Central Menlo Park


Larger post-World War II homes, mid-range to top end.  Look here if you want attractive, prosperous-looking neighborhoods, lots of land and highly-regarded schools—in other words, if you’re like most buyers.

Boundaries:  Arbor/Valparaiso/San Francisquito Creek/unincorporated area.  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:  When I call this area “acres of typical suburban tracts” I mean it in a good way.  Central Menlo is the kind of neighborhood most people want to come home to.  Homes are usually substantial, conventional ranchers in quiet, well-maintained neighborhoods.  Only a few pockets of contemporaries (genuine early Eichlers!) challenge this area’s conservative, prosperous demeanor.  Connoisseurs of pre-war architecture or funkiness also have a few choices, but Central Menlo is mostly early post-war suburbia at its best.

Housing stock:  The typical “starter” home is a large (1600-2800 sq.ft.) well-built rancher with at least two baths.  The vast majority were built from the late ’40s to mid-’50s.  Always an upscale area, at least since the post-World War II building boom, even the original homes reflect a degree of affluence.  Most have family room, hardwood floors, large rooms and a general air of graciousness and quality.  Many have been updated and/or expanded, often expensively, and homes of 3000 sq.ft. or more are not uncommon.  New or newer construction is relatively available and always large, always top-of-the-line and very expensive—with land value alone at over $2M for the standard quarter acre as this is written, it doesn’t pay to build anything less.  No apartments or condos.

If you’re looking for pre-WWII charm here, focus on the following neighborhoods.  The Hermosa Tract , Hermosa to Hobart between Middle and Santa Cruz, has mostly small ’20s and ’30s homes, and a few large ones as well, mixed with ’50s ranchers and new construction.  A hodgepodge of styles and no sidewalks gives this area a casual feel. North Lemon still has a faintly rural look and a nice collection of old farmhouses.  San Mateo Drive between Santa Cruz and Valparaiso features large, stately  and very expensive pre-war homes.

Nearby are two very special streets, off Valparaiso and close to downtown.  One is Robert S, a large 1939 estate subdivided in the late ’40s with custom homes of 2800-4800 sq.ft..  The other is Corinne Lane, developed in 1959 with custom ranchers of 2800-3800 sq.ft.  Both are quiet, once away from Valparaiso traffic noise, and within walking distance of town.

Also worthy of mention is Bay Laurel, not so much for its homes but for its location along San Francisquito Creek.  One of the streets in Central Menlo.

Be aware of leased land near San Francisquito Creek.  Approximately 45 homes on Bay Laurel, Lemon, Oak and Oak Knoll sit on land owned by Stanford University.  At one time the Stanford family owned a home in this area called Cedro Cottage.  Thorsten Veblen, he of “conspicuous consumption” fame and for a short and unhappy time a professor of economics at Stanford, lived here in the early 1900s, stalked and eventually driven out by his ex-wife.  In the early 1950s part of Cedro Cottage was taken by eminent domain to build Oak Knoll School, while the rest was developed as the Stanford Creek housing tract.  The homes were sold on a land lease—owners can buy and sell the house, but the land under the house is leased from Stanford.  These land leases run for 99 years from the date of first sale in the early ‘50s.  If you’re looking at a house in this area it’s especially important that you read the preliminary title report carefully.  If you see Stanford’s name as “lessor”, ask for a copy of the recorded lease agreement.  No one who owns one of these leased-land houses now will live long enough to have to deal with Stanford when these leases start expiring, but my guess is that the effect on resale value may increase exponentially as these leases start winding down.  The lease I’ve seen is a very simple agreement with no mention of homeowner recourse or Stanford’s obligations after it expires.  Although this is a common practice in commercial real estate, the only comparable situations I’m aware of in local residential real estate are the homes on Stanford campus, the Stanford Hills development, and a few Foster City homeowners who had short-term leases from the developer.  When the Foster City leases expired, the homeowners were o-u-t.  A group of Stanford Creek and Stanford Hills homeowners has approached Stanford for clarification of its plans for these neighborhoods, but my understanding is that the university is sticking by a 1987 letter stating that it would not address the issue until there were twenty or fewer years remaining on the leases.  Breaking news in 2013:  Stanford is offering homeowners some sort of deal, details to be announced.

History corner:  Before the post-war building boom, Olive Street was to Menlo what Oregon Avenue was to Palo Alto:  the limit of civilization.  To my knowledge the huge area west of Olive now called Oakdell has only two pre-war homes.  These survivors are on Doris, a few blocks north of Oakdell Avenue.  They’re on flag lots removed from view, very small and plain homes dating from 1916 and supposedly former Camp Fremont barracks.  They certainly look like old barracks but the problem with this theory is that Camp Fremont was built when we entered World War I—in 1917.  There are at least three explanations for the existence of these homes.  First, the county assessor’s records may have the date wrong; record-keeping could be pretty casual in those days.  Second, they may be remnants of the Lathrop estate, owned by Stanford University until after World War II.  However, this seems unlikely since the estate appears to have extended only to about where Oakdell is now.  Third and perhaps most likely, these survivors are simple old farmhouses or week-end homes.

Lot sizes:  Central Menlo is prized for its quarter-acres.  Half-acres are plentiful in the Hermosa Tract although some have been subdivided.  The 1100-1300 blocks of San Mateo Drive have some of the largest lots in Menlo Park, half-acres and larger, many of them flags, but they’re rarely available and very expensive.  Robert S has half-acre or larger lots, Corinne generally one-third acres.

Affordability:  Affordability is poor here even by Menlo Park standards, and very poor by earthly standards.

There are two ways to analyze Central Menlo prices.  One is by age.  Old ranchers make up about 85% of the market.  Their condition runs the gamut from tired original to expensively remodeled.  Even though the tired homes fall at the bottom end of that range, that’s still great resale performance for fairly modest homes showing sixty years of wear and tear—obviously Central Menlo land is of considerable value.  New or newer homes make up about 15% of Central Menlo sales, a high percentage for the mid-Peninsula and an indication of the neighborhood’s appeal.

The other way to look at Central Menlo is by size.  Most Central Menlo homes are under 3000 sq.ft., and often well under.  These relatively small homes are a large part of the Central Menlo market, often as “starter homes” or builder teardowns.  Again, you pay a lot for not much house in Central Menlo Park.

Schools:  K-8 district:  Menlo Park City School District, 181 Encinal Ave., Atherton CA 94027.  Administration-Superintendent (650) 321-7140. District attendance mapSchool 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. 

Amenities:  No parks in the immediate area but a number are a short drive away.  There’s also a playground and tennis courts on Hillview Middle School grounds.

Shopping:  Some homes within walking distance of downtown, but for most it’s a short drive.

Neighborhoods with similar ambience:  Los Altos is the other upscale suburban community with big ranchers on large usable lots, especially North Los Altos.  Palo Alto’s Leland Manor is very similar, while Crescent Park Addition and Crescent Park Woods offer much the same prosperous rancher atmosphere, although the homes and lots are usually a bit smaller.

As I mentioned in the section on Sharon Heights, there’s some debate as to whether Central Menlo has moved ahead of Sharon Heights in price.  While it may not be quite that simple, the numbers suggest that since 1998 the flatlands has pulled away.  What’s happening?  Part of it may lie in the statistics themselves.  Central Menlo’s average sales price get pushed up because that neighborhood has more ranchers in the 3000 sq.ft.-plus range and more new or newer construction, and those homes cost lots of money.  But just the fact that new homes are built or old ones expanded suggests that homeowners are voting with their pocketbooks for Central Menlo.  And even if you limit the sample to old ranchers of comparable size, Central Menlo still holds a significant edge.  Why the shift?  I’m going to speculate that at one point Sharon Heights had the buzz because its homes were a good ten or even twenty years newer than Central Menlo’s.  Sharon Heights was the new “exurbia”, a natural yet upscale suburbia which at one time had great market appeal.  But I’ll speculate that four trends changed this.  First, Sharon Height’s ‘60s and ‘70s homes eventually lost their newness; now they’re functionally obsolete and need updating, almost as much as Central Menlo’s ‘50s ranchers.  Second, the trend seems to be away from fleeing the flatlands and toward embracing its convenience.  Third, Sharon Heights has gained a reputation for unstable soils, and while there’s some truth to that, it’s on a lot-by-lot basis; a soils inspection should be part of any Sharon Heights buyer’s due diligence.  And fourth, Sharon Heights lots are as large as Central Menlo lots, but not always as usable, unless you’re a mountain goat.

But I think the point isn’t that Sharon Heights is losing its appeal but rather that Central Menlo may now have more appeal to the buyer at the upper end of the midrange who wants a sizeable home in move-in condition and can afford same.  This also boosts prices at the lower end of the Central Menlo range, as people pay a premium for the potential to live the same lifestyle.

See an important qualification regarding price comparisons.

Interested in buying a home in Central Menlo Park or in a similar area?  Please contact me at jfyten@cbnorcal.com.

copyright © John Fyten 2004-2014


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