of time: First, we offered to revise our project to immediately deed approximately half of an acre along Hearst Avenue to a non-profit that would include Gould’s group, and build both a 5,000 square foot Ohlone educational and cultural community center and a vibrant greenspace park that could be used as a gathering place for the Ohlone and other community groups. We saw this as a place where the Ohlone and community at large could learn more about the Ohlone history and culture in ways the non-profit would want to accomplish; The second part of the offer was that the entire balance of the property of approximately 2.1 acres would be granted to the same non-profit who would immediately lease-back the property to us to allow us develop our proposed project, and after 99 years, the land and the buildings in entirety would revert back to the non-profit.

A long-term ground-lease, which is a common practice in the industry, would allow for us to build our project and finance the Ohlone Education and Cultural Center and parkland and allow the Ohlone to control the land for future generations of Ohlone. To our surprise, this was rejected by Gould after she said she spoke to her group. She offered to buy the property for less than 25% of the market value, which the current property owner and our company could not agree to. She also could not identify a reliable and verifiable source of funds.

At this time, we are moving ahead using SB 35 legislation that enables enforcement of local city zoning, and a revised project to fit those requirements. This legislation has been put in place to create housing in an expeditious manner in recognition of Berkeley and other California cities’ current housing crisis. It is designed to provide both market-rate apartments and affordable housing in cities that are not meeting their state requirement. In this case, we are providing 130 units of low-income units, as well as the market-rate housing, retail and other components. The project will also be constructed by workers earning prevailing wages.

Since we have filed this application, we have heard from many sources who say they are supportive of this revised project and what it will do for Berkeley and for people who need housing. Many are reluctant to publicly voice their support because of the vocal position that project opponents have taken.

It is important for the public to not lose sight of the extensive due diligence performed on the property with private financial resources for the public’s education and that has proven there is nothing of any historical or cultural significance; that the project team has worked very, very hard in good faith to find a mutually agreeable solution with Ms. Gould and her constituents to find a compelling solution for enhancing the Ohlone history of this area and their surviving members and culture; and finally that we are now moving ahead using SB 35 to provide much-needed rental housing of all types and prevailing wage jobs for the community at large, as the city’s zoning and planning has set out for the 1900 Fourth site.

For more information on 1900 Fourth St. including summaries of Environmental Impact Report findings, go to www.1900fourthst.com.

Lauren Seaver is a project director and Brad Griggs is a principal in Blake/Griggs, the developers of the site.