Walking El Camino

Before I get into this week’s main topic, I wanted to say “thank you” to the many respondents to last week’s blog post. In case you haven’t read it, the post was about where to take recyclable items that cannot go into your blue recycling bin. A number of readers helpfully responded to that post, noting additional places that accept some of the items I mentioned and suggesting a number of places that take the one item I’ve been having trouble with: plastic bags. If you haven’t yet read the post, be sure to also read the follow-up comments from readers. And if you did already read it, you may want to go back and read those comments: there are some good tips in there! Feel free to bookmark that post, for future reference. But also note that I’ll shortly summarize the valuable information in the post and the comments on a dedicated web page that I will link to from the website banner, just below where the top photograph appears (along with “Home,” “About” and “Neighborhoods”). Thus, even if you don’t bookmark the post, you’ll be able to get to the key information when you need it simply by clicking the new “Recycling” link that you’ll soon see at the top of every blog post.

This week I did something that I’ve been meaning to do for some time: walk from my house (which is located in the vicinity of Redwood City’s Sequoia Hospital — basically at Alameda de las Pulgas and Whipple Avenue) to Menlo Park. I actually went all the way to the other end of Menlo Park, to the Palo Alto border. And I did it the most straightforward way, by following El Camino Real.

According to my maps app, the one-way walk should only be 5.4 miles. Being me, however, and wanting to check on a couple of things along the way and within the City of Menlo Park itself, my walk turned out to be considerably longer: about 7.5 miles. Fortunately, my wife needed to pick up some items at Kepler’s Books, so after reaching the Palo Alto border I turned around and walked back to Kepler’s, where, after doing a little shopping (I can’t resist that place!) I hitched a ride home in her car.

For the most part the walk was pretty uneventful. The only real challenges I experienced were in Atherton: that city doesn’t believe in sidewalks, it seems, even along El Camino Real. I was on sidewalks all the way through Redwood City and through the part of North Fair Oaks that touches El Camino Real, but once I hit Atherton, my only choice was to either walk along the edge of the street itself, or walk on the dirt (or grass) verge that adjoins it. For the most part that proved workable, although in spots walking on the street itself was really my only option. The worst stretch was when I was in the vicinity of the Sunrise Senior Living facility, just a couple blocks north of Fifth Avenue. That building is currently under construction and is receiving its exterior stucco. Because of that, the sidewalk on the east side of El Camino Real in front of the building was closed. Accordingly, when I got to Oakwood Drive I crossed over to the west side, planning to switch back to the east side (where I’d at least be facing traffic) when I got to Fifth Avenue. But not far south of Oakwood Drive I crossed from Redwood City into Atherton (on that side of El Camino Real, at least), and the sidewalk ends. Normally there is room to walk safely in the verge alongside the street on that side, but it appears that the guys working on the Sunrise Senior Living building have gotten in the habit of parking there. They were parked with one set of wheels on the pavement and one set on the verge, leaving me no choice but to walk in the active lane of traffic alongside the parked cars. Fortunately, the traffic signal at Oakwood Drive would periodically turn red and cause a large gap in the traffic. I ended up waiting until one of those gaps appeared, then I’d walk a couple of car lengths, after which I’d step between two parked cars and wait until there was another gap in the traffic. In this fashion I eventually made my way to Fifth Avenue, where there is a signal and where I could safely cross back to the eastern side of the street. While I did ultimately navigate that particular stretch in safety, it took quite a while. Thus, I don’t recommend doing what I did…

To go along with Atherton’s lack of sidewalks, there is also a real lack of marked crosswalks. At one intersection in particular I had to pay very careful attention:

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This is Fair Oaks Lane, where it meets El Camino Real. I took the above picture after crossing, looking back north towards Redwood City. As you can see, not only is there no marked crosswalk at this signalized intersection, there are no pedestrian signals. Plus, I as a pedestrian had to walk quite a fair distance to get across the intersection. And without sidewalks or crosswalks, vehicles aren’t keeping as much of an eye out for pedestrians, so it was up to me to make sure I had their attention. Not fun, I can tell you!

On the plus side, Atherton is an interesting place with a lot of interesting houses. Not many can be seen from El Camino Real, of course; there are sound walls along much of the street here to keep some of the traffic noise from reaching the multi-million dollar houses. As a pedestrian, though, I was able to get some glimpses, which I enjoyed. I found myself particularly taken by one house’s sound wall, which wasn’t the usual masonry construction:

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Finally I made it to Menlo Park. My goal was to check up on the various development projects going on in that city’s heart. Menlo Park, like Redwood City, is experiencing a development boom right now, with most development occurring in two separate parts of the city: at the city’s northern end, and at its heart. A couple of weeks ago I spent some time out at the northern end, when I was following the path of the Dumbarton rail line for my post Tracking a Broken Bridge. This week I was aiming for the city’s heart, which is basically where Santa Cruz Avenue meets El Camino Real.

The first major development project I encountered on my walk is called 1540 El Camino Real. This is a mixed-used (office and residential) project being built on the former site of Beltramo’s Wines & Spirits. Most people who use El Camino Real in this area are well acquainted with the office portion of this project, which fronts onto El Camino Real:

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Originally due to be available in the first quarter of 2021, this 48,000 square foot building is a bit behind schedule. But it is actively being worked on, and clearly should be done sometime this year.

Less familiar to most is the residential portion  of this project, which is taking the form of a separate building being built along the rear of the property. If you turn left onto Encinal Avenue and then make a quick right onto San Antonio Avenue, you’ll find yourself along the back side of the property, facing the under-construction residential building:

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This building will contain 27 for-rent residential units, five of which will apparently be affordable.

Back out on El Camino Real, I continued my journey for two more blocks, until I reached the massive Springline development (formerly known as Station 1300). Springline, too, is a mixed-use development, although it will not only sport office space (in two 100,000 square foot buildings along El Camino Real) and residential units (183 apartments in a large building along the rear of the property), it will also have retail and restaurant spaces.

The two office buildings are rapidly reaching the point where their interiors can be customized for new tenants. Here is the northern building:

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And here is the southern building:

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That decorative metal arch you can see at the left side of the above photo spans the gap between the two buildings, and invites pedestrians in to the center of the property. However, the retail and restaurant spaces in these two office buildings are only located along the El Camino Real facades; although there will be a nice plaza in the center of this large (6.4 acre) parcel that I one day plan to explore, it doesn’t appear that there will be any shops or other attractions there aimed at the general public.

Just beyond these buildings is Oak Grove Avenue; I turned left there and walked to the rear of the parcel, where the main entrance to the residential building will be located (at Oak Grove Avenue and Garwood Way, kitty-corner from Menlo Park’s Caltrain station):

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The Oak Grove Avenue side of this building also will have restaurant and/or retail space in it; I’ll be curious to see who eventually leases those spaces.

Before I leave this particular block of El Camino Real, for completeness’ sake I want to briefly mention two projects that were recently completed and are now leasing. The first is called “Pinnacle,” and is located at 1285 El Camino Real:

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This building consists of 15 for-rent apartments, and two small ground-floor commercial spaces, one on either side of the entry drive. The residential units are townhouse-style, with most having garage space for two cars (in some cases, parked in tandem) on the ground floor, living/dining/kitchen spaces on the second floor, and two bedrooms on the top floor. Some units also have a “bonus room” (which can be a third bedroom) on the ground floor, behind the rear garage wall. Units range in size from about 1,325 to 2,250 square feet.

Two doors down is the other recently completed project, which was built on the lot where the Park Theatre once stood. The attractive little building now standing at 1275 El Camino Real contains 9,000 square feet of office space on two floors with three for-sale “penthouse” condominiums above. I found a listing for one of the condos: 2,155 square feet of space (3 bedrooms, 2-1/2 baths) and wraparound terraces (about 790 square feet in total) plus garage parking for two vehicles (one space has an EV charger). All of this will set you back $4.5 million, plus monthly homeowner’s dues of $1,495. Too rich for my blood, unfortunately, since the building does look nice:

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Moving on, I next examined the three side-by-side buildings that were constructed as a single project on Santa Cruz Avenue (two of the buildings) and Merrill Street (one of the buildings) just across from the Menlo Park train station and the building where Cafe Borrone and Kepler’s Books are located. Each building contains three residential units along with some office and/or retail or restaurant space.

Here is the building that fronts onto Merrill, at 1125 Merrill St.:

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The Merrill Street building is the modern building behind the palm tree. To its left you can see part of its next-door neighbor, which is part of the same development: 506 Santa Cruz Ave.:

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Finally, to the left of that building, further along Santa Cruz Avenue and a bit closer to El Camino Real, is the third in the set (556 Santa Cruz Ave.):

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From here, it was back to El Camino Real, and the continuation of my walk towards Menlo Park’s far border. I didn’t get far, however, before I had to stop yet again:

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This building, on the west (or, really, south) side of El Camino Real just past the Ravenswood Avenue intersection, is being constructed on the former site of the Guild Theatre. Apparently it is being built as a music hall. Maybe they’ll do live Rocky Horror concerts to make up for the loss of the theater that used to do midnight showings of that cult classic…

Just a bit more walking took me to the final large project under active construction in this part of Menlo Park: Stanford’s “Middle Plaza” project, at 500 El Camino Real. This large mixed-use development (office, residential, and retail/restaurant) is being built on an 8.4-acre site that was created by combining the properties that formerly were home to Stanford Lincoln-Mercury, University Ford, and Anderson Chevrolet. The resulting parcel is long and narrow, and is squeezed between El Camino Real on one side and the Caltrain tracks on the other. At one end is the small strip center containing BevMo, CVS Pharmacy, Staples, and Big-5 Sporting Goods, among others. At the other is the Stanford Park Hotel.

In total Stanford’s project will contain three office buildings (for a total of about 168,000 square feet of office space), three residential buildings containing a total of 215 apartments (some number of which will be affordable), and about 10,000 square feet of retail space. All of this, plus a half-acre public plaza, will sit above a large underground parking garage.

Given the nature of the site, I cannot show it in a single photo (well, I could have taken a panoramic image from across El Camino Real, but…). I can show some pieces of it, though. Here, for instance, is what I assume will be an office building:

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Facing the development from El Camino Real, one of the office buildings will be located at the left end of the development, while the other two (one of which is shown above) will be at the right end, close to the Stanford Park Hotel. The residential buildings will be located in the middle.

It is easy to tell which buildings are which; the office buildings are being constructed almost entirely from metal, while the residential buildings are largely being built using a great deal of wood:

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It’s almost hard to believe this is all one development! Once complete, though, this should be a very attractive development indeed, looking very much like a set of buildings you might find on the nearby Stanford campus. For instance, here is a rendering of part of the development as viewed from El Camino Real:

Middle Plaza render 1

From Middle Plaza, I turned back and, as I said, headed to Kepler’s Books. On the way, though, I took a quick peek at two other small projects that were recently completed. First, though, I noted that there is now an empty lot on the other side of El Camino Real, where the Stanford Inn stood until recently:

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Given the green construction fencing surrounding the lot, it seems someone has plans for this site. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it… Anyway, the first of the two smaller projects I mentioned is a very modern four-unit residential building at 612 College Avenue, just a few doors down from El Camino Real:

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The four townhouse-style condominiums each appear to contain three bedrooms and four bathrooms (two full baths, and two half baths) above a two-car garage. An online listing for one shows it at 1,672 square feet in size, and costing in the neighborhood of $3.3 million.

Next on my way to Kepler’s is this recent development, at 650 Live Oak Avenue:

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This development has 17,000 square feet of office space and 17 apartments, two of which appear to be below market rate. I believe that 15 of the residential units are located in the large building on the right, and two are in the small neighboring building on the left. These buildings are currently leasing; you can find them online at www.six50live.com. Of particular interest to me are the enticements being offered to potential lessees: two months free rent, plus they’ll throw in a free MacBook (valued at $2,200). I suspect that those enticements offer a hint to what I expect will be a somewhat high monthly rent…

Menlo Park certainly has a lot going on these days! As someone who has been spending time off and on in the city for the past 30 years or so, at least along El Camino Real the city is practically becoming unrecognizable. But I’m pleased that the city is finally free of the four automobile dealership sites, all of which had largely been sitting empty since about 2006 (although part of Anderson Chevrolet was used for a couple of years as a Tesla showroom, and then as some sort of modern art gallery called Pace Art + Technology). It was always depressing to see the empty auto facilities marking what used to be Menlo Park’s “auto row.” Soon, however, these new projects will be completed and, with any luck, leased. I for one will be very interested to see what kind of effect they in total have on Menlo Park and its street life: these new plazas just may become popular hangout spots. As for all the new housing, well, Menlo Park needs it as much as any other peninsula city does, so it’ll be very much welcome. It is mostly high-end luxury housing, however. With some exceptions this new housing doesn’t appear to be doing much to address the Bay Area’s distinct lack of affordable housing. That, I suspect, will have to wait for future projects. And so, there’s a good chance that there’ll be even more development in Menlo Park’s future…

7 thoughts on “Walking El Camino

  1. I believe Caltrans controls the portion of El Camino Real that runs through Atherton as it’s a state highway. I seem to recall this was part of the issue to getting those protected signal lights installed at the crosswalks in town after a couple people died trying to cross El Camino within the Atherton border over the last 10yrs. So I’d assume it’d be up to Caltrans to install sidewalks?…though Atherton very much does hate traditional sidewalks so I could be wrong. The town is in the process of developing a plan to address current traffic and pedestrian safety issues: https://www.athertontrafficmanagement.com

  2. Menlo Park proves you can do modest, profitable, high-density development along El Camino with style and grace. And then there’s RWC…

    • I can’t imagine building modest and graceful +$3m condos on El Camino in RWC would be very successful. RWC is a great city but it isn’t Menlo Park. Not sure where it falls now but in the summer of 2019 Menlo Park was ranked as having the most expensive apartment rent in the Bay Area at $4,368/month, likely putting it as one of the most expensive rental markets in the country. A bit questionable if this should be RWC’s aspirations.

  3. What a great review of all the new construction. I cannot wait to see how Menlo Park traffic if affected. Once people start going back to work, El Camino may become a parking lot again during commute hours.

    • Those projects are doing a number on traffic along El Camino right now. Especially that little music hall, which frequently needs to block off a traffic lane in order to use a crane for some part of construction. I was just down there today and two separate projects were affecting southbound El Camino traffic. I bet the residents of Menlo Park are just praying for the day when all of these projects are wrapped up and traffic can theoretically flow free once again. But by then, as you note, people may be going back to work, and El Camino will resume its status as one of the Bay Area’s prime parking lots…

      • As a politically aware Menlo Park native having grown up there in the 70s and 80s, I have spoken with several councilmembers over the decades that have pointedly resisted making El Camino (and several other key areas) too easy for auto traffic to traverse at high speeds and/or volumes. They have resisted the “carheads” in the community that have periodically called for eliminating ECR parking to “improve traffic flow” … which, of course, would eliminate an important buffer between ECR sidewalks and traffic, while just making ECR even more of a pass-through traffic sewer. Menlo has also done a decent job of calming and/or eliminating neighborhood cut-through traffic to/from Hwy 101 & the Dumbarton Bridge with speed humps and imposing time-based turn restrictions into and/or out of key streets along the Willow Road corridor.

        Regarding the housing development at 650 Live Oak near Cook’s Seafood, you neglected to mention that Kepler’s was located on that parcel for several (many? … I can’t remember now) years before moving into what was then a brand new building at its current location.

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