Everything’s Coming Up Roses

Maybe spring has arrived for the local economy, after all.  At least some April numbers seem to bode well for our local real estate market…if they are for real.

Rather than waiting for official reports, which can take months, we just played around with some Zillow numbers.  During the past few weeks, there has been a sharp turnaround in housing values.  See for yourself, by clicking and inserting your address here.

Zillow - Mid-April

We live in the ever-so-humble Merriewood area, where the price estimates shot up.  The same uptick is clear throughout our 94611 zip code too.  Equally important, this turnaround may be playing out for the entire City of Oakland.

Today in Montclair sees these graphs and starts singing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”  Maybe we should be more circumspect, since it’s hard to assess the factors driving the turnaround.  Still, we wanted to sharing sunny news amidst all the recession gloom.

Hillside Gardeners Quietly Toil Away

Have you even heard of the Hillside Gardeners of Montclair?  The Hillsiders have been quietly toiling away and making our public gardens flourish since 1947.  Since these gardens don’t live by sweat equity alone, the group will host a fundraising garden tour – this Saturday, April 18th, from 11am – 4pm.

Our interest in this gardening club was piqued, because we seldom hear about them.  We were able to catch up with one Hillsider, Barbara Goldenberg, who graciously filled in the blanks and shared their history and projects with us.

Conquering the Difficult Hillsides

As part of the post-WWII civic boom, Hillside Gardeners was founded in Montclair.  “Women were interested in putting in gardens into their new homes, and sharing information about gardening on these difficult hillsides,” explained Goldenberg, who has belonged for years.

“There were 10 ‘founders,’ all known by their husbands’ names, as was typical of the times.  All have passed away,” said Goldenberg.  However one long-time member of the Hillside Gardeners, Marj Saunders, is nearing her centennial and has been a club member since 1950.  She is a well-known green-thumb around Montclair, and even has an eponymous park!

Marj Saunders - Park Dedication

Hillside Gardeners Thrive Today

Today, the group is thriving while others have become extinct.  Under the current leadership of President Merle Boese, VP Ann Livingston and four other board members, there are 120 members and 21 standing and special committee chairs.  The point isn’t to bestow titles on members – it’s to assign and oversee many projects on a long-term basis.

Over the years, the membership has evolved well beyond Montclair borders.  Last year, the former Skyline Garden Club officially merged into this Hillside Club.  Today gardeners come from all over Oakland and carpetbaggers have been welcomed from Alameda, Berkeley and San Leandro.

Where the Green Thumbs Go

Hillsiders have restored and maintained some interesting gardens in publicly-owned places as well as health care locations.  Here’s where they till, plant, weed and prune these days:

  • Montclair Library Garden – about 10 years
  • Joaquin Miller School Gardens and Ecology Club – more than 12 years
  • Joaquin Miller Community Center – since the late 1980s
  • Moraga & Masonic Neighborhood Garden – after the 1991 firestorm
  • Lakeside Park Gardens – old Sensory & new Mediterranean Gardens – in the last five years
  • Water’s Edge Nursing Facility in Alameda, Horticulture Therapy – over 10 years

Each location requires around a day or two of monthly work, with Hillside teams ranging from six to 15 volunteers.  Lakeside Park requires more time, and Hillsiders work one evening a week from late spring until early fall.

From Earth to Table

The Joaquin Miller School gardens take even more time and attention.  Originally Montclarion Peggy Hulse had grand kids at the school, and she convinced their principal that growing food there was a good thing.  While Peggy has moved away, her legacy continues and the grade schoolers grow vegetables and native plants – and make nutritional snacks from their harvests.

Kids from first to fifth grades participate in three different weekly classes.  Lots of students get hands-on experience in the garden, and new participants join every half-semester.  Future gardeners naturally emerge, when a few older ones help the first and second graders.  It’s a rewarding project for the volunteers as well.

Sowing Oats with Scholarships

Hillside Gardeners also encourage college students through scholarships and part-time jobs.  They award horticulture and ecology students at Merritt College, granting enough for their expensive textbooks.  In addition, the Hillsiders hire and pay UC Berkeley students to work in the Botanical Gardens.

The club’s investment works well, since Merritt students and alums turn into active volunteers.  Barbara Goldenberg gave a shout-out to the Merritt pruning class who has helped restore the Sensory Garden at Lakeside Park, by pruning old camellias and other specimen trees.

Over the years, some Merritt graduates have joined the club and contributed their expertise.  Other grads just show up anyway – and pitch in with garden planting and clean-up efforts.

The Ups and Downs of Hillside Gardening

Earth Day is celebrated by Oaklanders this Saturday morning, but the afternoon is free and clear.  Why not take a tour of some extraordinary gardens and support the Hillside Gardeners?  They only hold a fundraiser every two or three years, and here are the official details:

The Hillside Gardeners of Montclair present “The Ups and Downs of Hillside Gardening,” a self-guided tour of eight fabulous Oakland gardens on Saturday, April 18th from 11 am – 4 pm.

See a terrific succulent garden, a butterfly garden, a sculpture garden, spectacular water features and four different vegetable gardens.  The gardens range from tiny and personal to large and household-sustaining, with lots of variety in between.

Each garden has a different way of using water wisely, including drought-tolerant plants, a home-made rain barrel, a well and a sophisticated rainwater collection and distribution system!

Tickets are $30 in advance or $35 that day.  For tickets, email hgmgardens@gmail.com or call (510) 530-1681.

Never Mind, Stop Conserving Water

What, stop conserving water in drought-laden California?   That’s one new and surprising message we heard today from our water utility.  Apparently, East Bay residents saved too much water this past fiscal year, and the East Bay Municipal Water District (EBMUD) revenues dropped…well, yeah.

Earlier today the EBMUD Board of Directors voted unanimously to end water rationing, although 20,000 acre-feet were actually saved.  “We would like to thank our customers for cutting back,” said EBMUD spokesman Charles Hardy.

Water Sprinkler

Yes, you read this correctly!  Their solution is to thank us for our efforts over the past year, and stop rationing by July 1st.  In its place, EBMUD plans to raise rates for all customers 7.5 percent on that day and then tack on another 7.5 percent next year.

It’s been a year since we were told to turn off the spigots and sprinklers, and reduce water usage or pay the fines.  Thus we embraced the go-green mentality and urged our neighbors to conserve water.  Besides, this conservation ethic seemed like the righteous thing to do.

Now the EBMUD directors have figured out that conservation wasn’t their only goal, as solvency mattered more.  We can hear their green eye-shaders explaining that higher rates will work well based on current water consumption levels.  Plus customers will act rationally and conserve water because the rates are rising.  And if some folks want to use more water, we make more shekels.  Got it?

Canaries Flying Around Our Home Values

In the 94611 zip code, the real estate market is still alive – but there might be both healthy and sickly canaries flying around this coal mine.

Home prices have begun decreasing again, through mid-February. The 94611 median values were $718,918, reflecting a 15 percent decline over last year.  By contrast, Oakland’s values were $332,688 and dropped 34 percent.  While the hills performed better, that’s nothing worth gloating about!

City Data - 946111

Here’s what a bubble and post-bubble look like, in these 2003- 2008 trends. Clearly the prices dropped at a faster pace than inventory in our zip.  Prices hit rock bottom by the fourth quarter of 2007, and increased $100k by 2008 year-end.  Inventory started to disappear as a lagging indicator, with 50 percent fewer homes sold in the same time period.  Yes, we’re still in transition now.

RealtyTrac - 946111

Foreclosures are everywhere. To make this feel quite real, look at the map depicting pre-foreclosure, bank-owned, resale and auction properties reported by the bad-news bears, RealtyTrac.  We’re seeing a visual story of single homes scattered equally across the hills, in all prices ranges.

Foreclosures - 94611

Foreclosures are trending higher, and much higher than Oakland and Alameda County rates.  This is a surprise, since we were sitting pretty between December and October.  When you examine the foreclosure rates reported today versus December, however, we’re still swinging upwards.  Maybe it took longer for available rainy-day funds to dry up?

We’ll continue to watch the local economic levers, like you.  We’re pretty sure the 94611 market will stay tamped down and there won’t be any flood of homes for sale.  But there were two ailing canaries recently:  slightly lower home prices and higher foreclosures.  Maybe these birds will continue to live, after all.

Visit Our Little, Local School On Cal Day 2009

2010 Update:  Cal Day 2010 takes place on Saturday, April 17th, from 9am-4pm.  Click here to select events by subject or time.  Also click here to see all the kid-friendly events.


If you are not part of UC Berkeley’s community already, then Cal Day 2009 is your chance to see what’s happening at our little, local school in the hills.  Just you and 35,000 of your neighbors (!) are expected to partake Berkeley’s annual and free educational buffet next weekend.

Cal Day jam-packs special museum, library, lecture, concert and tour programs into a mere nine hours.  Just browse or search the event options, which are endless yet wonderful.

UC Campus Map

To The Campus

One option is to join the crowd and then go mellow out.  We suggest arriving at Sather Gate by 10:30am, to hear the rousing Cal Marching Band.  Visit the top of the Campanile next, for a great campus view.  Then proceed to your free massage or Ashtanga class, and call it a day.

There are other nice options, too.  You could listen to live music all day, ranging from a symphony concert to Javanese percussion.  Getting free admission to the museums and gardens is also pretty sweet.

Cal Day has geared up for kids, and we’re impressed by the hands-activities at the archaeology and life sciences buildings.  Make sure to browse through all the kids stuff, and plan your trek across campus.

To feel that academic glow, you might visit the libraries or wander into some academic buildings.  There are many tours scheduled on Cal Day, where you’ll also get a dose of history from the guides.

To The Classroom

Let’s not forget that Cal is a school of higher learning.  In that spirit, we think you are supposed to attend at least one hour-long lecture.  Here are ten nominations:

After Cal Day

We’re fortunate that some UC Berkeley folks call Montclair home, and have learned (from them) about Cal resources available to the public anytime.  For example, the Bancroft Library welcomes all locals who supply two IDs.

All year long, the UC Berkeley events calendar lists a large variety of campus lectures, performances, exhibits and events.  Other Cal sources include the news center as well as the Daily Cal, which is worth reading now and again for the student pulse.

Yet we still forget the embarrassment of riches at our little, local school – and never get around to doing anything until the Cal Day crush.

Closer Views Of Bay Bridge Construction

The Bay Bridge’s seismic retrofit will be part of our lives for, oh, another five years or so.  However you just can’t see very much from the current bridge, ground or air.

How about the water?  Montclarion Nancy Lane snapped some terrific photos while day cruising around the Bay and Bay Bridge, and shared them with us.  Check them out!

Bridge Underway

“Bridge Underway” – This first image shows the new bridge working its way across the Bay, and there’s quite a distance until it reaches shore.  It still looks nice and sleek, as opposed the the train-trestle style of the old model.

Bridges Meet

“Bridges Meet” – This is a really cool perspective, since the old and new bridges seem to bear down and connect into infinity.  You have to like the optical illusion shots like this one.

Bridge Beauty

“Bridge Beauty” – Yes, the new bridge is quite sleek and looks like it will last into the 22nd century.   This eastern span opens to the sky, both coming and going – which we think will change perceptions of the East Bay.

Bridge Erector Set

“Bridge Erector Set” – The bridge and bypass construction is massive, and it’s good to zoom into this bite-sized section with plenty of cranes and gear.  We’re wondering where the workers are milling around, though.

Thanks again to Nancy for sharing these images of the Bridge under construction.  We would love to tour the Bay ourselves and see what progress has been made since she snapped them last fall – anyone with a boat and captain handy?

Bay Bridge Undergoes Bypass Surgery

Today we heard the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge will finally undergo its long-awaited bypass surgery, and will temporarily close over Labor Day weekend this year.

This kind of super-orchestrated surgery should be a sight to behold.  The construction gods plan to remove a chunk of the existing bridge and insert another roadway section that connects to the curving bypass on Yerba Buena Island.  Check out the video here.

Bay Bridge Closure

While driving today, you can glance at the bypass construction and signage as you arrive westbound on Yerba Buena.  It looks like you will need to veer left pretty substantially, and the speed limit will be lower as well.

That’s all well and good, but how will the driving feel on the bypass?  We suggest looking at these eastbound and westbound video simulations for a quick preview.  After a few dozen trips on the real thing, you will probably adjust and commute back and forth with ease.

More info:   To learn about the entire Bay Bridge retrofit project, just visit this web site.  There are construction cams where you can see daily progress over the past months, as well as interactive plans which illustrate different bridge elements.  You can spend hours here!

September 9th update:   Check out final snapshots of the Eastern Span closure.  Also see the entire bypass surgery, through this video made from time-elapsed Caltrans snapshots.