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.
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. (See Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce and this map.) 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. Check out PaloAltoDowntown.
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, although these days tech has a big presence in the neighborhood. But the underlying feel here is definitely not University Avenue, much to the relief of most of its patrons. Until recently a less-than-subtle counter culture influence gave California Avenue an underlying funkiness, but this is rapidly disappearing as even south Palo Alto moves relentlessly upscale. See the California Avenue Merchants Association Facebook page.
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 (or “Old”) 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. See the Central Business Association site.
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), although I’m told the restaurant scene is picking up, and the large number of antique shops suggests soft demand for commercial space. A newer, large shopping center next to downtown, Sequoia Station, is either stealing business from downtown or bringing it back, depending on who’s talking. There’s a been a big construction boom here in the past few years, both in apartment and commercial buildings. 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. See the Downtown Business Group site.
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. See the San Carlos Chamber of Commerce site.
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. See the Downtown Los Altos site.
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 that was looking worn around the edges, although recently both the maintenance and the tenant mix seem to have changed for the better, and there’s lots of new apartments and office space. 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. See the Downtown Sunnyvale Association site.
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. See the Downtown San Mateo Association site.
Campbell has an appealing and respectable small-town downtown, largely pre-war but with enough redevelopment 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. Downtown Campbell Business Association.
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. See the WillowGlen.org site.
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. Downtown San Jose Association.
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. I’m told by one old-timer that downtown Santa Clara was as large and attractive as downtown Los Gatos, and that’s saying something. The university’s 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 Blvds. gives the main shopping strip some presence, and much of Stevens Creek has been nicely redeveloped.
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