Just off El Camino Real in Menlo Park is a neighborhood hidden away from the public's eyes, but once spotted there is something magical waiting to be discovered.
Park Forest residents live in townhouses of various styles and architectures, but the magic lies in what is on the other side of the homes -- not visible to the outside observer. Each back yard leads outside to a communal area filled with a swimming pool and surrounded by redwoods, oaks and maples, in a tucked-away private world.
"I feel like I live in a redwood forest, which I love," said Martin Mazner, treasurer of Park Forest 3. "It is a hidden and beautiful oasis."
Comprised of three streets (Stone Pine Lane, Buckthorn Way and Forest Lane), the neighborhood has three different associations: Park Forest 1, 2 and 3.
"I think of these as open doll houses," Kathy Hamilton, Park Forest 3 board of directors member and resident, said. "The nice thing about being here is if we see people outside and you are home we join each other and have a good time."
Potlucks, game-nights, communal parties and barbecues in the summer all take place in Park Forest, she said. There was even a "Hawaiian" luau recently, with lit torches and singing mariachis.
"One requirement we have for people here is to have a good taste in wine," Mazner said jokingly.
Going outside to the communal area for a glass of wine in the evening and joining a neighbor for a stimulating conversation is something he values about Park Forest, he said. There is also a sense of community, of people looking out for one another.
"The tranquility here is amazing," he said.
Almost all of the townhouses are three stories high and average 2,500 square feet, said Debbie Koelling, Park Forest 3 president. The insides vary among the townhouses even more than the outer appearance.
"The insides are very individualistic," she said. "The trend now is to expand."
Hamilton recently finished a two-year project to make her home more open and contemporary. She also previously expanded her kitchen, enclosing a front balcony.
The neighborhood draws a mix of ages and families as well as professions but many here are retirees who downsized from larger homes and don't want to hassle with taking care of a house or gardening, Mazner said.
"When (their) kids finish college they don't want to deal with the maintenance."
The pool and each communal area is taken care of by the associations.
The neighborhood is also a 10- to 15-minute walk from downtown Menlo Park, and the train station in Menlo Park is about 10 minutes away, Hamilton said. Bicyclists are commonly seen here, as are people strolling with their pets on walks.
Unlike other nearby neighborhoods, there are people out here at various times of the day and someone always to talk to, Mazner said. Many of his neighbors are retirees or work from home.
Although most residents here are "empty-nesters," young families starting out are also living here, he said.
-- Mike Lata
CHILD CARE & PRESCHOOLS: The Playschool, Holbrook-Palmer Park, 150 Watkins Ave., Atherton; Trinity School Early Childhood Program at Holy Trinity Church, 330 Ravenswood Ave., Menlo Park
FIRE STATION: 700 Oak Grove Ave., Menlo Park
LOCATION: El Camino Real to Southern Pacific railroad tracks; Buckthorn to Stone Pine lanes
PARK: Holbrook-Palmer Park, 150 Watkins Ave., Atherton
NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION: Park Forest 1 Homeowners Association, Sagal Patel, president, 650-326-9010; Park Forest 2 Homeowners Association, Kim Wisckol, president, 650-322-1828; Park Forest 3 Homeowners Association, Debbie Koelling, president, 650-327-7047
Menlo Park City Elementary School District -- Laurel School, 95 Edge Road, Atherton; Encinal School, 195 Encinal Ave., Menlo Park; Hillview Middle School, 1100 Elder Ave., Menlo Park
Sequoia Union High School District -- Menlo-Atherton High School, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton
SHOPPING: Downtown Menlo Park, Stone Pine Center
MEDIAN 2011 HOME PRICE: $982,000 ($750,000 - $1,137.500)
HOMES SOLD: 8
MEDIAN 2011 CONDOMINIUM PRICE: $805,333 ($516,000-$950,000)
CONDOMINIUMS SOLD: 3