The red-hot real estate market has put destination neighborhoods out of range for many, but the good news is that the East Bay boasts a number of alluring alternatives.
From north to south and east to west, the East Bay is full of interesting neighborhoods. Some of them, like North Oakland or Berkeley’s Elmwood, are well known. Many others, perched on hills or tucked away in valleys, are known only to their residents and visitors—until a person starts house shopping. Then, horizons broaden, and the house hunter realizes that there’s more, much more, to the East Bay than the “destination neighborhoods” they know so much about.
Residents of these neighborhoods, long and happily ensconced, fume when real estate agents claim to “discover” their little piece of the Bay. But in this white-hot real estate market, agents and buyers alike are combing the listings and traveling farther to find the home of their dreams and their means.
Point Richmond, Richmond 94801
Our Town in Richmond
San Francisco Bay to Tewksbury Avenue; South Garrard Boulevard to Marine Street
Most people intent on crossing the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge zoom right by Point Richmond without giving it a glance. This adorable town-within-a-town, tucked between the Bay and the southwest side of Interstate 580, is worth a longer look.
The downtown square has maintained its vintage feel and most of the original 1900s-era buildings, thanks to vociferous longtime residents who pay attention to local goings on with Mrs. Kravitz–like passion. It has a teensy historical museum and a tiny library and a huge public swimming pool. The Richmond Municipal Natatorium, better known as the Plunge, built in 1924, has been lovingly restored and is open for classes and swimming seven days a week.
The itsy-bitsy downtown of just four streets is packed with stores, restaurants, and service businesses, including boutiques, antiques, a hair salon, post office, several bars and grills, the historic Hotel Mac, beaucoup restaurants, and two small markets that offer a good variety of fresh and packaged foods, including a butcher counter. There’s even a resident theater company at the Masquers Playhouse, and the Magick Lantern screens classic and contemporary films. The Point is party central in the summer, with outdoor concerts and a monthly art walk. Public transit is a challenge—two bus lines trek out to the Point, but it takes them more than an hour to meander to the El Cerrito del Norte BART station.
Don’t let that million-dollar-plus median sale price put you off completely. It’s skewed by the small number of properties in town and the handful of architect-designed luxury homes on the west side of the hill. A recent scan showed 13 homes for sale, with an average price of $695,969 and one at $542,895.
There is one downside to Point Richmond that’s impossible to miss: Chevron’s oil refineries dominate the northern landscape while the water views of the Bay include Chevron’s fueling docks. The sound of sirens warning residents to shelter in place following toxic emissions is not unheard of, although the ocean breezes tend to waft pollution inland. But folks on the Point just shrug, saying it’s a very small price to pay for their little piece of small-town paradise.
Walk Score: 74
Schools: Washington Elementary ; Portola Middle ; Kennedy High 
Median Sale Price: $1,040,000
Thousand Oaks, Berkeley 94706
For Tree Huggers
Curtis Street to Arlington Avenue; Visalia/Vicente Avenues to Solano Avenue
Great Stone Face Park looms over North Berkeley like a druid site. Its paths pass between mossy boulders the size of studio apartments, and then descend down rough stone steps placed by artisans more than a century ago. Old live oaks, some of them perhaps a thousand years old, embrace the land with mysterious shadows.
This is Old Berkeley at its finest: stately but still earthy, with a dash of quirk. At the top of the hill, closest to the Arlington, the meandering streets were laid out around giant boulders that thrust out of the earth. Further downhill the landscape becomes less elvish, but the homes’ variety and charm remains.
Walkability in this neighborhood varies. At the top, it’s more like hiking; further down, traveling on foot to Solano Avenue becomes doable for those in shape.
But no matter how one gets to it, Solano is one of the East Bay’s best shopping and eating streets, with unique shops like the Bone Room, selling just that—bones—along with preserved insects and other natural-history specimens; purveyor of bungalow-ready lamps Sue Johnson Custom Lights & Shades; and By Hand for unique clothes for that rich-but-crunchy look. This area is close to the Gourmet Ghetto that is North Shattuck Avenue as well as to El Cerrito Plaza, home of big-box and chain stores.
King Middle School is where Chef Alice Waters established her famed Edible Schoolyard Project, and the jazz program at Berkeley High regularly sends graduates to top music schools or direct to New York gigs.
Buyers who you want to live here will have to wait a long time and then jump quick. The few homes put up for sale are usually priced from $650,000 to $920,000. Expect them to sell above the asking price.
But come on, how can you put a price tag on a thousand-year-old tree?
Walk Score: 72
Transit Score: 41
Schools: Thousand Oaks , Cragmont  and Oxford Elementary ; Martin Luther King Jr. Middle ; Berkeley High 
Median Sale Price: $750,000
Golden Gate, Oakland 94608
Vallejo to Sacramento Streets; 53rd to Haskell Streets
This rapidly changing area checks all the hipster boxes: cupcakes, drip coffee, vegan donuts, a knitting shop. Get supplies for that adorable urban farm—and fill up on alternative fuel—at BioFuel Oasis, then learn how to slaughter chickens at the Institute of Urban Homesteading. Inhabitants are almost equally divided among white, black, and Hispanic, with a diverse mix of Asians as well, while more than half the residents are 25 to 40 years old. But the youngish, mostly white hipsters mix with neighborhood old-timers, recent immigrants, and an earlier wave of newcomers who arrived in the 1990s. It’s not always a smooth blend; the G-word can get tossed around at lively neighborhood meetings.
Mixology is the byword here. The majority of homes are Edwardian or Craftsman bungalows, but the housing stock includes Victorians, 1940s ranches, and cement apartment blocks. Home prices took a dip in the crash, but, like everywhere else, they’re back to a five-year high, with prices continuing to cook.
This neighborhood has a bit of an identity problem, also being known as plain old North Oakland or Paradise Park. Although residents resist, real estate folks are trying to rebrand the area as NOBE (for North Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville), and the area even has its own website at www.NOBENeighborhood.com. With all the bees, chickens, goats, and organic gardens here, it should probably be dubbed Oakland Farms.
San Pablo Avenue, the main shopping street, is dotted with low-key specialty businesses both long-established and newish, but there’s all the retail you can eat across the Emeryville border. Walk, bike, or drive to Trader Joe’s, the Berkeley Bowl, and the upscale Bay Street complex.
Transitwise, it’s a snap to get to Berkeley, downtown Oakland, or San Francisco. The Ashby BART station is a 15-minute walk, and AC Transit buses run regularly along Sacramento and San Pablo, while express buses to and from San Francisco stop on Sacramento during commute hours. Great Schools pretty much flunks the closest public elementary schools, but charter schools have risen up to take up the academic slack.
Walk Score: 83
Transit Score: 50
Schools: Sankofa Academy Elementary ; Claremont Middle ; Oakland Tech High 
Median Sale Price: $500,000
Adams Point, Oakland 94610
Love the Nightlife
Vernon Street to Lakeshore Avenue; MacArthur Boulevard to Grand Avenue
When the corner burger stand starts selling steak sandwiches and roasted-beet salad, as Kwik Way has, it’s sure that the nabe has tipped all the way over into trendy. And that’s the case with Adams Point, the formerly low-key residential area that’s getting spillover buzz from Uptown.
This hill rising above Pill Hill on one side and Lake Merritt on the other is dotted with blocky, Los Angeles–style apartment buildings that tend to crowd the lovely Craftsman and Edwardian houses next to them. That hasn’t put off homebuyers, who’ve raised the median sale price of a home by 53 percent in the past year. Given its prime location, with great transportation, easy access to downtown, and a wealth of shopping and culture, Adams Point seems underpriced compared to other parts of Oakland—but that’s unlikely to last.
The luxe Whole Foods Market acts as a neighborhood center, and more groceries are a 15-minute walk to Trader Joe’s and Safeway in Grand Lake. Adams Point gets a solid B+ for shopping, but it’s A+ when it comes to dining and entertainment. There’s always been a string of restaurants along Grand Avenue across from the lake, as well as a couple blocks of cute shops and cafes on upper Grand. The corner across from Splash Pad Park at Lakeshore and Grand now thrums night and day, thanks not only to Kwik Way but also to Caña, the sizzling Cuban cafe that hosts dancing at weekend brunch. And the Grand Avenue excellence keeps creeping further west, merging with the edge of the Uptown, home of some of the Bay Area’s slickest restaurants, hottest nightspots, and weirdest galleries.
Crime here is 8 percent lower than in Oakland overall, per City-Data.com. And there’s family fun to be had at Lake Merritt, especially at Children’s Fairyland, the marvelously retro miniature theme park.
Walk Score: 82
Transit Score: 61
Schools: Piedmont Avenue Elementary ; Westlake Middle ; Oakland Tech High 
Median Sale Price: $345,000
Fernside, Alameda 94501
Broadway to Fernside Boulevard; Central Avenue to Marina Boulevard/Eastshore Drive
Fernside is an idyllic, family-oriented, family-values kind of place. There are lovely tree-canopied avenues, wholesome close-knit blocks, and adorable housing stock. Some 4,400 people live in this island paradise that measures less than one square mile.
Most homes were developed in 1924 or later—when fireplaces and large front windows were de rigueur—on A.A. Cohen’s Fernside Estate. There are some Victorian jewel boxes (not for sale and typically pricey), but most are stucco bungalows with storybook details. Fixer-uppers are scarce; most homes are meticulously maintained on smallish lots that often feature a detached garage at the back.
People looking to buy here will have to fight for a home. A recent search turned up only seven properties for sale, ranging in price from $575,000 to $915,000.
While there few chain stores on the island, the excellent Nob Hill Market anchors the north end of the neighborhood. It’s not a bad walk to Park Street, home to adorable shops, restaurants, entertainment, and family businesses. After Thanksgiving, Thompson Avenue turns into Christmas Tree Lane, a block-long festival of lights.
Alameda can be tough to get away from, because the drawbridges and tunnels create bottlenecks at rush hour. But even here, Fernside has the rest of Alameda beat—it’s closest to the bridges, allowing drivers, especially those heading south on Interstate 880, to have a head start. There’s a free shuttle to the Lake Merritt BART station from several stops around the city. If you’re going to San Francisco, other options are direct buses and the speedy Alameda ferry.
But with all the things to do right here, why would you ever want to leave?
Walk Score: 66
Transit Score: 44
Schools: Otis  and Edison Elementaries ; Lincoln Middle ; Alameda High 
Media Sale Price: $645,000
Millsmont, Oakland 94605
For Day Hikers
Seminary Avenue to Edwards Avenue/Sunkist Drive/73rd Avenue; Calaveras Avenue to MacArthur Boulevard
Birdsong mingles with the hum of traffic from Interstate 580, which borders the northern edge of this hilly neighborhood. There’s a rural feel up here on the tree-covered ridge. The neighborhood, built to the west of Mills College, spills down toward the Bay, giving even modest two-bedrooms million-dollar views across the water to Alameda and beyond. Every architectural style is represented here, from a spatter of modernist split-levels to twee stucco mini-castles to shingled ranch homes.
Signs of remodeling are everywhere, indicating that prosperity is increasing. House hunters have lots of options in Millsmont, with as many as 25 homes on the market at one time. A few foreclosures priced in the low $200,000s will appeal to bargain hunters; most homes range in the mid $300,000s.
While the median home price for Millsmont trends lower than Oakland overall, it’s on the upswing. Homebuyers are likely to get more house, more land, and more view for their money here than in just about any other Oaktown neighborhood. The downside is that, while it’s lovely to walk the hills, there’s nothing to walk to until you get all the way down to MacArthur. Hopping onto 580, which might be very close to your driveway, takes you quickly to Laurel District shopping. A drive to work in the East Bay is golden, but taking public transit is more like brass. A couple of bus lines serve area schools and will get commuters to the Coliseum BART station—eventually.
Crime is low above Outlook Avenue, maybe because crooks don’t like the hills. Bad things do happen in the western lowlands, putting crime in this neighborhood 19 percent higher than in Oakland as a whole. But inhabitants give Millsmont high marks for neighborliness. Prepare to be greeted with a smile when passing neighbors on foot and to be treated with respect by other drivers.
Walk Score: 55
Transit Score: 52
Schools: Burckhalter  and Aspire Millsmont Academy ; Frick Middle ; Oakland Unity High 
Median Sale Price: $370,000
Notes on the Data
Walk and transit scores, where available, are from Walk Score. Median home sale prices are from Trulia. School ratings [out of 10], where available, are from GreatSchools. Demographics and crime stats are from City-Data.com.
This article appears in the April 2014 issue of Oakland Magazine
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