Old Palo Alto

BWprewarhomePre-World War II homes, usually mid-range to top end. Look here if you want one of the mid-Peninsula’s leading neighborhoods, with old-fashioned charm, graceful homes and beautiful tree-lined streets.

Boundaries: Alma, Oregon Expressway, Middlefield (to Embarcadero), Embarcadero (to Alma). Map boundaries are approximate due to my limitations as a map maker. Neighborhood boundaries may be subjective. Boundaries and other information on this site should be verified before being relied upon.

Overview: Another of Palo Alto’s premium neighborhoods, and one of its best known. The “Old” in “Old Palo Alto” is misleading since it isn’t Palo Alto’s oldest neighborhood, but the area does have a strong pre-war ambience. Even the new homes are sympathetic to the architecture of the pre-war era. Perhaps it’s best to think of Old Palo Alto as a continuation of its northern neighbor, Professorville, in spirit if not always in architecture. Another way of characterizing Old Palo Alto is as a transition between the pre-1920 homes of Professorville and the post-World War II tract homes of OPA’s southern neighbor, Midtown—with a heavy dose of classic Crescent Park thrown in.

Housing stock: In this context “Old” is an apt description, although homes can range from turn-of-the-century to ‘50s ranchers. Old Palo Alto can best be analyzed from north to south, and from west to east.

Just south of Embarcadero homes tend to look much like their brethren in Professorville to the north, many dating from the same pre-WWI era. You’ll find the same architectural styles: Shingle, Craftsman and Colonial. But the hallmark of Old Palo Alto is architectural diversity; this is a neighborhood where you can find Shingle, Streamline Moderne and Contemporary on the same street. So you’ll also see 1920s Spanish Revival in a variety of sizes from bungalow to estate, as well as the more traditional styles including Foursquare and Stick Tudor.

As you go south you’ll notice the neighborhood gradually change, with the blocks from Lowell to Seale a sort of transition zone. The Shingle style so characteristic of pre-1920 Palo Alto disappears. The heavy Spanish (or “Early California”) influence also begins to thin out, gradually but never completely giving way to the more traditional styles and large ranchers.

Homes in this part of Old Palo Alto are routinely into the 2000 sq.ft. range or more, often much more. It’s not unusual to find 3000-, 4000- and even 6000-sq.ft. homes. Most were built in the ‘20s, or sometimes the early ‘30s, although there’s also a relatively high percentage of newer construction. But small one-bath homes can still be found even here, in the heart of Old Palo Alto.

From roughly North California to the southern boundary of Old Palo, Oregon Avenue, homes become smaller although they’re still handsome and prosperous in appearance. The Tudor predominates, although simple bungalows are common too. These are still beautiful neighborhoods but the noticeably smaller homes and lots give them an almost “compressed” appearance compared to Old Palo Alto neighborhoods to the north, and the effect is almost like a three-quarter scale version of OPA. As a rule this southern section was developed in the mid-1930s, when money was tight and home-buyers’ expectations lower.

Another area where smaller homes predominate is in the 100s off Alma, the western fringe of Old Palo Alto. These date mostly from the ‘20s and can be quite small, around 1000 sq.ft. or slightly larger, with only one bath, although there are larger homes here too. These blocks also have a number of small apartment buildings just off Alma, a continuation of that street’s mostly multi-family housing stock. But go east into the 200s and you’re in no-excuses Old Palo Alto, all the way to the 600s, the eastern fringe of Old Palo Alto near Middlefield.

Old Palo Alto has two townhouse developments, on Alma just south of Embarcadero and within walking distance of downtown. Further south on North California and High there’s Old Palo Alto’s sole commercial use (excluding Castilleja School), a small office building across from the park.

Lot sizes: Aside from often being narrow (50 feet or so) and deep, there isn’t a standard lot size in this area.  In the northern and central sections of Old Palo Alto 50×150 feet is most common, followed by 50×200. The 200-foot deep lots are in the middle of the block. However, lots can be as small as 5000 sq.ft., often corner lots or the lot next to a corner lot. 20,000 sq.ft. lots are not uncommon, occasionally you’ll find one in the 30,000 sq.ft. range and there’s at least one lot of more than an acre. But at the southern fringe, Washington to Oregon, lots are generally much smaller, often 50×112’ or 45×125’.

Affordability: This is something of a two-tier neighborhood, both expensive. The second tier is comprised of two groups. One is the handful of homes on sub-standard lots. The other is the more numerous homes in the 100 blocks off Alma and 2300 blocks north of Oregon. The homes on these blocks tend to be relatively smaller and more humble, particularly off Alma, and more exposed to traffic and/or train noise. Often the 100 blocks have a mixture of single-family and small apartment buildings. Also in this second tier I’d include homes with just one bath, on small but standard lots. These definitions are fluid. For example, new homes in the 100s command big prices although selling at a discount to new homes further inside Old Palo Alto.

The first tier is the large homes of “classic” Old Palo Alto, or homes that are well-located but relatively small, have at least two baths and a large lot.

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: Main Library, 1213 Newell Rd. (650) 329-2436. Arts Center, 1313 Newell Rd. (650) 329-2366. Bowden Park, Alma Street at N. California (1.5 acres): children’s play area, paths, picnic area. Lawn Bowling Green and Kellogg Park, Embarcadero Rd. at Cowper, (2.1 acres): Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club clubhouse, greens. Convenient to Rinconada Park, 777 Embarcadero Rd. (20 acres): adult theatre, children’s theatre, adult pool, children’s pool, children’s museum, play area, tennis courts, picnic areas, restrooms. Also includes Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Rd. (650) 463-4900. Children’s Library, 1276 Harriet St. (650) 329-2134.

Shopping: The northern part of Old Palo Alto is convenient to Town & Country Village, El Camino and Embarcadero. The southern part is served by both California Avenue, within walking distance via a pedestrian tunnel under Alma, and Midtown.

Neighborhoods with similar ambience: Crescent Park, parts of Community Center, Redwood City’s Edgewood Park, San Mateo Park, Menlo Park’s upper Allied Arts and the best pre-war neighborhoods of San Jose’s Rose Garden and Willow Glen.

Interested in buying in Old Palo Alto or in a similar area? Please contact me at jfyten@cbnorcal.com.

copyright © John Fyten 2004-14

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