Emeryville Officials Will Honor Ohlone Site Before Destroying It 

"The city thinks of it only as a toxic waste dump. They never gave a thought to the destruction of the shellmound."

Reusing urban lands for urban purposes is a good way to fight sprawl--so goes the argument for the city of Emeryville's redevelopment program, and this business-savvy corner of the East Bay has been doing just that.

Once mainly industrial, Emeryville has made a concerted effort to reclaim toxic lands, turning them into retail shopping centers or housing, sometimes both. Dubbed a "poster city" for brownfield redevelopment, Emeryville has received federal grants and the Global Bangman award (presented by the King of Sweden, no less) for its "One-Stop Shop," which allows potential developers to check out a property's history online.

Now Emeryville officials have yet another brownfield victory to crow about. After taking a chance and investing in cleaning up a twenty-acre site just north of IKEA, under a seldom-tested act they arranged for the property's previous owners to pay for the detox--in other words, to cover the cleanup costs of the mess they'd made. In the process, the city set a legal precedent that will help other local redevelopment agencies go after polluters.

"It feels good to have won the good fight," says Councilmember Ruth Atkins. "We took a big gamble in making the decision to clean it up first and then going after the parties responsible for polluting it."

Anyone who's been watching the flat four square miles of Emeryville pimple with big-box strip malls and hotels knows that purely altruistic, environmental goals are not exactly a tradition in this business-minded 'burb. With approximately $10.5 million in recouped cleanup funds, Emeryville is now poised to turn over the twenty acres to the Madison Marquette development firm for a cool $25 million.

Madison Marquette plans to build --what else?--a shopping mall: or to be more precise, a mixed-use development including a fifteen-screen movie theater, a hotel, apartments, and a shopping mall.

With its industrial history, and the proximity of two highways and the Bay Bridge, it would seem that this site is prime for such a development, the only downside being a likely increase in the traffic already packing the area.

Unfortunately, also involved in this good fight is an Ohlone shellmound, considered one of the most important archeological sites in California.


Whatever you might think about Emeryville, a cultural mecca it is not, unless, of course, you consider eating IKEA's Swedish meatballs at the cafeteria a cultural experience. So city dealmakers were probably none too excited about delaying their mixed-use project for unprofitable cultural reasons or, God forbid, abandoning it to turn the land into an archeological dig or giving the shellmound back to the Ohlone.

"The city thinks of it as only a toxic waste dump," says Stephanie Manning of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. "They have been so concerned about the toxic cleanup that they never gave a thought to the destruction of what remained of the shellmound."

More than four hundred similar mounds once dotted the Bay Area's coastlines. The Emeryville mound survived longer than most, having long been part of the Shellmound amusement park, with a dance pavilion poised on its peak. While composed mostly of discarded shells, the mounds have been found to contain more than just these and decayed vegetable matter and animal bones. In 1924, when the Emeryville Shellmound was leveled to make way for industry, evidence of more than seven hundred human burials was discovered there.

Once more than thirty feet high and 300 feet long, the Emeryville Shellmound is considered by many to have been the area's biggest. (The Berkeley shellmound now resting under Spenger's restaurant and Truitt & White lumber company is considered the oldest. Its status is also under discussion, but that's another story.)

"It's possibly the most important site in California despite the fact that it's been damaged--the importance of the site cannot be understated," says Alan Pastron, the archeologist originally hired by the city of Emeryville to offer advice on the site. Pastron says he was fired when he discovered the magnitude of the find.

When city officials first took over the Bay Street site through eminent-domain proceedings, they felt there would be nothing left of the shellmound after the 75 years of industrial use.

But when a holding pond was dug to prevent toxic runoff in 1999, the human remains uncovered proved them wrong. The city halted work and called in the coroner and the Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC). The NAHC then selected a Native American representative, termed the "Most Likely Descendant" (MLD), to advise the city and developer on what to do with the human remains.

"The whole site is so sensitive that wherever I walked, I saw human remains," says Katherine Perez, the chosen MLD. Naturally, Perez wishes there was to be no development at all, but knows this isn't an option the city would accept. (While the city must consider her recommendations, it is not legally obligated to act on them.)

Perez has since tried to work with the city, as well as developers and archeologists, to ensure that the remains are treated with dignity and respect. "It was a very difficult time because I didn't know what I was up against," says Perez of the first phase of the project. "You don't know the heartaches I've gone through."


With the Madison Marquette takeover and construction imminent, Perez now faces the next hurdle: trying to ensure that Native American monitors will be present whenever the digging turns up remains--which might be quite a project, considering the extent of the artifacts and burials so far discovered.

"Emeryville hadn't had a lot of experience with archeological issues," says Sally Morgan of URS Greiner Woodward-Clyde, the archeology firm hired after Pastron. But after much discussion, Morgan felt that the city did make a good-faith effort to do respectable archeology on the site.

Like Perez, Iain McKechnie, who worked on the Woodward-Clyde project for four months, noticed that the cultural matter covered the surface of the site.

"What remains on the site should be preserved and protected, not removed and built upon," says McKechnie. What remains is likely to be extensive considering that Woodward-Clyde studied no more than five percent of the site and uncovered more than three hundred burials.

Despite ongoing objections from archeologists, historical groups, and Native Americans, the city still plans to move ahead with the development--with some changes. Officials called together an ad hoc memorialization committee to help commemorate the site.

"We wanted to honor and respect the past while still honoring and respecting our present and future," says Emeryville Mayor Nora Davis.

Nancy Becker of Sacred Sites International Foundation, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that seeks to save sacred spaces, participated with mixed feelings, and ended up working to try to salvage something. But the irony of destroying and then memorializing the mound was too much for some potential participants.

"One meeting was all I could stomach. If it's important to memorialize it as a significant site, you don't destroy it," says Sandy Sher, who has written on the shellmound for the Emeryville Historical Society. "The whole thing was a dog-and-pony show."

Cultural mitigations now being considered include an educational community room to house replicas of artifacts. Shoppers can walk through a replica of an Ohlone hut, and a planned mural on the side of a parking garage will depict the original size of the mound. There is even talk of naming a street "Ohlone Way."

"Unfortunately we cannot undo the destruction of the past," reads a statement from Madison Marquette to the Express. "Yet we are taking steps to do what has never been done before: commemorate the history of Native American life at the site."

Indeed, even the small commemorations to the Ohlone are more than was done in the past. After dancing on the native burial site, bulldozing it, and dumping toxic waste on it, now the powers-that-be will drive some pilings through it, put up a memorial on it, and shop on it.

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