COMMUNITY PROFILE: Kensington
Through the years and surrounded by population growth, Kensington has retained a quiet small town charm. Interesting terrain along with magnificent views of the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay provide appeal, while the strong sense of community is compelling.
Kensington is a unique community in several ways. It offers the charms of Berkeley living without many of the more radical processes and it benefits from local control of key governmental aspects without the complexity of small city politics. Kensington is a physical extension of the most desirable neighborhoods of North Berkeley, though it is across the County line, in Contra Costa County. To the north it is bordered by the best parts of El Cerrito, with which it shares schools.
Like most upscale communities on the east side of the Berkeley Hills, the local elementary schools are desirable, but middle and high schools are less appealing. Many families factor in the cost of private education after 6th grade, in considering real estate values, and there are many excellent options.
Kensington is an unincorporated community, but unlike most unincorporated communities, Kensington has local jurisdiction over its police department, park services, refuse collection and fire department.
The five-member Kensington Police Protection and Community Services District (KPPCSD) Board oversees the police department, park services, and refuse collection. The KPPCSD is also responsible for maintaining the public stairways and paths in Kensington. The five-member Kensington Fire District Board oversees the fire department and emergency medical services, of which the day-to-day function is outsourced to the fire department of El Cerrito, a neighboring city. The Kensington Municipal Advisory Board (KMAC) is a commission whose members are appointed by the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors. KMAC is charged with land-use and development review and provides recommendations to the county planning and public works departments. There are even unique view protection ordinances through KMAC that afford Kensington land owners greater view protection rights than are available in most California jurisdictions.
Kensington belongs to the Stege Sanitary District, which also includes El Cerrito and parts of Richmond. As with most sewer jurisdictions on the west side of the Berkeley Hills, there are strict requirements for the condition of sewer laterals at the time of sale on residential real estate.
The house numbers on streets follow the pattern used in Berkeley and Albany and mail service is provided by the Berkeley post office. In fact some electronic navigation systems confuse Kensington addresses with Berkeley.
The Pedro Fages mapping expedition of 1772 passed through the area, through territory occupied by various Native American tribes for over 6,000 years. During the Spanish period this area was under the auspices of Mission Dolores across the Bay as grazing land, but likely of little use, and too far from Mission San Jose which only grazed cattle as far north as present day Danville. Mission lands were officially secularized in 1834, but much land had already been distributed before that date.
In 1823, the Republic of Mexico granted Rancho San Pablo what is now Kensington to the Castro family. In 1831, Victor Castro, inherited the southern portion of the rancho. This is one of the few Mexican land grants where title was retained into the period of US jurisdiction. In 1892, Anson Blake purchased a portion of this land, most of which is now Kensington.
Primary residential development began in the early 1900s. Temporary settlement of ranch land in the East Bay after the 1906 earthquake led to permanent development, and land development companies had bought most of the Kensington area by 1911, when it was first surveyed. The area was named "Kensington" that year by Robert Brousefield, a surveyor who had once lived in the London borough of South Kensington.
Kensington's boundaries were first defined in 1917 when El Cerrito was incorporated. Farmers in Kensington resisted inclusion in the city of El Cerrito when it was incorporated in 1917, and local voters have rejected incorporation various times since then. Eventually the County Supervisors drew the boundaries of the proposed city of El Cerrito to exclude areas where there was strong opposition. Thus, Kensington was born, evolved from the seeds of protest, its boundaries drawn by exclusion rather than inclusion.
In 1925, when the population was just over 200 people, Kensington was still a largely undeveloped grassy hillside covered with dairy farms and adjoining pasture land. Around 1925 -1926 the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) constructed an aqueduct through the Berkeley Hills from Orinda to transport water from the San Pablo Reservoir to Kensington. Some of this water is stored in Kensington’s Summit Reservoir, the rest is pumped to other local reservoirs.
By 1930 the population had grown to nearly 1,500 and reached 3,355 in 1940. Kensington’s population reached a peak of 6,601 in 1950, but has since stabilized at about 5,000 people. There is little likelihood of growth in this area since most land has been developed, and local control generally precludes higher density uses.
Until 1948, streetcars of the Key System ran to Kensington from Berkeley along Arlington Avenue, terminating in the small commercial area at Amherst Avenue. Streetcar service played an important role in the development of Kensington, and was fed by a network of mid-block pedestrian paths, most of which remain today. The streetcars were replaced by a bus route which still runs along Arlington Avenue today.
Kensington is a popular location for people affiliated with Cal Berkeley. During World War II, Robert Oppenheimer lived in Kensington while working on the top secret atomic bomb.
Children from Kensington attend schools in the West Contra Costa School District. Kensington Hilltop Elementary School serves just under 400 children, from K - 6, mostly from neighborhoods within Kensington. This school's 2013 API test score of 953 is at the top tier of schools in California. Tremendous parental and community involvement positively affect the learning process.
The scores at Portola Junior High School drop dramatically to a 2013 API of 738. Kensington kids are at that point mixed in with kids from El Cerrito and Richmond. The name of the school has recently been changed to Fred T. Korematsu, though few records yet reflect this.
Most Kensington children are assigned to El Cerrito High School, where standards have slipped over the last few decades to a 2013 API score of 672, but this is on the rise from a 2011 API of 658. This compares with scores of 757 in Berkeley, 860 in Albany, is on par with high schools serving El Sobrante and Pinole, while far above the sub-600 scores in Richmond. Many problems are associated with the recent financial collapse of the West Contra Costa School District.
El Cerrito High School - API 913
Portola Junior High School - API 738
Kensington Hilltop Elementary School - API 953
High Schools Map - Shows State API Score by Location
(Above 900 is excellent - Under 700 is scary)