Northbrae in Berkeley voted one of best neighborhoods the nation

The Northbrae neighborhood in Berkeley has been voted one of the nation’s “10 Great Neighborhoods for 2011” for its “exceptional character.”

Northbrae — an area in North Berkeley bound by Cedar Street to south, Solano Avenue to the north, Sacramento Street to the west and Martin Luther King Jr. Way to the east — was awarded this designation by the American Planning Association earlier this month. The neighborhood was chosen due to its “abundance of preserved views of the San Francisco Bay,” as well as its “garden suburb design with streets and footpaths that follow the contour of the hills and gracefully skirt outcroppings of magnificent volcanic rock,” according to a Tuesday press release from the association.

Every year since 2007, the American Planning Association has chosen 10 neighborhoods as part of its Great Places in America program.

The distinction came as a surprise to Berkeley City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, who not only represents Northbrae but also lives there. But after living there for 40 years, he can attest to the neighborhood’s merits.

“People come here and they don’t want to go back,” he said. “It’s generally quiet. We can get to the things we need, most of us without a car. Most of the streets are tree-lined and we have spectacular views of the Bay.”

A result of 15,000 displaced San Franciscans flocking to Berkeley in search of housing following the 1906 earthquake, Northbrae was a foray into environmental design long before hippies ever roamed the earth, according to the press release.

According to the press release, the neighborhood’s layout was influenced around that time by a local Chamber of Commerce’s proposal to move the state capital to Berkeley, and although the idea was ultimately turned down, the wide boulevards, stone pillars, and regal public square and fountain remain as a backdrop to the picturesque Craftsman houses and California bungalows.

The association was impressed with the residents’ efforts to restore and maintain the neighborhood landmarks and nature trails. The houses follow the natural topography of the area, some looking like they are nestled in the hills. The neighborhood is mostly single-family homes and several apartment buildings.

According to Denny Johnson, public affairs coordinator for the association , the association evaluates a neighborhood based on its “strong sense of place and unique design, public participation and leadership, and a commitment to the neighborhood in terms planning.” The association was also impressed by Northbrae’s proximity to public transportation, retail areas and amenities.

“It’s an open process,” Johnson said.

Northbrae first caught the association’s attention several years ago, when the staff came across information about the community while researching Northern California cities online, he said.

“We saw it and said, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of potential here,” Johnson added.

The neighborhood’s schools, park and library have attracted young families as well as retirees.

Aviv Nilsam, a 20-year-old student at Berkeley City College, has lived in the neighborhood his whole life.

His favorite thing about Northbrae? “Everything,” he said.

“It’s close to the hills and you can go for bike rides. It’s the perfect distance from downtown. It’s kind of residential, but not suburban,” Nilsam said.

Jeff Dutton, a 40-year resident of Northbrae, said he likes the culture of the neighborhood.

“In some neighborhoods, people come home and all you see is their garage door close,” he said. “I take the time to talk. It’s friendly.”