As you drive north on Middlefield Road from the affluent town of Atherton toward Redwood City, the thick tree canopy suddenly vanishes from above and the lush bushes and grasses morph into gravel and cement. Iron gates fronting set-back mansions are suddenly replaced with concrete business facades, and utility wires begin to crisscross the sky above like a spider’s web.
That moment marks the boundary between one of the wealthiest communities on the Peninsula and one of the poorest — the mostly Hispanic unincorporated residential area of North Fair Oaks. Yard sales, elaborate backyard birthday parties and live mariachi bands are common here, though outsiders regard it — if they’ve heard of it at all — as a sketchy pass-through between cities with little identity of its own.
“When you tell people that you live in North Fair Oaks, no one has a clue to what North Fair Oaks is,” said Kent Manske, a local artist and professor who has lived in the neighborhood for 24 years. “And in some regards I really like that we live in this little unincorporated pocket, that we don’t belong to Redwood City or Menlo Park. We’re our own entity. But it’s an entity without an identity.”
That may change now that the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors — which administers the 1-square-mile area — has approved a plan to turn the rough stretch of Middlefield that runs through the heart of North Fair Oaks into a pedestrian and bike-friendly commercial district by widening sidewalks, cutting traffic lanes and painting new bike lanes.
The project is now in its formal planning phase, with a construction start date yet to be determined. County officials do not expect the project to be completed until 2018 or 2019.
The improvements come as Silicon Valley struggles with its well-documented problem of income inequality. Low-income pockets of the Peninsula that were long immune to the effects of the growing bourgeois tech industry are now feeling the pain of rising rent prices. With tech money fueling a building boom in neighboring downtown Redwood City, North Fair Oaks is struggling to keep life affordable for its residents.
North Fair Oaks residents have no greater advocate than Linda Lopez, the 64-year-old chairwoman of the North Fair Oaks Community Council, a position that allows her to bring the concerns of the district to San Mateo County, but has little independent governing authority.
Lopez, a 15-year union employee who has worked in the North Fair Oaks community since the early 1970s, has a long history of advocacy. As a student at Sequoia High School, she campaigned against racism and fought to close a napalm factory operating at the Redwood City port. More recently, she worked in juvenile and family court for San Mateo County.
At a recent community council meeting, she vigorously questioned a man applying for permits to turn part of his building into apartment units, trying to use what power she has to make those new units affordable housing.
“You can’t be renting out that place or leasing at market rate,” she said later. “People cannot afford to rent out a one-bedroom apartment for $2,000.”
North Fair Oaks is the only densely populated unincorporated area on the Peninsula, and it was long disenfranchised. But that’s changing, Lopez said.
“In the last couple of years, there has been a change in the fact that some of the people in power in San Mateo County are supporting the socialeconomic redevelopment of North Fair Oaks. We’ve never had that,” she said.
She credits District 4 County Supervisor Warren Slocum, who has opened his door to his constituents since his election in 2012. Slocum has ushered in a new era of collaboration between the county and North Fair Oaks. Lopez says she returned to the council after a 10-year absence, in part because of his willingness to get things done in the community.
“If you look at where we were 10 years ago and you look at where we are now, it’s absolutely amazing,” she said. “Ten years ago, I would not have been able to call any supervisor and say, ‘Hey, you know I got this concern, I think we really need to do this.’ I couldn’t even get my calls returned.”
The county and the community council went through an extensive feedback process to create a project that reflects the community’s needs. The county met with business owners in person, distributed bilingual surveys and hung informational door hangers throughout the neighborhood.
San Mateo County created the North Fair Oaks Forward initiative in 2013 to guide its new proactive efforts in the area. Since February, the county and the community council have jointly held a slew of community meetings to offer residents a chance to speak up.
“Our goal is to make sure that there is no one who has not heard of this Middlefield Road project,” said Ellie Dallman, 24, an outreach coordinator for North Fair Oaks Forward. “We’ve invested a lot of time and effort into doing as much as we can to cover everyone within North Fair Oaks.”
Awareness is high, but some community members still say they want more information. The mostly small Latino-owned beauty shops, restaurants and vehicle repair shops along Middlefield fear the street project will disrupt or displace their businesses. Despite the county’s outreach efforts, store owners say they are frustrated by a lack of details.
“How can I talk about something I don’t know anything about?” said one beauty supply shop owner when asked about the proposed changes. She said most of what she does know comes from reading newspapers.
“The [community] meetings are always in the evening, when we are busy and have lots of customers,” she said. “I would like to go, but how am I supposed to leave my shop then?”
The fear of disruption or dislocation was common throughout the planning process, said Lopez, and one that the planners took seriously. Protections for business owners and neighboring residents were made a condition for any plan put into action, though particulars are still being determined.
“The purpose of this whole thing is to support and nurture what we already have, number one, but it’s also to welcome and invite in new business, new merchants to create that solid foundation for a diverse downtown district,” Lopez said.
The county is planning to cut the current four traffic lanes to two — plus a turning lane — and will convert two 45-degree parking lanes into bike lanes, parallel parking lanes and wider sidewalks. Utilities will be put underground, clearing the sky, and public art projects will be installed, including a planned living wall and a large mural.
“People want to make sure that Middlefield Road is safe for all users,” stressed Dallman. “Whether you’re driving your vehicle, riding a bicycle or walking trying to cross Middlefield Road or walk on the sidewalk.”
Area residents let the county know that pedestrian and bike safety on Middlefield was a key concern for the community. With inadequate crossing points, anxious mothers huddle their young children at intersections waiting for a break in the speeding traffic, and bikers live in fear of being plowed over by drivers backing out of spots.
Beyond the safety improvements, the county has prioritized making the stretch of Middlefield a vibrant destination — not just a way station between Atherton and Redwood City.
Manske, 54, the artist, has been tasked with creating the entry signs into the community, telling unknowing visitors when they have entered North Fair Oaks. Instead of traditional signage, he’s planning four colorful 10-foot-tall metal figures that represent the people who live in the neighborhood.
“The concept that I wanted was as much North Fair Oaks community engagement as possible,” he said. “It’s actually really nice to go to a public place where you slow down and talk with people and reacquaint yourself with what is home.”