LINCOLN — An anthropology professor politely told arena officials today that they’re botching a once-in-a-lifetime chance to dig archaeological treasures out of the ground before it is paved over or covered in concrete in preparation for hoards of people heading to Lincoln’s future Pinnacle Bank Arena.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor Peter Bleed told the Joint Public Agency overseeing arena construction that he supports Lincoln’s $344 million arena project – he even led a student expedition in search of hidden archaeological treasures in the summer of 2010. But he’s disturbed by the city’s “consistent disregard for cultural resources” and the history of the Watson-Brickson lumber yard being demolished to make way for arena parking.
The arena and nearby developments and infrastructure are literally being built in the birthplace of Lincoln, where the city sprang up alongside the railroad depot. The area Bleed is concerned about is officially called Block 51 – bounded by O, N, Sixth and Seventh streets. Bleed and his students scratched around the margins of the lumberyard two years ago in search of evidence of a hotel dating to the 1870s where 35 bachelors once lived. After 1903, the area was converted to a lumberyard.
Bleed watched the lumberyard demolition last week, and said historical business records inside the buildings were “ignored” – he took photos of sheets of paper strewn about and caught up along a fence, among which he found a receipt for lumber to build a barn in Alvo in 1927.
“That was pretty neat,” he said – except for the fact that it was blowing in the wind.
The demolition was only supposed to level the buildings, but Bleed said the demolition went below the surface. He showed the board pictures of the outline of a foundation of a building dating to the 1870s.
“That’s an architectural signature that we would’ve predicted was there,” he said.
But he was disappointed to see the area covered in water after a weekend of storms.
“The architectural potential for documentation of life, landscape and activities of people who made our town is going to be compromised very soon,” Bleed said.
The role of those cultural resources should be addressed and given standing in the planning, Bleed said, but “that’s not systematically happening now.” He said the State Historic Preservation Office told him it has not been involved in planning, even though the Archaeological Resources Protection Act requires archaeological resources on public lands to be removed and protected.
“Somebody looked and said ‘Nope, no archaeology there,’ ” Bleed said. “This is an important resource.”
Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, who chairs the arena board, asked whether Bleed was implying any law was broken, and Bleed said no.
“I thought we covered most of what needed to be examined,” Beutler said, referring to Bleed’s previous excavations. “Obviously we didn’t do a good enough job on the Watson-Brickson property.”
Beutler noted that the city changed the location of a parking garage in response to criticism that it would require the demolition of a 1908 building at 700 O St. “So I hope you know we are paying some attention,” the mayor said.
Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires cultural resources to be evaluated for possible protection, but the city’s arena project manager, former Councilman Dan Marvin, said the U.S. Corps of Engineers said “the book was closed” on the city’s responsibilities in 2010.
“We have not had federal actions pending that would have required us to be involved with historic preservation,” Marvin said. “We got what we felt was the green light to move forward with that development.”
Marvin said Bleed was previously told archaeologists could be allowed back into the lumberyard area once the level of environmental contamination is determined. Marvin said it would be “sad if what we’ve done destroyed” archaeological evidence, but added that it’s rained on the area for over 100 years, too.
And he noted that the city is paying $1.6 million to remove, refurbish and replace a historic railroad canopy near Lincoln Station. It was not clear whether the board would do anything to address Bleed’s concerns.