Berkeley to return parking lot on top of sacred site to Ohlone tribe after settlement with developer

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A San Francisco Bay Area parking lot that sits on top of a sacred tribal shell mound dating back 5,700 years has been returned to the Ohlone people by the Berkeley City Council after a settlement with developers who own the land.

Berkeley’s City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt an ordinance giving the title of the land to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a women-led, San Francisco Bay Area collective that works to return land to Indigenous people and that raised the funds needed to reach the agreement.

“This was a long, long effort but it was honestly worth it because what we’re doing today is righting past wrongs and returning stolen land to the people who once lived on it,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin.

The 2.2-acre parking lot is the only undeveloped portion of the West Berkeley shell mound, a three-block area Berkeley designated as a landmark in 2000.

Before Spanish colonizers arrived in the region, that area held a village and a massive shell mound with a height of 20 feet and the length and width of a football field that was a ceremonial and burial site. Built over years with mussel, clam and oyster shells, human remains, and artifacts, the mound also served as a lookout.

Shipping containers are placed around People's Park in Berkeley, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024. Police officers in riot gear removed activists and crews began placing double-stacked shipping containers to wall off the historic park as the University of California, Berkeley waits for a court ruling it hopes will allow it to build much-needed student housing. (AP Photo/Terry Chea)

The Spanish removed the Ohlone from their villages and forced them into labor at local missions. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Anglo settlers took over the land and razed the shell mound to line roadbeds in Berkeley with shells.

“It’s a very sad and shameful history,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Sophie Hahn, who spearheaded the effort to return the land to the Ohlone.

“This was the site of a thriving village going back at least 5,700 years and there are still Ohlone people among us and their connection to this site is very, very deep and very real, and this is what we are honoring,” she added.

The agreement with Berkeley-based Ruegg & Ellsworth LLC, which owns the parking lot, comes after a six-year legal fight that started in 2018 when the developer sued the city after officials denied its application to build a 260-unit apartment building with 50% affordable housing and 27,500 feet of retail and parking space.

The settlement was reached after Ruegg & Ellsworth agreed to accept $27 million to settle all outstanding claims and to turn the property over to Berkeley. The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust contributed $25.5 million and Berkeley paid $1.5 million, officials said.

The trust plans to build a commemorative park with a new shell mound and a cultural center to house some of the pottery, jewelry, baskets and other artifacts found over the years and that are in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Corrina Gould, co-founder of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, addressed council members before they voted, saying their vote was the culmination of the work of thousands of people over many years.

The mound that once stood there was “a place where we first said goodbye to someone,” she said. “To have this place saved forever, I am beyond words.”

Gould, who is also tribal chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Ohlone, attended the meeting via video conference and wiped away tears after Berkeley’s City Council voted to return the land.