Spring Real Estate 2005

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Greenhouse
Close to shopping, surrounded by open space

by Mari Sapina-Kerkhove

Thirty years ago an advertisement in Peninsula Living enticed Palo Altans to move to where it's "serene clean, fresh and green."

The ad wasn't alluding to a place in the country or the Los Altos foothills, but to "The Greenhouse," a new condominium development northeast of San Antonio Road, where units were selling for $34,950 at the time.

The Greenhouse condominiums are situated in a quiet garden setting near busy streets

That figure is different today, of course -- recent Greenhouse condos have been selling in the mid-$400,000 range, with homeowners fees between $240 and $340. But the quiet garden setting in the midst of several busy streets is still the same as it was three decades ago.

"I wouldn't want to live anywhere else," said Ellen Fletcher, a former city council member who has owned her Greenhouse condo since 1978. "(The landscaping) is just lovely, it's well taken care of."

The 15-acre lot includes 15 two-story buildings featuring a total of 140 two- and three-bedroom units. The beige and green exterior blends with the surrounding patches of lawn, shrubbery, olive and tulip trees while an abundance of plants hanging off numerous patios adds to the lush atmosphere.

Ralph Cahn has lived at The Greenhouse for six years, and today serves as treasurer of the homeowners association.

The property is large enough for a par course to encircle the buildings -- even though it's more a remnant of the '70s, rather than actively in use. But there are many avid walkers exercising on the Greenhouse grounds, said Ralph Cahn, who has owned a condo there for six years.

"Living is very easy here," he said. "I particularly like the Greenhouse because of all the open space we have."

The area wasn't named after its "green" setting, though, but after the actual greenhouses that used to mark the lot formerly owned by Bell nursery. When initial plans to build a new K-Mart on the site were abandoned in the early '70s, developer John Griffin (Alpha Land & Co) proposed a mixed-housing condominium complex. In 1973, the first half of the complex was built on the lot's northern nine acres. The remaining six acres were set aside for 80 units of low- and moderate-income housing, as well as a park.

Greenhouse condos sold for $34,950 three decades ago. Today they sell in the mid-$400,000.

But in 1975 Griffin scrapped the idea, and more market-level units were added. While the mixed-housing project never realized, the large size of the complex still makes for a colorful mix of neighbors today.

"There are babies up to people in their eighties," said 22-year resident Joan Larrabee. "(And) there are all kinds of people from all over the world."

Before buying her three-bedroom condo, Larrabee owned a large home in the South Bay. But once her children had gone off to college, she was looking for an option that would allow her to travel more.

"I just wanted a condo where I didn't have to take care of the grounds, the roof and the trees," she said.

From Joan Larrabeeís condo at The Greenhouse, one has a good view of the garden.

Cahn, who also prefers the easy maintenance of a condominium to the upkeep of a single-family home, said Palo Alto's reputable schools have increasingly been a strong selling point for families moving to the Greenhouse area.

Some of his neighbors traded their single-family home in another part of the Bay Area for a Greenhouse condominium, he said, so the children could go to school in Palo Alto.

Thirty percent of Greenhouse residents are renters like Rhonda Leung, who shares a newly remodeled two-bedroom unit with a roommate.

"It's a nice neighborhood to live in," she said. "I'm glad that it's close to a lot of shopping."

The Greenhouse's landscape includes a parcourse.

And while there may not be a gym so typical of contemporary apartment complexes, Leung appreciates the fact that her surroundings are greener and more open than in many more modern counterparts. The four-month resident also doesn't mind the fact that the only contact she has with her neighbors is just through passing.

Fletcher on the other hand sees the short encounters on stairways and on the grounds as a blessing. It makes for a living less isolated than in a single-family home, she said. Over the years, Fletcher and her neighbors developed close relationships, taking care of each other's pets, plants and mail while someone is on vacation.

And when Fletcher broke her pelvis last year, her neighbors would see to her grocery shopping for her.

"We take care of each other," she said. "It's really a nice feeling."


The Greenhouse facts

CHILDCARE AND PRESCHOOLS (NEARBY): Sunshine Preschool Montessori, 3711 Ross Road
FIRE STATION: No. 4, 3600 Middlefield Road
LIBRARY: Mitchell Park branch, 3700 Middlefield Road
NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION: The Greenhouse Homeowners Association, Ralph Cahn, treasurer, (650) 858-1012
PARK (NEARBY): Mitchell Park, 600 East Meadow Drive
POST OFFICE: Main, 2085 E. Bayshore Road
PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Fairmeadow Elementary School, Hoover Elementary School, J.L. Stanford Middle School, Gunn High School
SHOPPING: San Antonio Shopping Center