Downtown Menlo Park

 downtown

Condo or townhouse market, usually entry-level to mid-range.  Look here if you want the charm of a pre-war neighborhood with downtown convenience at a generally affordable price.

Boundaries:  Ravenswood, Laurel, Glenwood east of El Camino; Valparaiso, Johnson, Fremont, Middle west of El Camino.  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 offers a very pleasant downtown residential neighborhood but I’m tempted to say, “blink and you’ll miss it”.  Take away the business district and the many apartment buildings and there isn’t much left.  That’s partly due to “progress”.  Like other cities, Menlo Park rezoned many of its downtown neighborhoods to commercial and multi-family uses.  That’s probably good city planning but it’s meant that apartment buildings and an expanding business district have replaced some single-family homes.  Before World War II Menlo Park’s business district ran just along El Camino.  After the war the downtown expanded west along Santa Cruz Avenue, changing one of the nicer residential streets (you can still see traces of it west of University) into the heart of downtown.  But another reason for the scarcity of single-family homes here is that before World War II Menlo Park was a very small town with many vacant lots.  Post-war construction seems to have been focused on putting apartment buildings on those vacant lots.

Housing stock:  Mostly ’20s and ’30s bungalows and ’50s apartments plus a large number of condos.  The lack of single-family sales activity is easy to explain:  there isn’t much to sell.  The lack of condo activity is a little harder to explain, given their relatively large numbers.  Apparently Menlo Park condo dwellers are older and less transient than their downtown Palo Alto counterparts.  Homes on very small lots, called PUDs (Planned Unit Developments), are becoming popular.

One of the best downtown residential areas is Paraiso Park, bounded by El Camino, Valparaiso, Johnson and Oak Grove.  The west side of Johnson has some large homes dating from the ‘teens through the ’40s.  Apparently this is where the affluent lived before World War II.  One block over, Rose and Millie are very attractive streets (I’ve heard them described as “Hallmark neighborhoods”) of the same vintage but on a smaller scale.  A big plus is that they’re entirely single-family, although traffic from nearby “Menlo Pres”, a church with regional appeal, spills over onto these streets.  Closer to El Camino, commercial uses and many apartments make Crane and Hoover much busier if still pleasant streets.

South of Santa Cruz Avenue all the way to Middle it’s renter’s paradise but slim pickings for homebuyers.  The neighborhoods are pleasant, especially west of University, but heavily multi-family.  You’ll see a few single-family holdouts, bungalows from the ’20s and ’30s, but duplexes and fourplexes predominate.

Still west of El Camino, off Middle next to Nealon Park, is the Morey Tract, very small homes built in 1945.  They’re pleasant and affordable post-war housing convenient to downtown, although their uniformity gives them a more tract-like appearance than other downtown neighborhoods.

East of El Camino you’ll find some of the oldest homes in Menlo Park.  Two, on San Antonio, date from 1892.  Unfortunately their condition (worn) and the neighborhood (largely commercial and multi-family) is rather typical of Menlo Park’s oldest area.  Much of downtown east of El Camino is apartment buildings from the late ’40s.  They’re attractive examples of their type and usually well maintained but don’t have that pre-war charm.

But there are at least two exceptions.  One is a small quaint area along Cherry and Pine called Menlo Park Villas, dating from the turn of the last century.  Apartments appear here too, but enough pre-WWII single-family homes survive to give the area some vintage character.  The Mills Tract, Laurel between Oak Grove and Glenwood, also has a few hardy single-family survivors going back to the same time period, with relatively few apartment buildings.

As I mentioned, downtown has lots of condos and townhouse developments, many of them large, but sales activity is so light that I won’t describe them in detail.  There’s not much point in targeting a specific condo development if you’ll have to wait years for a unit to come up.  The only exception is the sole downtown high rise, University Towers, offering great views and a full range of services, but you pay for them—dues are very high.

Lot sizes:  Tend to be small but it varies, often 5500-7500 sq.ft.  Larger lots are usually narrow and very deep.  Johnson has a number of wide half-acres and flags.  Morey Tract is 5000 sq.ft. lots.  Menlo Park Villa lots run about 7500 sq.ft., while Mills has quarter acres.

Affordability:  Downtown usually isn’t an expensive area by Menlo Park standards (an important qualification).  Downtown Menlo Park is popular, but small homes and lots keep home prices down.  In addition, nearby high-density uses create the noise, traffic and parking problems endemic to downtowns, even low-key suburban downtown like this one.  As always, west of El Camino is more expensive than east.  Don’t hold your breath if you’re looking for a single-family home here—most of what comes on the market is condos.

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 searchSchool 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:  Nealon Park, Middle Avenue (golf driving cage, lighted tennis courts, softball field, children’s playground, picnic areas, Little House Senior Center). Fremont Park, Santa Cruz Avenue (lighted walkways, benches, shaded areas, drinking fountains, occasional concert series).

Shopping:  all areas are within easy walking distance of downtown.

Neighborhoods with similar ambience:  Rating and comparing downtowns is somewhat subjective because different people like different kinds of downtowns.  Downtowns are important to a city because they give it focus and much of its identity, especially now that many people are embracing downtown, either to live or to shop, instead of abandoning it for exurbia and the malls.  Communities with a sub-par downtown or none at all suffer in comparison to those known for their downtown’s ambience.  I’ll give you my impressions of a downtown’s charm, architecture and overall “buzz”, but for a guide to shopping, restaurants and entertainment check out local newspapers and web sites.

San Carlos is probably most similar to Menlo Park, with a very small pre-war downtown residential neighborhood that’s gradually being condo- and apartment-ized.  Most of the downtown shopping district lacks architectural distinction, largely resembling one long strip mall, but it’s a well-regarded and happening place.

Los Altos’ downtown, known as “the Village”, has the quiet gentility that name implies.  Like Menlo Park there’s nothing fancy or over the top, just the quiet impression that money shops here—and it does, if local home prices mean anything.  To a certain extent, this is the ’50s downtown that time forgot.  Whether you find that charming or frustrating depends on how clearly you remember the ’50s.  If Los Altos has a downtown neighborhood it’s probably Old Los Altos, with the pre-war homes and small lots unique to that part of the city.  Otherwise, the neighborhoods within walking distance of the Village are indistinguishable from the rest of Los Altos except for the substantial premium they command.

Although downtown Menlo Park is gradually going upscale, it hasn’t mimicked Palo Alto’s University Avenue in its transition from small-town shopping district to regional destination and hipster’s Disneyland.  Some would say that that’s its charm:  downtown Menlo Park isn’t as aggressively trendy.  I like both, but recognize downtown Palo Alto’s liveliness and architectural interest.  The neighborhoods around downtown Palo Alto are somewhat similar to Menlo Park’s, but Palo Alto’s version is much larger, a generation older and with a more diverse and interesting housing stock.  Palo Alto’s downtown neighborhoods can look a little down at the heels, a function of their greater age and the fact that many larger houses have been divided into apartments since the Harding Administration.

Palo Alto is favored with two downtowns, the second on California Avenue just north of Page Mill.  Here was once the town of Mayfield and like Menlo Park, downtown Mayfield gradually spilled over from El Camino onto the formerly residential California Avenue.  Like downtown Redwood City, much of California Avenue’s day traffic comes from those who work or plead at the county courthouse.  But the underlying feel here is definitely not University Avenue, much to the relief of most of its patrons.  A less-than-subtle counter culture influence gives California Avenue an underlying funkiness, although this is slowly disappearing as even south Palo Alto moves relentlessly upscale.

Like Palo Alto, Mountain View’s downtown is younger, trendier and livelier than Menlo Park’s, the surrounding neighborhood older and vast in comparison.  Downtown Mountain View neighborhoods south of Shoreline have some of Menlo Park’s genteel, unpretentious atmosphere (especially the very attractive area south of Castro) but north of Shoreline it can get a bit rough around the edges.  Like pre-war Menlo Park, Old Mountain View is generally an area of pleasant bungalows, not large homes.  Apartment buildings are plentiful north of Castro.  One of the best downtowns in the area, and a magnet for home-buyers, yet still relatively affordable.

Downtown Redwood City (“Palo Alto without the attitude” according to a recent short-lived promotion) has made great strides in recent years.  One of the oldest mid-Peninsula downtowns, it’s generally attractive and has interesting vintage buildings.  But there’s still not much to do here after the sun goes down (except the Fox Theatre) and the large number of antique shops suggests soft demand for commercial space.  A new, large shopping center next to downtown, Sequoia Station, is either stealing business from downtown or bringing it back, depending on who’s talking.  I suspect that part of downtown Redwood City’s problem (or more likely, a sign that there is a problem) is that the area immediately surrounding it, largely low-income and sometimes dicey, may discourage the young professionals and empty-nesters whose recent discovery of the walk-to-downtown lifestyle supports other downtown neighborhoods.  These areas are Redwood City’s oldest and most interesting architecturally, so the potential is there.  There’s a very interesting neighborhood of Victorians just south of downtown, but the handful that come up for sale are often zoned commercial.

Belmont is one of the more attractive mid-Peninsula communities but lacks a significant downtown or downtown neighborhood.  There’s an attractive pre-war neighborhood just to the south of the shopping district that would make a good downtown neighborhood if a downtown existed, but “downtown Belmont” is more comparable to neighborhood shopping centers such as Palo Alto’s Midtown.  A large and attractive new shopping center that’s probably doubled the amount of shopping is a step in the right direction.

Downtown Sunnyvale is largely pleasant but not in the same league as Mountain View’s Castro Street or Palo Alto’s California Avenue, let alone University Avenue.  Biggest drawback is that “downtown Sunnyvale” is basically the 100 block of S. Murphy, an old-fashioned business district dating from the ‘teens and ’20s that’s undeniably charming but so small and incongruous that it brings to mind a back-lot movie set.  Downtown was probably never big, but a redevelopment project called Sunnyvale Town Center erased two square blocks of it and most of the charm, leaving behind two anonymous “big boxes” more appropriate to a shopping center.  This must have seemed like a good idea in the 1970s, with shopping centers siphoning off downtown business and before the downtown had been re-invented as adult playground.  But neighboring Mountain View’s slightly later, more sensitive approach—keep the scale small and intimate—has stood the test of time far better.  (And in fact, Sunnyvale recently proposed a plan that would try to roll back the clock.)  There’s also a Town & Country Village similar to the one in Palo Alto but looking worn around the edges (note:  recently both the maintenance and the tenant mix seem to have changed for the better).  Homes in the surrounding neighborhoods are generally pre-war and modest but occasionally you’ll find distinctive architecture, particularly in the small Downtown Historic District south of Olive.  Nice ’40s ranchers are also part of the eclectic mix, especially east of downtown.  An extremely affordable option if you’re looking for a “walk to downtown” location, a good 10-15% cheaper than even the more unassuming parts of downtown Mountain View, let alone downtown Palo Alto.

Downtown San Mateo is larger and older than Menlo Park, and its greater size and scale give it more of a big-city feel.  Downtown San Mateo is one of my favorites, with the varied architecture and broad range of services that make a good downtown vastly better than any mall.  Condos are in good supply and often affordable.  The single-family neighborhoods to the north, south and (especially) east are also quite reasonably priced, a good 30-45% cheaper than downtown Menlo Park.  Most are very attractive, although going east can get you into some rather marginal areas.

Campbell has an appealing and respectable small-town downtown, largely pre-war but with enough new to keep it current.  The neighborhood surrounding downtown is generally good, mostly the sort of bungalows you find in downtown Mountain View, but with a casual feel unique to Campbell.  A charming but small canvas for the downtown habitué.  Prices are about 30% less than downtown Menlo Park.   

Willow Glen’s downtown is old and quite charming, with parts of it reminding me of Carmel.  “The Village” is fairly sizeable and quietly upscale.  Home prices are quietly upscale too, and the neighborhoods around downtown Willow Glen sell at only about a 10% discount to downtown Menlo Park.

Downtown San Jose is the largest of all the downtowns covered here, and the most “big city” in feel.  Years of intelligent (if sometimes controversial) redevelopment have turned what was once an eyesore into an attraction.  It’s not San Francisco, even after all the enhancements, but you’ll find plenty of reminders that in the years before World War II, San Jose had the only downtown of any consequence in this area.  Downtown’s core is still in transition, with new condos and lofts.  The neighborhoods ringing downtown sell at a substantial discount to almost any other market in the South Bay or on the mid-Peninsula and, if you’re careful, they’re a great place to get pre-World War II (and even pre-World War I) housing.  This is a huge market with plenty of homes to choose from, but some of the neighborhoods could still benefit from careful redevelopment, or at least a little more maintenance.   

Like Sunnyvale, Santa Clara’s old downtown was an early victim of redevelopment, although the proximate cause of downtown Santa Clara’s demise was an expanding Santa Clara University.  This expansion was extremely controversial at the time, but in 1961 the new shopping centers were starting to bleed the downtowns and what the city got out of the bargain, Franklin Mall, probably looked like an improvement.  The surrounding neighborhood, the “Old Quad”, is sizeable and one of the oldest on the Peninsula.  Prices are quite reasonable, in part because Santa Clara prices are always reasonable and in part because this is a downtown neighborhood without a downtown.

Even more than most of this area’s small towns prior to World War II, Cupertino was just a wide place in the road, surrounded by miles of orchards.  As a consequence, Cupertino has plenty of shopping centers and strip malls but no downtown.  A major new development at the intersection of De Anza and Stevens Creek gives the main shopping strip some presence.

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

copyright © John Fyten 2004-2014

Leave a Reply