ALAMEDA, Calif. — A few years ago, Thushan and Megan Amarasiriwardena considered buying a home in Alamo Square, their neighborhood in San Francisco, but found that even one-bedroom condos were way too expensive. Then they looked at Alameda, a place that Bay Area residents often forget.
One of the best things about Alameda is the most obvious: It’s an island in the San Francisco Bay (another part is attached to Oakland) with spectacular water and city views. It also exudes character and charm — barbershops display old-fashioned barber poles on nearly every downtown block, and politely aggressive Girl Scouts sell Thin Mints. The speed limit is mostly 25 miles an hour. The city evokes a Norman Rockwell vision of America, but with more diversity.
In the spring of 2017, the couple went with some friends to Alameda’s Art Deco movie theater, where before the film began, they watched “Alameda’s Got Talent,” with local kids playing piano and an older guy performing magic tricks. “This town is too good to be real,” said Ms. Amarasiriwardena, 36, a landscape architect.
By August, they had become Alamedans.
They could afford to buy because in 2015, Mr. Amarasiriwardena, 38, sold his start-up, Launchpad Toys, which created apps for children, to Google, where he also works developing the company’s robot personality. “We could finally buy a place,” he said.
Their search was analytical. “There’s speed, quality and cost,” Mr. Amarasiriwardena said. They were not in a hurry, so they focused on quality and cost.
Their spreadsheet listed local asking prices and sale prices. “We just waited,” said Ms. Amarasiriwardena, 36. Three times they bid over the asking price; they lost all three.
Then something different came on the market: a five-bedroom Victorian between two small apartment buildings, with a towering turret built in 1894, on a main street. At $1.4 million, it was too big and expensive, but when the owner reduced the price to $1.3 million, they attended an open house. “What struck us was how loved the house was,” Mr. Amarasiriwardena said, although it needed a new foundation, which could cost $200,000.
The couple wrote a letter to the owner about how they’d fallen in love across San Francisco’s fire escapes and wanted their children to grow up in Alameda. They bought the house for $1.152 million. Theirs was the only bid. (They now have a toddler and another on the way.) “We feel like we’re caretakers in the long life of this house,” Mr. Amarasiriwardena said.
The first weekend they went to a pizza parlor and found “a family crowd, something we didn’t realize we didn’t have in the city,” Ms. Amarasiriwardena said. “I felt we were home.”
The couple’s enthusiasm has now led to a chain migration: Mr. Amarasiriwardena coaxed two high school friends from his hometown of Amherst, Mass., to settle in Alameda.
After Jason Hill, a Washington D.C., health care lobbyist, took a job with the California-based managed health care consortium Kaiser Permanente, he and his wife, Ann Rhodes, a community organizer, looked for a friendly community with a short commute, good schools for their young daughters, and diversity.
Guided by a relocation specialist, Mr. Hill spent a day looking for a town to call home. He considered Oakland, Berkeley and Point Richmond before he saw Alameda. It seemed family-friendly and felt like a quaint small town. “It met a lot of our criteria,” he said.
It wasn’t perfect. The family was coming from a neighborhood in Washington that was about 80 percent African-American. Mr. Hill, 47, is African-American, and Ms. Rhodes, 40, is white. And while Alameda prides itself on its diversity, Mr. Hill observed that, compared with their previous experience, there weren’t many black residents. The town is 50 percent white, 31 percent Asian, 11 percent Latino and 6 percent African-American, according to U.S. census figures.
In 2018, they rented a house in Alameda and began their hunt. They looked at about 10 houses, settling on a beautiful, refurbished four-bedroom Craftsman from 1920 with a yard on a quiet street, close to Oakland. They paid $1.4 million. Neighbors brought cookies and welcoming cards.
When their oldest daughter attended an Alameda public school, she was the only black child in her class. “That was problematic for us,” Mr. Hill said. She now attends a Montessori charter school in Oakland, where there are many more children who look like her.
Mr. Hill and Ms. Rhodes sold their individual condos in Washington, for $410,000 and $290,000. “That was the only way we could do it,” Mr. Hill said. The couple kept the condo they had bought together in Washington and now rent it out.
What You’ll Find
Alameda, home to almost 80,000 residents, is a jigsaw puzzle of a city comprising two main sections — Alameda Island and Bay Farm Island, which isn’t an island but a peninsula attached to Oakland.
There are resort-like townhouses and newer houses in planned communities on Bay Farm Island, with kitchens that have islands of their own. On Alameda Island you’ll find renovated Craftsman, Tudor, colonial-style and Mediterranean houses, small apartment buildings and regal Victorians. Some houses come without a garage, but street parking in residential areas is abundant.
A drive into town from the mainland quickly reduces stress. Children ride bikes with no helicopter parents in sight. Half the town watches the blowout Fourth of July parade; the other half is in it. On warm days, parents take small children to the beach. Windsurfers scrape the sky and there are spectacular views of San Francisco and the Bay. Neighborhoods have block parties, and book clubs are not exclusive.
At Alameda Point, on the western end of the island, where the Alameda Naval Air Station once stood, tumbledown buildings look like Hollywood stage sets, which they sometimes are. With 900 acres of city-owned land on the Point, new neighborhoods are being built.
Spirits Alley, a cluster of distilleries along Monarch Street at Alameda Point, offers wine, spirits and craft-beer tasting rooms in old hangars. Elsewhere, local industry includes pharmaceutical firms, Peet’s Coffee roasting plant and Saildrone, which makes wind-powered ocean drones used for scientific research.
What You’ll Pay
Before the Naval base closed in 1997, Alameda was a middle-class community with housing for military families. Today, it’s tough for a teacher or a ferry worker to find affordable housing in the city. A townhouse built in the 1960s may sell for $800,000, while a 19th-century Victorian can go for $2 million.
In 2017, 493 single-family homes sold for a median price of $980,000. Prices rose in 2018, with 502 houses selling for a median price of $1.02 million, and again in 2019, with 469 houses selling for a median of $1.11 million, according to Patrick Carlisle, the Bay Area’s chief market analyst for Compass, the real estate company.
Still, said Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, Alameda’s mayor, “We’re working to house people at all levels of income.”
At Alameda Point, old military housing is used to house formerly disabled, homeless resident. In the next decade, 1,425 new housing units are planned, with 75 percent designated as market-rate housing and the remainder as affordable housing.
The city has about 230 homeless residents, Ms. Ashcraft said, and is “establishing an emergency fund, because the most effective way to address homelessness is not to let it happen.”
Families that move to Alameda often stay. Joey Pucci, owner of JP Seafood Co., is a second-generation Alamedan. Kate McCaffrey, a Compass agent, is a fifth-generation resident. Her great-grandmother’s wedding dress is at the Alameda Museum.
On the main commercial block there are two toy stores, a local ice cream shop whose motto is “Life Is Uncertain, Eat Dessert First,” a bookstore, a high-end watch repair shop and a newspaper store (which also sells mobile phones).
Beautifully maintained parks are scattered throughout town, luring young parents with strollers. Much of Alameda is flat, making biking easy for all ages. And residents are, mostly, nice. “People thank the bus driver when the get off the bus,” Ms. Ashcraft said.
The Alameda Unified School District operates nine elementary schools, including the Maya Lin School, an arts institute named for the artist best known for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
During the 2018-19 school year, 68 percent of third-graders met or exceeded standards on English and language arts (ELA) on California’s Smarter Balanced Assessment test, compared with 49 percent statewide. In math, 72 percent met or exceeded standards, compared with 50 percent statewide.
There are four middle schools and four high schools, including the neoclassical, blocklong Alameda High. Of the students who took the SAT exam during the 2017-18 school year, 85 percent met or exceeded benchmarks for English, compared with 71 percent statewide; 89 percent met or exceeded the benchmarks for math, compared with 51 percent statewide.
Gail Payne, Alameda’s senior transportation coordinator, said that most residents drive to work. An average of 18,000 ride the bus every day; fares are $3.50 one way or $86.40 for a monthly pass. On a typical workday, 5,200 people take the passenger ferry to the San Francisco Ferry Building, which costs between $3.60 and $7.20 one way. Alameda has two ferry terminals — one on Main Street, where there are 20 daily trips, and another on Bay Farm Island, which makes eight daily trips. A third terminal is set to open this summer at the Seaplane Lagoon, and will become the main terminal for trips to San Francisco.
Others drive to a nearby BART station and pay $4.20 for a 16-minute ride to San Francisco. Tech buses from Silicon Valley pick up and drop off employees in Alameda. During commuting hours, the drive to Silicon Valley can take one to two hours.
Alamedans are “very mindful of climate change,” Ms. Ashcraft said. The city has 47 miles of bike lanes and paths, and is building a bike and hikers’ trail east to west leading to the new ferry terminal. “Part of our mind-set is that we’ve got to get out of our cars,” she said.
The Ohlone Indians lived in what is now Alameda, eating acorns and oysters until the Spanish arrived in the 1700s and forced them to relinquish their culture. In 1853, a city was established. In 1869, Alameda served as the terminus for the Transcontinental Railroad. San Franciscans started moving to Alameda following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, Mayor Ashcraft said. In the mid-1940s, Alameda became a Navy town, where during World War II, three shifts of workers were employed.
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