Downtown Palo Alto

Condo or townhouse market, usually entry-level to mid-range. Look here if you want old-fashioned charm or a condo within easy walking distance of the mid-Peninsula’s leading downtown.

Boundaries: Alma, Addison, Middlefield, San Francisquito Creek (approximate). Map boundaries are approximate due to my limitations as a map maker. Neighborhood boundaries may be subjective. Boundaries and other information on this Web site should be verified before being relied upon.  Boundaries are approximate since some parts of adjacent Crescent Park and Community Center are near downtown and resemble downtown neighborhoods.

Overview:  Downtown is one of the most delightful parts of Palo Alto, and one of my favorites even though I rarely eat or shop there these days. It’s also a great place to work, although there’s no lonelier feeling than listening to the downtown merry-makers as you toil late on a Friday evening. Downtown has changed greatly since I came here in 1967 but I still like the atmosphere. Not all the newer buildings are architectural gems, but Carmel has the only downtown that can make a living hanging on to the past with a death-like grip, and Carmel has an entirely different gig. What the traditionalists don’t realize is that a downtown filled with bad Birge Clark knock-offs would be just as deadly as a downtown filled with bad Mies van der Rohe knock-offs, although we seem to have gotten our share of the latter.  But the considerable charm of downtown Palo Alto is more than skin deep.  It lies mostly with the people who live there and work there.

Downtown is expensive but funky—not your typical upscale Palo Alto neighborhood—and it has a sense of history. But the main attraction for most of its residents and visitors is the buzz from the mid-Peninsula’s only regional downtown, its upscale restaurants and shopping and the people who hang out there.

Like any busy area, downtown Palo Alto has baggage. Even residential streets can be busy and noisy—this isn’t the place to look for peace and quiet and listen to the birds sing. This also isn’t a place where you can expect to park in front of your home during business hours, since commuters monopolize street parking for several blocks on either side of University.

Housing stock: Downtown is architecturally interesting, with a bit of everything, often on the same block. Most homes are old, often very old, and anything new is quite expensive. Nothing is cheap, regardless of age. In Palo Alto’s earliest days, tradesmen lived north of University and these homes are often small and humble. Larger homes exist but many were divided into apartments some time during the Harding Administration.

For convenience we’ll divide downtown’s single-family housing into three tiers. Second and third tier homes are small and on a small lot, date from the turn of the 20th century and sometimes have the picturesque neglected look found in paintings of old barns. The most affordable, but still not cheap, third tier is the roughly 20% of homes on sub-standard (less than 5000 sq.ft.) lots. Next up the ladder is second tier, the equally numerous small old homes on standard-size lots of between 5000 and about 5625 sq.ft.

First tier is new construction or the occasional restored large home, often on a second-tier sized lot since large lots aren’t common downtown. In addition, there are two small developments of newer homes on Ramona and Everett.

Besides the divided old houses, downtown has a number of post-war apartment buildings. Downtown also has a good supply of condos and townhouses, most small and from fifteen to thirty years old. There’s a limited supply of newer and larger units, and many downtown buyers see these as a welcome alternative to restoring and maintaining a hundred-year-old house. Combine that convenience with the attractiveness of downtown living to highly-paid and highly competitive professionals, and you have prices much like those for single-family homes elsewhere.

The business district that gives this area its tremendous appeal extends from Lytton to Forest, although this boundary is flexible especially in the blocks near Alma. The business district’s ambience is largely pleasant but not overwhelming, except for a high-rise City Hall that looms over downtown and, ironically, may be the most un-Palo Alto-like building in the city. A handful of commercial buildings remain from the turn of the 20th century. A bit newer but still classic Palo Alto are the Early California commercial buildings, most by local architects Birge Clark (see above) and Pedro de Lemos. For self-guided walking tours of the business district, including Homer Avenue (“Original Palo Alto in Transition”) and the Ramona Street Architectural District, contact Palo Alto Stanford Heritage (PAST) at (650) 299-8878.

South of the business district, the downtown residential neighborhood continues in the blocks from Forest to Addison known as SOFA: South of Forest Avenue. This area has seen redevelopment on a large scale as the former site of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic has been transformed into housing and a park.

Lot sizes: There really isn’t a standard lot size for this area. Many are 5600 sq.ft. but smaller lots are numerous. The relatively small number of 7500 to 8000 sq.ft. lots represent the largest end of the range commonly found, although a handful are larger. All are in the typical pre-war configuration, narrow and deep.

Affordability: Most mid-Peninsula neighborhoods are less expensive than downtown Palo Alto. However, within that broad market, prices vary greatly depending upon age and house size. Lot size is also important, as it is in other neighborhoods, but practically speaking it’s less of a factor here because so many lots are equally small.

Homes in the SOFA area (South of Forest Avenue) tend to be substantially larger than those north of University and sell for about a 15-25% premium. This isn’t quite Professorville, the upscale neighborhood immediately to the south—too many apartments and condos, not enough architect-designed masterpieces—but it’s an attractive transitional area.

As I mentioned, condos and townhouses are a big part of the downtown real estate market.

How does the downtown condo market compare with those of other well-known mid-Peninsula downtowns? Downtown Palo Alto is about 40% more expensive than south Palo Alto’s California Avenue, 60% more expensive than downtown Mountain View and almost 90% more expensive than the downtowns of San Carlos and Burlingame. Downtown Menlo Park sells for about the same for comparable units, although Menlo has more larger units.

Schools: Palo Alto Unified School District, 25 Churchill Ave., Palo Alto CA 94306. Main number (650) 329-3700.

Finding your neighborhood school                   PAUSD school evaluations

School attendance boundaries are subject to change and schools are subject to availability. Verify enrollment with the Palo Alto Unified School District.

Amenities: Cogswell Plaza, Lytton Avenue between Ramona and Bryant (.5 acres): shaded benches, lawn, paths. Closed at night, alcoholic beverages banned. El Palo Alto, El Camino at Alma (.5 acres): landmark El Palo Alto redwood, campsite of the first explorers in this area, the Portola Expedition Party of 1769. Hopkins Park, Palo Alto Avenue between El Camino Real and Middlefield (approximately one mile): unimproved creekside park. Edith Johnson Park, Everett Avenue between Kipling and Cowper (2 acres): basketball hoop, picnic area, play ground, volleyball pit, grassy hills, shade. Lytton Plaza, Emerson and University (.2 acres): paved, plantings, benches. Scott Park, Scott Street at Channing (.4 acres): lawn area with benches, swings, basketball court, picnic tables with brazier. El Camino Park, 100 El Camino Real (10 acres): soccer field, lighted softball field with bleachers. Downtown Library, 270 Forest Ave. (650) 329-2641.

Shopping: There’s everything to support the trendy, upscale lifestyle and not much else, although a recent grocery store and hardware store have helped. Hugely expensive commercial rents have forced out many of the unglamorous but necessary shops that help support a normal lifestyle. Note that I haven’t used this opportunity to slam the start-ups largely responsible for skyrocketing rents.  God bless and preserve techies!

Neighborhoods with similar ambience: See an overview of local downtowns.

Interested in buying in downtown or in a similar area? Please contact me at

copyright © John Fyten 2004-14

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