Hillside to the Stars - Page 3

San Mateo Highlands—where Eichler’s largest tract turns longtime neighbors into lifetime friends
Hillside to the Stars
There are several beautiful views throughout the Highlands, including this one from Lundys Lane, located off of the eastern slope of Bunker Hill Drive.
Hillside to the Stars
In the pool at the Highlands Recreation Center on Lexington.
Hillside to the Stars
Hillside to the Stars
Hillside to the Stars
Three shots at the home of Barry and Rosemary Brisco (top), who have one of the most attractive and uniquely furnished Highlands homes.

But if the Highlands is a new Eden, it's not one that was handed to its residents without need for work. From the start, the hardy folk who moved to this then-remote, windy hillside had to create their own institutions.

Surprisingly, Eichler didn't intend to build a recreation center or pool at the Highlands—even though he had built both at his recent Greenmeadow tract in Palo Alto, among other tracts.

Eichler's ads and newspaper write-ups in 1956 bragged that the neighborhood would include two schools (only one was built), that a shopping center would be built at the bottom of the hill (it was), and that the tract was bordered on three sides by San Francisco watershed land and other land that could never be developed. Homes initially sold for $17,000 to $22,000.

Recreation for the new tract? Eichler's sales brochure suggested a solution. "For relaxation the Crystal Springs and Peninsula Country Clubs, and many miles of beautiful bridle paths are near at hand."

But little kids need a pool, and from the start the community was about little kids.

The Highlands Community Association bought a parcel of land to create a recreation center and pool, and a year after the neighborhood opened, formed a public special district, the Highlands Recreation District, to manage it. By 1958 the pool and building were under construction.

"The rec center and school, they were really the center of our attention," says Sterling Sakai, who moved to the Highlands with his family in 1985. "Everyone rallied around them and participated, which was something that was going out of fashion in the crazy '80s."

Sakai's two boys took swim lessons and enjoyed the playground. Many parents and kids forged lifelong friendships doing the same.

"Today," he says, "there's an expectation of quality that this community demands. People here are very independent thinkers and liberal, being San Mateo and the Bay Area. But there is an unwritten agreement in terms of family values that says, kids are very, very important, and we ought to have activities that show we value our kids."

One mark of the neighborhood's success, cited by several observers, is that many people who grow up in the Highlands and move away for college or to work move back.

 "All your neighbors become your best friends," says Liesje Nicolas, who grew up here, moved to Amsterdam and New York, then returned, and today is president of the Highlands Community Association.

"I see my friends' parents still walking in the neighborhood. My kids have grandparents and aunties and uncles who knew me when I was their same age and now know my children. What a beautiful thing it is to have a multi-generational neighborhood."

Folks love that the neighborhood is simultaneously isolated—yet close to things.

"I really want to stress how special it is to have this secluded island in the suburbs that is also so convenient," says Margo Tomaszewska. "It's 15 minutes to the ocean, 15 minutes to the airport, 20 minutes to San Francisco, 20 minutes to Stanford."

Rarden describes the neighborhood as "a breath of fresh air in a dense urban area. You don't feel the urban density of downtown San Mateo here. It's a very different feeling."

Margo says returning to the Highlands from Highway 101 or busy El Camino Real is a guaranteed stress reliever. "I feel like I live in a little retreat. I feel like I'm on vacation when I live in my house."

And it's a great place for walkers. The steepness adds to the exercise. Margo and three friends, all moms, often take the loop walk. "The protocol is, we drop off our children at school, and we do a loop around the entire Highlands," she says. "We have nice conversations. It's very social, walking to the shopping center, grabbing coffee, then walking back up [the hill]."

"It's a neighborhood where everyone knows you," Liesje Nicolas says, explaining why she feels safe to let her sons roam. And the Highlands, because it is surrounded by open space, has always been a great place to roam.