"We think of ourselves as a neighborhood. We interact with one another, we have group activities," said Ruth Foley, pointing to the picnics, Christmas parties and a spring potluck under the Heritage elm at the center of the complex.
San Alma (named for the intersection of San Antonio Avenue and Alma Street) consists of 26 townhomes and eight below-market-rate condominiums, built around a 40-foot-tall American elm in 1974. In 2000, the by-then 60-foot tree was named Heritage Tree No. 6, noted for its historical significance as being on the site of the Don Secundo Robles adobe, dating back to 1840.
But it isn't the stately elm that pulls this community together.
They come from multiple countries — Russia, Korea, China, India, Brazil, France, Mexico, U.S.A. — and from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, including African American, Filipino American and Midwestern, noted Barbara Best, president of the San Alma Association.
"Ethnically, we're sort of a microcosm of Palo Alto," Best said.
And, in those few townhomes and condos reside a Stanford professor, Palo Alto firefighter, engineer, doctor, Stanford track director, a silver medallist from the 1982 Barcelona Olympics, high-tech salesperson, a "professional volunteer" who won the Lifetime of Achievements Award from Avenidas, a court translator, a former Palo Alto mayor, a retired high school teacher and retired Syntex scientist — among others.
They celebrate their differences at those picnics and potlucks and are even now trying to pull together an authentic Korean barbecue — with their Korean neighbors, of course.
Some of the original homeowners still reside in the complex, while newer families have cycled in over time. Three younger families, who knew each other at Google, recently moved in.
And some, including Lupita Arce and John Stone, began by renting in 1987. But when their unit went on the market, they decided to stay — only they chose a home around the corner with a better floorplan for their family.
San Alma was designed by architect John Brooks Boyd, who also designed homes for Joseph Eichler. The complex consists of a narrow semi-circular street, Ponce Drive, and a cul-de-sac, Hemlock Court. There's parking for 12 visitors, but most are encouraged to park along San Antonio Avenue or nearby Briarwood Way. The one- and two-story townhomes range from about 1,500 to 1,777 square feet, with small private backyards. The front yards — planted with liquidambar, crepe myrtle and olive trees — are considered part of the common area, along with the swimming pool, that is maintained by the homeowners association. Fees are running $475 per month to keep everything running smoothly.
The homeowners association board meets monthly, and all residents once a year, but any resident may bring an issue to the monthly board meeting. Recently, homeowners got together to agree on what color to paint the exterior and window trim, with six options offered for individual doors.
Of bigger concern lately is the proposed High-Speed Rail project, with Caltrain tracks just feet away. Ruth Foley and Henry Lew have been attending meetings and offering up the complex's concerns about potential eminent domain taking some of their property, and increased traffic and noise associated with more trains running daily.
"We're advocating for the tunnel," Foley said.
In times of trouble, San Alma definitely behaves as a community.
When a neighbor was knocked over by a large dog, while walking her smaller one, others rallied to bring her food and even found her missing dog. '"Everybody swarmed in to help," Arce said.
But even in good times, the neighbors are very friendly. Barbara Roberts says it's common to have one's neighbor's keys.
"My 10-year-old son is a sentry. He's our dragon slayer," Best said, with a neighbor pointing out that she's seen him recently branching out to soccer.
"Because we all know each other, we can provide continuity to new neighbors," she added.
"Neil and I are the welcoming committee," said Ruth Foley. Typically, they stop by to give a copy of the handbook (which includes phone numbers as well as rules of the complex) and a plant.
"And we brought cookies," added Jane Lamb.
At the annual meeting, one of the new families passed out cupcakes to all, a welcome treat.
Asked what might be missing from their neighborhood, Les Roberts answered, "there's no open space or a park." But they aren't far from Mitchell Park, and children often play at the end of the Hemlock cul-de-sac.
A more pressing concern for Arce, who was born in Mexico, is the name. San Alma, she said, is grammatically incorrect in Spanish. A more correct version could be Santa Alma, but that wouldn't accurately represent the nearby streets.
Perhaps they'll discuss it at their next annual meeting.
CHILDCARE AND PRESCHOOLS: Crescent Park Child Development Center (Peekaboo), 4161 Alma St.; Discovery Children's House - Montessori, 303 Parkside Drive; Palo Alto Infant Toddler Center, 4111 Alma St.
FIRE STATION: No. 4, 3600 Middlefield Road
LIBRARY: Mitchell Park branch, 4050 Middlefield Road (temporary location during construction)
LOCATION: east of Alma Street, off San Antonio Avenue (including Ponce Drive and Hemlock Court)
NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION: Barbara Best, president, San Alma Association, 650-704-2160, firstname.lastname@example.org
PARKS(NEARBY): Greenmeadow Park (private); Mitchell Park, 600 East Meadow Drive
POST OFFICE: Cambridge, 265 Cambridge Ave.
PRIVATE SCHOOLS (NEARBY): Palo Alto Prep School, 4000 Middlefield Road; Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, 450 and 470 San Antonio Road
PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Fairmeadow Elementary School, J.L. Stanford Middle School, Gunn High School
SHOPPING: San Antonio Shopping Center