Gerstle Park

Residents of Gerstle Park have a special affection for their San Rafael neighborhood, the small bowl between B and First streets sheltering approximately 3,200 households. They love it for its sense of community, its location and its embrace of nature — and they don’t mind sharing it.

“We are close enough so we can walk to downtown, get exercise and fresh air, and do our shopping and errands,” says Hugo Landecker, who moved to the area in 1968. “And in some residential areas, people tend to be stereotyped, but you don’t see that here. I think people enjoy the mix rather than the stereotype.”

The eponymous 3.5-acre park that anchors the neighborhood, for example, welcomes residents and visitors alike. This quiet, stone-wall-enclosed space has it all: paved paths through mature plantings, sunny swaths of lawn and tree-shaded benches, a tennis court, a playground, and a barbecue area with picnic tables to accommodate several hundred people.

“A lot of the local women take their children to the kiddie playground there,” says Landecker, who’s a co-founder of the Gerstle Park Neighborhood Association (GPNA). “And a lot of people bring their dogs to the big grassy area; the dogs play and the people socialize.” Still others, he notes, just enjoy the peacefulness of the park. “They lay out a blanket and have a picnic.”

For several decades, the GPNA has sponsored an annual potluck barbecue there, and at times, the attendance has topped 300. “We get people from all over,” he says. “People move away but stay in touch with friends and relatives and come back to the picnic. It surprises me how many people move away and come back a few years later to live here, too.” Non-residents can enjoy the park and reserve the picnic grounds.

Finding picnic fare isn’t hard. A stop at Muffin Mania Cafe offers soups, salads, sandwiches and cookies along with morning fare of mostly vegan and several gluten-free muffins, pastries and croissants. “We’ve had people coming here for 28 years,” says owner llona Sullivan. “We’re friendly and anti-corporate, and everything is homemade.” Customers can check their email using the free Wi-Fi in the cafe’s garden, enjoy a cappuccino and bring Fido; he’s welcome, too.

At least one group congregates at the cafe for lattes (“for sustenance,” Sullivan quips) before starting out on a daily walk. A walk here can mean strolling the sun-splashed streets that wend their way through the neighborhood’s varied architecture of Victorians, Italianates, bungalows and apartment buildings or hiking the hills of the nearby open space.

“Hiking is a big thing in the neighborhood,” Landecker notes. “Dog-walkers, bicyclists and hikers use the open space trails all day long. A lot of people don’t know that you can hike through 15 acres, go through some city streets, go up to a ridge and come out on 33 more acres of open space.” Entrances to the trails are on easily found streets such as West End, Clark, Grove, D and Clorinda.

Another popular spot is the bocce ball courts in Albert Park. “They’re huge,” says Landecker. Marin Bocce offers 10 courts, barbecues and picnic tables for bocce ball enthusiasts from mid-March through October. Visitors can join or form their own league or simply drop in. “And don’t forget WildCare,” he says. “You can easily spend a couple of hours there.”

As the sun descends over the ridge above Gerstle Park, many locals and visitors head to the Panama Hotel Restaurant and Inn. This longtime favorite has been serving drinks and meals and accommodating overnight guests since 1937, when it was called “Maria’s Pueblo,” Marin’s first Mexican restaurant. Current owner Dan Miller offers a Mediterranean-influenced menu featuring seasonal organic ingredients for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. It’s white tablecloth service either in the cozy restaurant or the patio with live music on certain weekdays.

Bob Beyea, president of the GPNA and a realtor with Bradley Real Estate, has called Gerstle Park home for 12 years. Right now, he says, “prices have come down and short sales and foreclosures do set new price points for future listings.” A six-bedroom home sold for $980,000 in December, and a restored three-bedroom Victorian sold a month earlier for $1,092,000. The lowest-priced home was a two-bedroom that sold for $325,000 in February.

Beyea expects the Gerstle Park market to be flat for awhile. “The key is the question of hidden inventory,” he says. “U.S. realtors have wondered about that for the past few years. Another key is short sales and foreclosures, and those factors are driven by factors in people’s lives. But Marin County has always weathered financial storms like this in the past very well.”