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Critics question impacts of ‘Spenger’s parking lot’ project on Berkeley Fourth Street, Ohlone heritage

Berkeley community and zoning board members had a chance Thursday to weigh in on what the environmental impact report for a large mixed-use project planned for 1900 Fourth St. should focus on.

The “Spenger’s parking lot” project has been in the works for years, with efforts ramping up in 2014 when project reps said they found no evidence at the site of a Native American shellmound created in West Berkeley by theOhlone Indians.

Members of the public who came to share their views about the project March 10 with the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board said they were not convinced by that assertion. Some said the land where the parking lot is now should be purchased by the city and turned into a park to honor the history and culture of the Ohlone. The property at 1900 Fourth is a city landmark, dating back to 2000, within the potential boundaries of the West Berkeley shellmound. The exact location of the shellmound is unknown and has been a matter of much debate.

Other speakers Thursday questioned the scale of the project, and how it will fit in with the surrounding neighborhood, as well as traffic impacts, air quality and liquefaction. The lot is bordered by Fourth Street, Hearst Avenue, University Avenue and the railroad tracks running east of Interstate 80.

A sprawling complex is planned at 1900 Fourth, across from the historic Spenger’s restaurant, set to reach up to 5 stories, with 135 apartments and a 372-space parking garage open to both residents and the public. The project’s approximately 207,600 square feet are slated to include about 33,000 square feet of retail and restaurant uses. The property is owned by Ruegg and Ellsworth, a real estate group that co-owns the parking lot with the Spenger family, which sold its Fresh Fish Grotto years ago. Robert Ellsworth, a Berkeley native, is co-owner of Ruegg and Ellsworth. The developer of the project is BHV CenterStreet Properties based in Danville.

(A video “fly through” of the project, created by the architect and set to music, appears below.)

As for the unit mix, about half are set to be one-bedrooms, 18% to be studios and 29% two-bedrooms. As required in Berkeley, the proposal is set to designate 10% of its units as affordable for “very low” income residentsunder the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development standard of 50% of the area median income. Developers have the choice either to include that housing on site, or pay into a city fund in lieu of building those units.

Project amenities for residents are set to include areas for bike repair and storage (236 bike stalls), a fitness center, a “trellis covered spa,” an indoor/outdoor lounge, BBQs and an “intensive green roof.” About 9,300 square feet of the open space will be private, but another approximately 6,800 square feet are designated for a publicly accessible “paseo,” or walkway, through the property.

The project is required to provide 135 stalls of parking for residential tenants, all of which are proposed. Another 87 stalls of parking are required for retail uses. The project instead proposes 237 stalls to be available to the public for its needs. A five-level garage would house the parking.

Read the city’s staff report and see the developer’s presentation.

Community members spoke passionately about the need to recognize Ohlone culture and history, and said the site is sacred whether or not the shellmound lies beneath the parking lot.

“The sacredness of that land is what is going to attract living cultures,” said Malcolm Margolin, author of The Ohlone Way, founder of Heyday and a longtime advocate for the Indian community. “There aren’t too many places in Berkeley that have a historic link… to the ancient past.”

Margolin and others told the zoning board about the cultural revival underway by Ohlone people that could be aided by the preservation of the parcel as open space.

Toby McLeod, director of the Earth Island Institute’s Sacred Land Film Project, said the city of Berkeley should buy the lot to turn it into a park with a large mural to recognize the Ohlone, where Strawberry Creek could once again be brought to the surface.

“A giant building covering that entire block is not right,” he told the zoning board.

Archeologist: “We found no remnants of the West Berkeley shellmound”

Archeologist  of Oakland-based firm Archeo-tec and Andy Galvan, who told the board he represents the oldest incorporated Ohlone group that’s recognized by the state, said they were confident the shellmound is not below the parking lot. Both men are affiliated with the project.

A detail of a 1909 map of Bay Area shellmounds; the arrow points to Berkeley. (Click to view larger.)

A detail of a 1909 map of Bay Area shellmounds; the arrow points to Berkeley. (Click to view larger.)

“While we’re not sure where the shellmound is today, we’re pretty certain where it is not,” said Galvan, of the Ohlone Indian Tribe. (Margolin told the board there are numerous “factions” and “other bands of Ohlone” that may have different views from those presented by Galvan.)

“We found no remnants of the West Berkeley shellmound within those portions we tested,” Pastron said, and also described the team’s approach using trenches and borings to test the soil. “Wherever those remnants are, they do not appear to exist within the borders of the Spenger’s parking lot. You really don’t need a PhD to recognize an archeological midden.”

Pastron did note that, though he believed the probability is high “that we have evaluated the site’s archeological potential correctly,” he said it is possible that full excavation might yield different results.

The project team — led by consultant Mark Rhoades of the Rhoades Planning Group — showed the board a diagram of more than 400 shellmounds and Indian campsites around the Bay Area (see page 5) that were mapped in 1909, and noted that Indians lived throughout the entire region. Rhoades told the board the team spent more than a year thinking about and studying the site’s potential for cultural resources and said it had been a primary concern.

1900 Fourth: The ground-floor footprint. Image: TCA Architects

1900 Fourth: The proposed ground-floor footprint. (Click to view larger.) Image: TCA Architects

1900 Fourth: The retail breakdown. Image: TCA Architects

1900 Fourth: The proposed retail breakdown. (Click to view larger.) Image: TCA Architects

Denny Abrams: “It’s going to bring The Cheesecake Factory here”

Architect Denny Abrams, who is credited with creating West Berkeley’s popular Fourth Street shopping district, told the board he is concerned about the height of 1900 Fourth, which he said is, in places, nearly three times that of his property across the street where Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto and other retail now exist. (Abrams has a number of improvements planned on that site.) He also noted a University Avenue strategic plan that suggested 40-foot height limits for the corridor.

The staff report did not include a project height, but notes, “Building heights along Fourth Street would be lower and step back from the street frontage, while the five-story building would be concentrated at the interior of the site and along the Union Pacific Railroad and University Avenue frontages.”

Abrams said it took nearly 40 years to build up Fourth Street organically into the district it is today, and criticized the new project as something “out of Las Vegas and the suburbs” that would be unable to replicate the authenticity the neighborhood currently has.

“This is one singular act of building that’s trying to appear like many acts,” he told the board. He also noted that Fourth Street works because it draws shoppers from outside the area. He said those shoppers will be discouraged from coming to Berkeley in the future because of the large footprint and potential traffic congestion linked to 1900 Fourth.

The deadline to comment on the scope of the draft EIR is March 14.

Finally, he told the board that, other than Spenger’s, Fourth Street has less than 14,000 square feet of restaurant space, which will more than double if the new project is approved. Nearly 15,000 square feet of the project’s retail are designated for restaurants, with another 18,000 square feet for other commercial uses.

“It’s going to bring The Cheesecake Factory here, that is what it will do,” Abrams said.

Fourth & U is one of several new apartment complexes in West Berkeley. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Rhoades says he does not want his project to look like Fourth & U. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Project representative Rhoades disputed that assertion. He said most of the retail spaces planned at 1900 Fourth are on the smaller side, and that the retail mix will be consistent with what is already in the neighborhood, which includes both national chains and more local alternatives. He said two of the spots will be devoted to “community-serving retail,” which he said is missing from the neighborhood now.

“We haven’t got to the point of any kind of a firm tenanting plan for the retail yet,” he said, adding that the goal is to “make sure this isn’t what Fourth & U … is like.”

According to a city report about the project, “Between 10 and 15 commercial tenants are anticipated to occupy the ground level, with an average floor space of between 1,500 and 3,000 square feet.”

In recent years, West Berkeley near University Avenue has seen a spate of building and project proposals. New apartment developments have beenbuilt nearby at Fourth & U (171 units) and The Avalon (99 units), which opened in 2014. The 58-unit Aquatic was set to open last year. There’s also the commercial project planned on the Spenger’s block, as well as plans to replace Grocery Outlet with 152 apartments. Nineteen live-work units were approvednearby on Second Street. And, not too far away, at San Pablo Avenue near Cedar Street, another 170 units have been proposed.

Some say the new developments threaten to price longtime residents out of the area and are turning the neighborhood into a boxy clone of Emeryville. Others say the new housing complexes are bringing much-needed life and vibrancy to a drab, underutilized area whose original manufacturing presence has been dwindling for years.

Questions remain about Ohlone people

Despite the project team’s attempts to paint the site as not particularly important for the Ohlone, cultural heritage was of significant interest for zoning board members.

Commissioner Sophie Hahn said she was less concerned about whether the shellmound is under the parking lot than what Native American life once was like in West Berkeley. She asked Galvan, of the Ohlone Indian Tribe, to describe it.

“It was high density,” he told her. “It was very much more than 135 units. Very, very much more were located on this site. It was intensely used. People lived, as you may well know, from West Berkeley all the way to Emeryville along the Bay.”

Hahn said the EIR must address community life for the Ohlone, and said the archeological reports created thus far had not been adequate in that regard. She then took a moment to describe the eradication of most of Czechoslovakia’s Jewish population during the Holocaust  and said the lack of evidence of the Ohlone people under the parking lot did not mean their culture should be forgotten.

“This is our scrap and we need to do better,” she said.

Read the applicant statement.

Commissioner Shoshana O’Keefe said she wants there to be an independent third-party observer on the project site at all times to make sure the right steps are taken if something significant is found during construction. She said she hopes the EIR will include a contingency plan with “a lot of teeth” to allow the project to be stopped if such a discovery is made.

Commissioner Igor Tregub said he hoped for more information in the EIR about the testing process undertaken by the archeological team to look for significant archeological resources.

Others focused on how to make sure what is built is respectful of the past. Commissioner Steve Donaldson said he would like to see ideas in the EIR about how the new development might reflect the native people who lived in the area for thousands of years before the Europeans came.

Added Commissioner Savlan Hauser: “The district could do something to celebrate and explain the people that lived there. The people that will live there into the future will appreciate where they live because of it.”

Commission Chair Denise Pinkston said she could imagine an outdoor public plaza that was “thoughtfully and artfully programmed” as part of 1900 Fourth to “tell a story and create a place for gathering” that could both support the living culture of the Ohlone people and also honor its history. She said she thought Berkeley could do a “much better job” than Emeryville did with its sprawling shellmound, which is now buried under the Bay Street shopping mall.

The ground level view from the corner of Fourth and University Avenue. Image: TCA Architects

The ground level view from the corner of Fourth and University. Image: TCA Architects

Pinkston said the EIR should also look at the possibility of a shuttle in West Berkeley to help handle traffic impacts, an approach that has worked well in Emeryville and also in Mountain View. She said traffic, considered broadly, would be of critical importance in the EIR. One member of the public told the zoning board that the local AC Transit bus is already running far over capacity, and would struggle even more with an influx of new residents.

“If we jam University Avenue and Gilman with regional retail trips, it will be very unfortunate because then we’ll get a lot of pushback for trying to get what I think is a more important priority, which is more housing,” Pinkston told the project team.

“This is just the beginning of a process,” she added. “We’ll hear from you more soon.”

City staff outlined for the board concerns raised earlier this month before the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). These included the sacredness of the site, whether the shellmound is there or not; the compilation in the EIR of all archeological reports related to the site; a request for a radar survey of the whole parking lot; a robust approach to monitoring during construction; concerns about the proximity of Strawberry Creek, a fuel line and the railroad tracks; and other issues regarding project scale, blocked views, air quality, noise, traffic and parking.

(Project rep Rhoades said after publication there have been two passes over the entire site with ground-penetrating radar, in 2005 and 2014.)

The project’s draft Environmental Impact Report, or EIR, is set to look at air quality, cultural resources including archeological findings, noise and vibrations related to construction, and any traffic and transportation impacts. That draft EIR is set to be published, according to project reps, in August. Both the LPC and Zoning Adjustments Board will discuss the draft and collect comments from the public before the final EIR can be issued.

The project team anticipates hearings on the final EIR in January 2017.

The deadline for submitting comments on the scope of the EIR is Monday, March 14. Read the stories below to learn about many of the changes proposed in or coming to West Berkeley. See project documents for 1900 Fourth on the city website. The project team’s presentation is online, and the project also has its own website.