Belle Haven (East Menlo Park)

 BWhomesmalltract

Smaller post-World War II tract homes, entry-level.  Look here if you want “dirt” close to Stanford but at a condo price.

Boundaries:  Highway 101, Willow Road, Bayfront Expressway, Marsh Road.  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:  Menlo Park east of 101, Belle Haven is an integral part of Menlo Park and benefits greatly from that city’s infrastructure.  You see this not only in the big things like recreation facilities and a police sub-station, but also in the small yet vital improvements like extra stop signs. This is in contrast to Belle Haven’s neighbor, East Palo Alto, which is struggling to establish an infrastructure.

The city takes an active interest in Belle Haven and has an impressive number of projects in the works.  These include:  a proposed community plaza on Ivy; a new playground next to Belle Haven School; more trees and street lighting; new Police/City Hall Annex; closing of through traffic on Ivy at Belle Haven School; improvements to Hamilton, Ivy and Pierce to make them more attractive; a better pedestrian overcrossing at Ringwood; and changing Henderson, Windermere and Howard into cul-de-sacs for safety.

Belle Haven (and East Palo Alto) share tract and street names with Menlo Park just west of 101, a reminder that Bayshore Freeway hasn’t always divided east and west. In fact, this entire area, bounded by the bay and Middlefield Road, San Francisquito Creek and Marsh Road was once known as Ravenswood.  The school district which still bears that name was formed in 1874 and served children on both sides of 101 until the ‘70s.

Now usually called Belle Haven or East Menlo Park, this area is comprised of two tracts, Newbridge Park just north of Willow Road, and Belle Haven City to the north of Newbridge.  Newbridge takes its name from the first Dumbarton Bridge opened in 1927.  Despite Newbridge’s proximity to the bridge, the first major connector between the Peninsula, East Bay and Central Valley, it was still off the beaten path in those days and only a few homes were built.  (Anyone who’s spent a blustery afternoon out here can guess at another reason this area didn’t sell back in the day.)  Developers’ hopes were renewed in the ‘30s when the Bayshore Highway came through, but lots were still impossible to sell until the post-World War II housing boom.  Henderson Avenue is named after the family that owned much of this area until 1946.

Newbridge Park is graced with some attractive tree-lined streets and small but pleasant ranchers.  Homes are similar to the ones you’ll find immediately west of 101, just a bit smaller and much more affordable.  The 1200 blocks are generally preferred since they’re buffered from the area’s two biggest blights, 101 and the Hamilton industrial corridor.  The area around Belle Haven School is also nicely treed.  Some areas are in a hundred-year flood zone, which may complicate remodeling and make flood insurance mandatory.  Check with the city Building Department at (650) 858-3390 for details.

Housing stock:  Mostly small two- and three-bedroom/one-bath homes, although some now have second baths.  A few Newbridge Park homes date from the ’20s, and you’ll also find homes of this vintage in Newbridge just west of 101, but almost all Belle Haven homes date from 1946-53.  They were built to be affordable but many, especially in the Newbridge tract immediately north of Willow, have some charm.  Most are conventional pitched-roof ranchers but you’ll also find quite a few flattops.  All were originally in the 900-1100 sq.ft. range but some have been expanded.  There’s been some updating but virtually no new construction or condos.  This will change when the Hamilton corridor redevelopment brings in new residential construction.  Renters and investors will find a good supply of small apartment buildings and duplexes along Willow, Pierce and at the north end of Belle Haven.

If you like old houses:  East Menlo isn’t known for its pre-war homes but I’ve discovered a few intriguing examples of what might be called the 1920s “fantasy” bungalow.  Drive through Old Palo Alto or Willow Glen and you’ll see that 1920s residential architecture was often romanticized with design cues borrowed from a variety of eras and locales including early California, Olde English villages and even Moorish Africa.  There are five such homes in the 1100 blocks of Hollyburne and Sevier and they’re like nothing I’ve seen, remarkably similar in design and apparently built at the same time, by the same contractor, and from the same stock plans.  They’re characterized by a sharply arched picture window, decoratively textured stucco and—what really sets them apart—a façade with a sort of flying buttress incorporating a large scroll design.  Four are largely original, while one has been re-stuccoed and consequently lost much of its charm.  Why are they here?  At least one Old Palo Alto Tudor was moved to Belle Haven when Oregon Avenue became Oregon Expressway in the mid-‘60s, but somehow I think these old-timers were built where they are now, reminders of a time when someone built a housing tract and nobody came.

Lot sizes:  In the Newbridge tract, 5750-6000 sq.ft, with a few up to 10k.  Further north in the Belle Haven City tract lots are often a bit smaller, sometimes under 5000 sq.ft., with the exception of the east side of Terminal, which has narrow-but-deep quarter-acre lots.

Affordability:   Outstanding for the mid-Peninsula, especially during the bust.  Virtually no mid-Peninsula neighborhoods are less expensive than Belle Haven homes.

There aren’t many single-family homes this affordable, especially this close to downtown Palo Alto and Stanford.  Why so cheap?  The area was built to be affordable, with small, humble homes on relatively small lots, although this is true of much of the mid-Peninsula.  Schools also play a role in property values and the Ravenswood K-8 district has low test scores compared to most neighboring districts.  Convenience influences prices, and Belle Haven’s shopping and services are limited although improving.  Finally, Belle Haven crime statistics can look alarming compared to those west of 101.  But if you’re in this price range and want a single-family home, I encourage you to drive this area.  I’ve spent time and sold homes in Belle Haven and see lots of good there both now and in the future.  And if you feel like speculating, location gives Belle Haven excellent potential but over the long term, not overnight.

Schools:  K-8 district:  Ravenswood City School District, 2160 Euclid Ave., East Palo Alto CA 94303.  District office (650) 329-2800.  School evaluations.

9-12 district:  Sequoia Union High School District, 480 James Ave., Redwood City 94062.  Administration (650) 369-1411. Boundary search.   School evaluations.

This information is based on district and other sources but may be obsolete by the time you read this.  Verify district boundaries and school availability with district offices. 

The 1979 Tinsley decision lets a limited number of K-2 students from the Ravenswood district enroll permanently in the highly-rated elementary schools of more affluent neighboring communities.  There’s a quota so verify eligibility with the school district.

Amenities:  Oneida Harris Community Center (Health Clinic, Senior Center, afterschool program, basketball league, computer lab, fitness room, children’s and adult classes).  Refurbished Boys’ and Girls’ Club.  Belle Haven Elementary (branch library, Child Development Center).  Bayfront Park (bay shore, walking trails).  Kelly Park (softball field, soccer, swimming pool, basketball court, roller hockey court, picnic area).  Market Place Park (playground, open grassy field, walkways).  Park planned for part of present Hamilton commercial corridor.  Police sub-station.

Shopping:  Long a problem east of 101, especially since Nairobi Shopping Center closed many years ago.  There’s a new strip center along Willow plus a small older one.  The new Ravenswood 101 mall offers a few large stores but most shopping is still done west of 101.

Neighborhoods with similar ambience:  Some of the better areas of East Palo Alto including Palo Alto Gardens; Friendly Acres in Redwood City; and Sunnyvale’s Lakewood Village.

History corner:  The development of Belle Haven is a fascinating story, in part because it didn’t happen the way local history tells it.  Rightly or wrongly, Belle Haven is linked to an idea ahead of its time or more precisely, ahead of the infrastructure it needed.  But the idea eventually built most of the mid-Peninsula’s neighborhoods and changed its homeownership patterns.

Local lore says that Belle Haven was first developed by builder David Bohannon in the 1930s as a visionary attempt to provide affordable housing.  You’ll find this in the local history, Menlo Park Beyond the Gate, and regularly repeated in the annual The Almanac Neighborhoods guide.  Bohannon is portrayed as an idealist, even quixotic.  Neither source develops the implications of the story.  Both place it in what seems to be the wrong neighborhood.

What’s indisputable is that David Bohannon had vision.  He was going to build homes for Everyman when much of his target market was un- or under-employed.  A depression that makes our tech meltdown look like a day at the beach had stopped homebuilding in its tracks.  And if an economic and industry slump didn’t present enough of a challenge to Bohannon, he also happened to be ahead of his time—or more accurately, ahead of the financing of his time.  The credit available to homebuilders and homebuyers in those days didn’t support the mass production he had in mind.  Buying a home meant saving for a large down payment.  Financing was available only for very short periods, typically five years; the loan wasn’t completely amortized over that period, and you owed a large lump sum at the end.  You paid this “balloon” by refinancing, but credit was hard to come by during hard times.  This credit crunch meant that only a minority owned the home they lived in, even in the boom times of the 1920s.  And without a large pool of qualified buyers, homebuilders couldn’t get the financing needed to tie up large tracts of land to build with economies of scale, so houses were built one at a time or in small groups.

So far the “quixotic idealist” slant holds up well but in fact Bohannon’s project would soon be commercially viable.  Ten years later he and many other builders used this business model to tap a tremendous pent-up demand for homes.  Large-scale home construction took off like wildfire after World War II, spurred by the easy credit of VA and FHA loans.  From 1946 until the early ‘50s mass home construction transformed the mid-Peninsula.   This boom was in the affordable entry-level housing Bohannon had anticipated, highly saleable at a time when people were better off than they’d been in the ‘30s but not as well off as they’d be later in the ‘50s.  Bohannon was part of that post-war boom and built both residential and commercial projects throughout the Bay Area.

But this story has one big discrepancy:  it apparently puts Bohannon’s first homes in the wrong location.  That’s understandable:  the Bohannon story is linked to Belle Haven, and Belle Haven is east of 101, right?  But Belle Haven homes east of 101 date not from Bohannon’s pioneering efforts of the 1930s but from 1946 to 1953.  The History of Ravenswood, a short chronicle of the area written in 1942 by one of its residents, says unequivocally that “there aren’t any houses east of 101”.  Just to confuse the issue, a handful of pre-World War II homes do exist east of 101 but were built in the ’20s before Bohannon.  So where did David Bohannon first turn his spade in the ‘30s?  The answer may lie in a handful of mid-‘30s homes in the neighborhood just west of 101 now called Flood Triangle, but according to county records a part of the Belle Haven tract.

Interested in buying a home in Belle Haven or in a similar area?  Please contact me at jfyten@cbnorcal.com.

copyright © John Fyten 2004-2014

2 thoughts on “Belle Haven (East Menlo Park)

  1. There is a lot of confusion about Belle Haven. It originally was a huge $1 million development – Belle Haven tract plats filed in late 1928 – that stretched from Redwood Creek to the County line. It involved new port facilities on a re-dredged Redwood Creek, an industrial area (around East Broadway in RC) and residential areas on either side of Marsh Road. David Bohannon was a salesman with this company. The Stock Market crash and depression did in this project and the Belle Haven Company started selling off the land during the 1930s. Bohannon started his own construction company and bought land south of the tracks and east of the Flood estate. Here in 1934 he built his first tract, Menlo Oaks (only five houses at first in 1934) and by 1936 he was building a second tract, Oak Grove (showcase house at Bay Rd and Almanor). In both cases Bohannon advertised the tracts in “Belle Haven City”. Another realtor who bought Belle Haven land was Harry Friendly (Nov 1935) who then developed Friendly Acres on the land north of the Dumbarton spur. Around 1938 Bohannon bought the Friendly Acres land east of Marsh Road. This is now the Bohannon Industrial Park. Bohannon tried to put an airport in here in 1940 but it was opposed by surrounding residential areas, including Atherton and Menlo Park. To the best of my knowledge Bohannon did not build the “Belle Haven” homes in East Menlo. Those were later developed post-war by two different real estate companies — the Newbridge Park Realty Company (__ Greenbach, President) and the revived Belle Haven Realty Company. I grew up in Friendly Acres just off Marsh Road. My uncle lived on Terminal in Belle Haven. Both he and my dad were contractors so I had some familiarity about this when I started doing a bit more research. There is a 1932 Sanborn map listing Belle Haven City which I’ve never seen, but it is cited in some Bohannon histories and bibliographies.

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