Northbrae: Berkeley, California


Nestled in the rolling foothills amidst outcroppings of volcanic rock, Northbrae stands out for its spectacular vistas of San Francisco Bay, environmentally sensitive design, connections to a unique network of 136 paths and steps crisscrossing Berkeley, and two nearby commercial areas for shopping and entertainment. Built on land used for grazing cattle, Northbrae was developed by Duncan McDuffie, who envisioned a park-like neighborhood of single-family houses nestled on lots facing tree-lined streets.

Designated Area

The neighborhood is bounded by Solano Avenue to the north, Eunice and Hopkins Streets to the south, Spruce Street to the east, and the Albany city limits to the west.

Houses, predominantly Craftsman and California bungalows, blend with hillsides throughout Northbrae. Stone pillars identifying street names were designed by University of California architect John Galen Howard and provide a unifying element in the neighborhood. Photo Jill A. Martinucci.

Planning Excellence

With some 15,000 San Franciscans descending on Berkeley following the 1906 earthquake and commuter rail beginning to advance into the countryside, McDuffie and his partner Joseph Mason formed the Mason-McDuffie Co. and purchased 700 acres for a subdivision.

Initial plans were influenced by designers trained in the garden suburbs and Beaux-Arts tradition and a local Chamber of Commerce proposal to move the state capitol to Berkeley. Stone pillars, identifying streets named for California counties, and a majestic public circle with classical balustrade and fountain, which was restored in 1996, remain as testaments to that effort.

The circle's Fountain Walk connected to a train station at the end of a tunnel where shops are clustered. Links to rail and other amenities were provided by a network of  paths and stairs carved into the hills throughout the neighborhood.

Magnificent rocks and boulders, central to the landscape, were part of the initial allure. Houses — primarily bungalows — were built atop and adjacent to these rocks, known as Northbrae rhyolite. Composed primarily of quartz, the rhyolite is evident in Indian Rock Park, a gift to the city from Mason-McDuffie.

Situated in a triangular park, the landmark North Branch Berkeley Library is a community gateway. This Spanish Revival building, now under renovation, has a low-pitched red tile roof, central tower, and deeply inset arched windows. Adjacent to the library is a traffic triangle that was designed and landscaped by the neighborhood.

On the neighborhood's southern edge is a bustling shopping area, the Martin Luther King Middle School and the King School Park complete with tennis courts, an outdoor swimming pool, and school garden. Along the northern edge of Northbrae is an active business district that joins Berkeley and Albany.

Fountain Circle, a majestic public circle with classical balustrade and fountain, was built in 1911 and restored in 1996. The circle's Fountain Walk once connected to a rail station and is now part of a unique network of paths and steps that crisscross Berkeley. Photo Jill A. Martinucci.

Defining Characteristics, Features

Natural features shape design

  • Situated in the Berkeley hills, Northbrae's character derived from rolling terrain, steep hills; curvilinear streets follow topography, existing trees, volcanic rock outcroppings 
  • Deposited by volcanic eruptions nine to 11 million years ago, Northbrae rhyolite is a beautiful composite rock with high amounts of quartz; found throughout neighborhood and incorporated into garden walls, other design elements
  • Street pattern flows in northerly and southerly directions to provide most homes with views of both San Francisco Bay and Berkeley hills
  • Houses blend with hillsides; predominantly Craftsman and California bungalows

Public amenities

  • Landmark public improvements district (1907) with public circle, stairways, benches and stone pillars designed by University of California architect John Galen Howard
  • Fountain Circle (1911) with classical balustrade is a unifying design element; fountain features four grizzly bear cubs by renowned animal sculptor Arthur Putnam
  • Fountain Walk originally provided access to rail station; now part of paths and steps network crisscrossing Berkeley and connecting parks, schools, rail line
  • Other Northbrae paths: Black Path, Terrace Walk, The Short Cut, Eunice Steps, Indian Rock; latter path links Indian Rock Park to Upper Solano Avenue commercial area
  • Neighborhood's best views of San Francisco Bay from Indian Rock Park; park donated to city by the Mason-McDuffie Co.
  • North Branch Berkeley Public Library (1936) designed by James W. Plachek in Spanish Revival style; renovations to restore lobby and rotunda, expand space, improve access
  • Traffic triangle adjacent to library originally a memorial and gathering place after Sept. 11; Sonoma/Hopkins neighborhood transformed it into mini park with drought-resistant succulents and a pedestrian path to library

Transportation connections, business-retail areas

  • Original Northbrae subdivision — classified as exclusive single-family home district under city's 1916 zoning law — designed so every lot was convenient to a train; today, Central Avenue station, 1.5 miles away, connected to neighborhood by two local bus routes
  • Two bicycle boulevards, continuous routes traveling the length of the city, run south from Northbrae; three neighborhood streets have bicycle lanes
  • Two commercial districts; Hopkins Street retail district along southern boundary has Monterey Market, fish and poultry markets, bakery; Solano Avenue businesses to the north include restaurants, clothing stores, banks
  • Martin Luther King Middle School hosts the Edible Schoolyard, a one-acre student-farmed garden; draws more than 1,000 visitors annually

Active associations

  • Friends of the Fountain and Walk (1993) raised over $100,000 to restore fountain destroyed in a 1958 vehicle accident
  • Solano Avenue Association (1974), a business improvement district, represents 400 businesses; association's annual Solano Avenue Stroll attracts 250,000 attendees
  • Berkeley Path Wanderers Association (1997) maintains and improves pathways and steps; group has done walking surface repairs, installed railings, repaired fences
  • Friends of King Park painting mural along a King Park retaining wall; intended to beautify park and educate viewers about the water cycle and environmental connections

The Spanish Revival style North Branch Berkeley Public Library, now under renovation, was built in 1936 and designed by James W. Plachek. A mini park adjacent to the library features a pedestrian path, and the library serves as a community gateway. Photo Jill A. Martinucci.