The Willows

 Smaller post-World War II tract homes, usually entry-level, with a significant number of pre-war homes.

The Willows is a catch-all name for a number of distinct tracts along both sides of Willow Road, between Middlefield Road and Highway 101.  This large area is bounded on the north by Santa Monica and Coleman, and on the south by San Francisquito Creek and East Palo Alto.

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.

For clarity I’ve divided The Willows into five areas (see below).

But first, all five Willows areas share these characteristics:

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.

Something that confuses both buyers and agents is that the three elementary schools located in The Willows belong to a district, Ravenswood, which serves only an infinitesimal part of The Willows.  Two of these schools are attended by children of the Ravenswood District, who live largely east of 101, while the third is leased to the German-American School.  Note that a handful of Menlo Park houses along O’Connor are still in the Ravenswood District, and there may be other Willows homes still in this district that I’m not aware of.  Contact the Menlo Park City district to verify eligibility.

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:  Willow Oaks Park, Willow Road (open play field, tot-lot playground, children’s playground, public art, tennis courts).

Shopping:  Both downtown Menlo Park and Palo Alto are within walking distance of many parts of The Willows.  There are also a few old strip centers along Willow Road.

Flood zone:  Many parts of The Willows are in hundred-year flood zones, which may complicate remodeling and expansion and make flood insurance mandatory.  Check with the city Building Department at (650) 858-3390.

History corner:  There’s a persistent rumor that the Willows (and sections of East Palo Alto) were once part of Palo Alto.  The Palo Alto Daily recently gave this credence when it reported that the former superintendent of the Ravenswood school district, who lives in East Palo Alto, has Palo Alto on her checks because “the area used to be part of Palo Alto”.  I’ve found nothing in the local histories to substantiate this and, in fact, it’s unlikely that one city would spread over two counties.  Probably this started when people looked at their title reports and found that their Willows or East Palo Alto house was part of a tract called North Palo Alto or Palo Alto Park or Palo Alto Gardens, not realizing that a developer had simply appropriated the Palo Alto name for some quick cachet.

But it is a little-known fact that The Willows, East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park (Belle Haven) were once part of a large unincorporated bayside district named Ravenswood by its first known Anglo settler, Isiah Woods.  When Woods traveled from San Francisco in 1848 to inspect the 3674 acres his company had acquired in payment for a debt, he noticed ravens in the area and combined that with his last name to coin Ravenswood.  It’s possible that Ravenswood may have been part of the first city of Menlo Park incorporated in 1874—one of Ravenswood’s leading citizens, Lester Cooley, was the city’s second mayor—but incorporation soon lapsed and The Willows was outside any city limits until incorporated again by Menlo Park in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Some of the Willows’ street names pay homage to Ravenswood’s early landowners.  Haight is named after Henry Haight, mayor of San Francisco and a very early investor in Ravenswood real estate.  McKendry takes its name from Archibald McKendry, a former Confederate colonel who settled in the area after the Civil War.  His heirs sold the land to the company that developed the North Palo Alto tract.  Cornelius O’Connor was an associate of financier James Flood and speculated in Ravenswood land from 1856 to 1882.  Blackburn acknowledges John Blackburn, a wheat farmer there in the early 1900s.

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“Lower” Willows

Smaller post-World War II tract homes, usually entry-level.  Look here if you want excellent schools, a Menlo Park address and (often) a big back yard, all at a discount.

Boundaries:  Highway 101, Willow, O’Keefe, East Palo Alto.

Overview:  You won’t find “Lower” Willows on any maps but it’s agent shorthand for the affordable part of the Willows, itself an affordable part of Menlo Park.

Housing stock:  Similar to most of the neighborhoods along Bay Road, these are small 2- and 3-bedroom tract homes (often with just one bath) built in the late ’40s.  Many have been updated with second bath and sometimes more bedrooms.  There’s little new construction and no condos.  A very few apartment buildings off Willow.

Lot sizes:  Varies but most are 6500-7500 sq.ft., narrow and deep.

Affordability:  Affordability in this part of the Willows is great for Menlo Park, fair for the mid-Peninsula.  Like Bay Road, price depends much on the home’s proximity to 101.  Cut-through traffic on the east-west streets (note the speed bumps) and 101 traffic noise keep prices affordable.  Neighborhoods are pleasant but don’t quite have the charm of “Upper” Willows.

Neighborhoods with similar ambience:  The tracts of neighboring Bay Road; Woodside Plaza area of Redwood City; older homes in Sunnyvale’s Cherry Chase; many of Santa Clara’s tract neighborhoods.

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Woodland Avenue

A mix of smaller pre-war and post-World War II homes, usually entry-level.    Look here if you want a pretty creekside setting with the convenience of suburban living.

Boundaries:  Woodland between Middlefield and East Palo Alto

Overview:  An eclectic mix of homes strung along San Francisquito Creek, one of the very few local creeks still in its natural setting.  There’s cut-through traffic on Woodland between University and Willow but the street is narrow and winding, slowing traffic, and speed bumps have recently been installed.  Some of the finest Palo Alto homes can be seen on the other side of the creek.  Most Woodland homes are located across the street from the creek but a few sit on the bank. It’s my understanding that owners of creek-side homes are responsible for maintaining their embankments, and this can be a very expensive engineering project.  Expansion or remodeling of these homes may also be subject to the restrictions of a number of agencies above and beyond the city’s.  Check with the city Building Department at (650) 858-3390.

Housing stock:  Quite varied, since Woodland runs through a number of different tracts and eras.  Earliest houses were built around 1910 but most date from the ’20s through the ’50s.  Styles range from simple cabins to large newer homes.

Lot sizes:  Also quite varied, from 5000 sq.ft. up.  Many quarter acres and flag lots.

Affordability:  It’s my feeling that, first, there’s a slight premium for living on Woodland and two, that the area attracts more new construction than is usual for the Willows, drawn by the creek-side ambience and relatively large lots.

Neighborhoods with similar ambience:  The south (Palo Alto) side of the creek.  Otherwise a unique creek-side setting.

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“Outer” Willows

Pre-World War II homes, usually mid-range.  Look here if you want quarter-acre lots and interesting neighborhoods.

Boundaries:  Menalto, O’Conner, Euclid, San Francisquito Creek

Overview:  If there’s a “Lower” and “Upper” Willows then there can be an “Outer” Willows, my name for the distinct area between Menalto Avenue and East Palo Alto.  The tract name Charles Weeks Poultry Farm suggests an interesting history that goes back to the period 1909 to 1920.  An experiment in self-sufficiency, Weeks Poultry Farm left behind some of the largest lots and most interesting old houses in The Willows.  Found along O’Connor, a broad attractive street, some of these homes wouldn’t look out of place in Old Palo Alto.  A few lots are half an acre although many have been sub-divided.  Branching off O’Connor are several streets of mostly tract housing.  One block west, Oak Court has mostly ’40s ranchers but features many wide quarter-acre lots in a casual, almost country-like setting.

Housing stock:  Extremely diverse.  Many of O’Connor’s homes, large and small, date from the ’20s and ’30s, while others were built in the late ’40s and ’50s.  Oak Court just east of Menalto is a short private street with tiny ’20s bungalows but east of the traffic barrier becomes a city street with ranchers.  There are a handful of townhouses and apartments.  Just across Menalto is a small market and a few office buildings.

Lot sizes:  Along O’Connor quarter-acres are common, with a few half-acres.  Side streets often have relatively generous lots.  Quarter-acres are common along the eastern half of Oak Court.

 Affordability:  Big lots usually command big prices, but the area’s proximity to East Palo Alto’s apartment district has kept prices somewhat reasonable.  However, values may go up as EPA’s Whiskey Gulch transitions to the upscale office buildings of University Circle, although this may in turn increase traffic through the area.  There’s already cut-through traffic along O’Connor (note the speed bumps).  Homes along the north side of O’Connor back onto O’Keefe’s large apartment buildings, built on the back half of what were once Poultry Farm acre lots.

Neighborhoods with similar ambience:  O’Connor is somewhat similar to the Barney Park area of Fair Oaks, with it large old houses located not far from tired commercial and apartment buildings.

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 Nash-Alcorn tract

Smaller post-World War II tract homes, usually entry-level.  Look here if you want an (often) generously-sized lot in an affordable area close to downtown.

Boundaries:  Santa Monica, Middlefield, Coleman, Willow

Overview:  Not always considered part of The Willows but just across Willow Road and with similar homes and prices.  Santa Monica and its numerous cul-de-sacs look out onto either the grounds of St. Patrick’s Seminary or a new upscale development called Vintage Oaks.  One street over, Santa Margarita has generally small houses on narrow, very deep lots.

Housing stock:  Mostly small ranchers, 2/1s and 3/2s, from the ’40s to mid-’50s but houses along Nash and the north side of Willow often date from the late ’20s and ’30s.  A few condos on Gilbert, lots of large apartment buildings along the east side of Coleman.  There’s been much updating and expansion, and some new construction.

Lot sizes:  Usually ample on the east-west streets, with quarter acres common, mostly as narrow deep lots.  On the other hand, lots on north-south streets are generally of average size.

Affordability:  Pleasant cul-de-sacs and generally large lots keep prices up in this neighborhood, although most homes are small if they’re still original.

Neighborhoods with similar ambience:  Similar to the County area of Menlo Park and to Palo Alto’s Barron Park.

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“Upper” Willows 

Pre-World War II homes, usually mid-range to top end.  Look here if you want some of the most attractive, sought-after Willows neighborhoods.

Boundaries:  Willow, San Francisquito Creek, Gilbert, Concord

Overview:  Comprised of three tracts.  The Willows lends its name to all of Menlo Park between Willow and East Palo Alto, but the tract itself is limited to an attractive area of small ranchers.  North Palo Alto, never a part of Palo Alto despite its name, could be mistaken for many of that city’s pre-war neighborhoods.  There’s also a small section near Willow and Middlefield called Middlefield Park with bungalows reminiscent of neighboring Palo Alto north of University.

Housing stock:  The Willows tract is entirely small ranchers built from 1944-48, except for a large house on Robin I’m told is Archibald McKendry’s old farmhouse dating from 1870.  Most were 3-bedroom/1-bath although many have a second bath addition.  There’s been much updating and expansion but little new construction.  Although these homes are fairly typical ranchers, somehow the sum is greater than its parts and it’s a particularly pleasant neighborhood, especially along Concord, Lexington and Trenton.  Homes are smaller and a bit older between Marmona and Willow Road, and sell for about 15% less.  Between these two price tiers lie the small ranchers on Barton and two short streets, Nova and Shirley.

North Palo Alto is an eclectic, engaging mix of architectural eras ranging from the ‘teens to the ’50s, mostly 2/1s and 3/2s.  Garages in back with alley access are one of its old-fashioned touches.  This is a genuinely attractive neighborhood that can hold its own with any of the mid-Peninsula’s pre-war areas of modest, middle-class homes.

Middlefield Park dates from the late ’20s and is mostly bungalows.  It’s a very small area with little sales activity.  No apartments or condos in any of these areas.

Lot sizes:  The Willows has mostly 5000 sq.ft. lots but this depends on the street, with 6-8000 sq.ft. lots not uncommon.  Back yards can be small, especially if the house has been expanded.  Lot configuration is the usual post-war shape, relatively wide and shallow.   North Palo Alto lots tend to be larger, usually 6500-9000 sq.ft., with quarter acres not uncommon.  They’re typical pre-war lots, narrow and deep.  Middlefield Park lots tend to fall in the 5-6500 ft. range.

Affordability:  Upper Willows is priced below west Menlo but not cheap by mid-Peninsula standards.  Demand is high due to quiet, low-traffic neighborhoods, proximity to downtown Menlo Park and Palo Alto and an attractive, homogeneous look within each tract.  The neighborhood on Lexington, Concord and Trenton is quite popular.

Neighborhoods with similar ambience:  The Willows reminds me a bit of the White Oaks area of San Carlos, but without the generous sprinkling of pre-war houses that gives White Oaks much of its character.  Similar areas include the nicer parts of Palo Alto’s Midtown or Redwood City’s Woodside Plaza neighborhoods and Mountain View’s Varsity Park and Cuesta Park.  North Palo Alto has a Palo Alto Community Center feel, or perhaps Mount Carmel in Redwood City or any of the pre-WWII neighborhoods found from Millbrae to San Jose.  And as mentioned, Middlefield Park looks like an extension of Palo Alto’s downtown north neighborhood a stone’s throw away across Middlefield.

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

copyright © John Fyten 2004-14

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