Looking Up At Our Sky Today

This late winter weather is fascinating!  We’re weather obsessed the past couple days with the wild, mountain-like storms hitting normally weather-perfect Oakland.  Today, the winds and sky were absolutely beautiful, right before the rains arrived this afternoon.

In this view of the thunder clouds, it almost felt like we were in Kansas and awaiting some kind of funnel cloud to drop down.  The winds were very strong and the clouds were moving so quickly.

Not that we’re going to become storm-chasers, but it was [pick your superlative] to witness this intensity outside – and pretty harmless around here.

How To Check Power Outages

When will Mother Nature strike again, putting us in the dark?  It’s hard to say during this storm-laden week.  Your faithful Montclair blogger can always tell when there have been recent power outages, based on what you’re searching to get here!  We think it’s time to reveal the best official place to check:  PG&E itself.

Today all is calm in Oakland, based on the map status a few minutes ago.  In this snapshot below, you can see eight outages reported with the cause unknown.  We assume the repairs are underway, and perhaps these residents near the Laurel won’t even know it happened – save the clocks gone awry.

When you visit PG&E’s status map, you’re able to track the Utility’s entire 70,000 square mile service area.  No matter what, there are always outages scattered across such a large footprint.  You would go ahead and select a city (Oakland) and, as needed, drill down to zip code (94611) to see what’s happening right now.

Of course, an online source has some natural flaws:  when the power’s out, it may be tough to go online.  With fingers crossed, we sometimes have cell phone service and hit the interweb to check outage times, causes, homes impacted and updates.  Pretty cool!

If you don’t have online access due to the outage,  then you may still reach PG&E the old fashioned way – by land-line phones operating off the grid.  Remember to have a telephone directly plugged in,  and not all hooked up to remote handsets depending on electricity.

PG&E has two toll-free numbers available to report any outage (800-743-5002) or to ask questions about outages (800-743-5000).  Keep ’em handy, especially during this stormy week.

The Friends Of Parks Phenomenon

Especially for our nearby city parks and open spaces, the spirit of volunteerism is alive and kicking.  After months in the works, Friends Of Parks groups will be officially baptized for the Montclair Railroad Trail and Joaquin Miller Park.  These blessings should make things easier when attracting volunteers, raising funds and getting a few projects done.

Friends of Montclair RR Trail

Last year, we witnessed plenty of upset over Shepherd Canyon’s old railroad right-of-way.  This trail is well-loved by walkers, bicyclers and dogs heading back and forth to the Village.  To improve the path, a group of volunteers has been cleaning areas monthly and getting more organized about priorities.

Now these volunteers and others are invited to join the “Friends of Montclair RR Trail.”  The fledgling group will be holding their first annual meeting soon – on Saturday, April 10th, 12:30 – 2:30 pm at the Montclair Rec Center.  (More info here.)

Friends of Joaquin Miller Park

Nearly ditto for Joaquin Miller Park, after this crown jewel was left tarnished last year.  Park rangers had decamped from their office, and then were eliminated altogether.  In their place came bonfires and troubles, and then volunteers who decided what needed short and long-term attention – including projects like Joaquin Miller’s homestead restoration.

“Friends of Joaquin Miller Park” has evolved into a more structured group, which will hold their first formal meeting and all-day celebration – on Sunday, April 25th, 10:00 am – 3:00 pm, at Sanborn Drive.  Come prepared to picnic and hike as well.  (More info here.)

Montclair Park Without Friends

Only kidding!  Beyond the Friends Of Parks phenomenon, we have long appreciated the volunteers who support Montclair Park, from planting flowers to leading weekly hikes.  Maintenance and clean-ups have become a problem with staff reductions, something that Park Director Mark Zinns has been trying to manage with help from all willing hands.

Teens may provide an answer, especially those invited to hang out at the park.  Besides having a place to go after school, “Teen Power Project” volunteers hope to encourage kids to participate in spring clean-ups.  By the way, there’s a kick-off for teens and families to celebrate with snacks, skateboarding and teen singers – on Wednesday, April 21st, 2:30 – 6:30 pm at the park.  (More info here.)

While there have always been volunteer efforts, it feels like neighbors are more involved than in earlier, more flush times.  There’s no question that a core group of volunteers are motivated to keep parks safe and cleaned up, to conserve remaining open parcels, and to honor the historical heritage around here.  The progress is slow and steady, but heartening.

We Visited Novella’s Farm Today

Oakland’s gaining a reputation for urban farming due to its rock star, Novella Carpenter.  She runs the Ghost Town Farm, on Martin Luther King and 28th, and also has written a popular and well-reviewed tome about farming in the ‘hood, called Farm City.

Today, Carpenter held an open house at her farm.  Some animals were introduced, though this event took place in the garden area.  We just had to see what this urban farmer had done with her own two hands – and it’s very impressive!

The Farm Footprint

You might blink and miss the farm, so we took several pictures to share with you.  Let’s start with what you see after stepping through the gates, a verdant array of plants and walks.  This mini-farm is a true oasis, and is very orderly to boot.

When you step across the street, you only notice an unbuilt and fenced corner lot.  In fact, the farm would be impossible to detect as you drive down Martin Luther King, a stone’s throw (well a block or two) from Highway 980.

Now look across the street at this marvelously blighted building, boarded up with gang graffiti above and colorful decoration for a now-vacated (we think) temple below.  Forgive the Jeep driving by, but it’s a fairly busy thoroughfare.

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Take Video Tour Through Montclair

If you ever need to show people around the Oakland and our hills, then we suggest sharing this Oakland marathon video tour.

To find local turf, fast forward through the first few minutes until you reach the trail above Lake Temescal.  And then stick around as the route heads through the Fernwood area and down Mountain Blvd.  It is all very familiar, and something you would never bother to video!

What’s a bit entertaining is the map doesn’t match the video traveler in the least.  The map indicates that you’re located at the Park Blvd exit from Highway 13, while the video shows the La Salle and Mountain intersection right in the Village.  Funny, huh?

Still we’re grateful for Oakland North’s video, not to mention the real reason this video was shot.  As reported earlier here, we’re all welcoming the brand-new Running Festival Weekend and the Marathon centerpiece this Sunday morning.

Some 1,000 marathoners are expected to race right through Montclair, arriving between 8-10 am.  They have been traipsing uphill for a while, and might be a little winded by then.  Of course, these runners would appreciate a little cheering as they trot along – and we’ll be there to witness a tradition in the making!

What Changes Matter In Hills Zoning

Although this seems like a snooze subject, the City of Oakland’s planners have been studying zoning refinements for years and hope to implement some improvements by 2011.  We’re at a stage where some adjustments to their proposals are still possible.

Our planners thoughtfully and patiently shared proposed changes for residential and commercial districts in the hills, at this Tuesday’s public meeting.  As a community service, let us attempt to shake down which parts mattered most for renovators and builders.

Adding Hills Regulations

The Oakland Hills would receive “Residential – Hillside” codes based on lot size.  The smallest zone, RH-4 (nee R-30), was redefined from lots under 5,000 square feet to lots under 6,500 (<20 percent slope) or 8,000 (>20 percent slope) square feet.  Although many lots and homes would become non-conforming, they get grandfathered status here – so no worries.

One new regulation would control Floor Area Ratios or FARs – the home’s total square feet vs. total lot size.  To prevent McMansion problems, the city proposed ratios and the smallest one might need work.  For lots under 5,000 square feet, the proposed caps were 2,000 square feet or .55 (55 percent) FARs – though Montclarions recommended .50 based on what other Bay Area cities do.

Another zoning addition would relate to Lot Coverage for homes with 20 percent-plus slopes.  For RH-4 lots, this regulation translated to 40 percent.  And for lots under 5,000 square feet, homes would be permitted up to 2,000 square feet as well.  While Montclarions applauded this footprint zoning, the 2,000 square foot exception was raised as a red flag.

Fixing Hills Regulations

Some proposed changes made good sense, including the newly-proposed Lot Height regulations.  In upslope lots, there’s a max height of 24 feet above the edge of the property line.  So if your home were built, say, 12 feet uphill, that prevented you from building a two-story home.  This change would measure from grade, which means the base of the home rather than property line below.

Downsloping homes needed some attention as well, because of many variances approved on homes constructed during this past decade.  The zoning changes would officially add two feet to wall and roof heights as the hills steepen, for homes built on 20-39, 40-59 and 60+ percent slopes.  This fix made sense to Montclarions hearing the details, last Tuesday.

Altering Village Zoning

Montclair Village has been considered an established commercial district, with a selective range of pedestrian-oriented retail.  Most of our central core was zoned “C-27,” while other shopping districts like Dimond, Rockridge and Lakeshore were “C-31” instead.  There were no cries for Village zoning changes.

Still, city planners wanted to create a new “CN-1” zone in the proposed update.  We asked the planners why and they didn’t have a direct response, but explained the minor differences.  Our take is that planners just wanted to eliminate our outlier zone and create consistency among pedestrian districts.

This new zoning would allow conditional use permits for additional business types like custom manufacturing or research services, possibly triggering unintended consequences down the line.  The Montclair Village Association (MVA) continues to provide oversight in our faire village, so no concerns were raised by Montclarions last Tuesday.

Speaking Up And More

Okay, we applaud you if you read this far.  Now how can you learn more or be heard?  First, there’s an “Area 1 meeting” on Monday, April 26th at North Oakland Senior Center (map) starting at 6:30 pm.  This gathering addresses a full-third of the city, including the hills.

You don’t have to wait until there’s a meeting next month.  City planners have also encouraged the public to email them right now, with any specific questions or opinions you might want to share – at zoningupdate@oaklandnet.com.

If you’re interested in diving into zoning materials, then brew a little coffee and visit the planning web site – and we suggest reading this update, residential zoning changes and hillside changes.  Last but not least, feel free to call the city planners at their update line, 510-238-7299.

Police Chief Takes To The Airwaves

This morning, Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts appeared on KQED Forum, with Host Scott Shafer.  Some of this interview amplified what Batts has discussed at recent strategic plan meetings.  While the Chief pointed out the recent double-digit declines in crime, he didn’t sugar-coat the challenges ahead.

Plenty was covered in the radio interview, so we selected and interpreted these points of interest:

  • Priorities – The Police Department is going to staff to address the highest crime-ridden areas.  Everyone deserves to live in safe neighborhoods.   Hard to argue here, tough to achieve.
  • Beats Matter – Beat officers will be assigned to their beats, full time.  When there’s crime, they might leave their posts to attend to emergencies.   Local focus with some interruptions seems reasonable.
  • Volunteers – Like Long Beach, Oakland expects to develop a volunteer force in the hundreds.  We need to get things set up to manage these citizen volunteers.   What are incentives to work well?
  • Interface – When you want to report a crime, we won’t make it as tough to file as today.  It shouldn’t even require a visit to police station in the future.  This is something we have to fix.   Yes, doesn’t this all cost real money?
  • City Budget – There are obviously not enough cops on the street.  Our $35 million shortfall next year (2010-2011) is creating a challenge, to say the least.   To us, this is Everest challenge!

Finally, the honeymoon period is drawing to a close for Police Chief Batts.  We have the right leader in place, who signed up to the job knowing he would be jumping over many hurdles here.  He still approaches the role with plenty of focused energy.

If you haven’t been at any live meetings with the Chief, then we encourage you to listen to his archived interview now.