Santa Venetia

Santa Venetia! Santa Venetia! (pronounced ve-neesh-ia.)

When you hear about this unincorporated San Rafael community just east of the Marin Civic Center, does Venice, Italy, come to mind? It should. In November of 1914, developer Mabry McMahan proposed a luxury subdivision named Santa Venetia modeled after the famed Italian city of canals. Nearly 3,000 potential buyers came to take a look.

As a sales brochure states, McMahan’s plan was for “wide canals, concrete seawalls, imported gondolas and a pier on the bay where boats could drop off San Francisco’s workers—taking them from office doorstep to home doorstep.” There was even a grand hotel planned for nearby Santa Margarita Island. And it was McMahan’s dream that led to Santa Venetia’s streets being named Vendola Drive, Galleria Way and Gallinas Road.

But along came World War I and then the Great Depression, and it wasn’t until after World War II that development of Santa Venetia really took hold. By then, Venetian- style luxury homes with red tile roofs no longer fit the bill; shingled two-bedroom one-bath bungalows with FHA or VA financing were what buyers wanted.

Today, east from the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Civic Center on North San Pedro Road, landmarks include the 2,700-member Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, with two large pools, a marvelous family fitness center and musical and educational events, all for a low monthly membership fee. Across from the JCC, the well-regarded Venetia Valley School serves grades K through eight; from there kids go to San Rafael High School.

Still on North San Pedro Road on the right heading east is the massive San Pedro Mountain Open Space, with its network of hiking and running trails; on the left, at the end of Meadow Drive, you can circle
Santa Margarita Island for an easy afternoon walk, and nearby Santa Venetia Marsh Preserve, bordering the south fork of Gallinas Creek, is ideal dog-walking turf. From there, back on North San Pedro Road to the east, vistas truly open up once you reach the 1,512 acres of China Camp State Park.

“The friendly and open neighbors are what I really like about living in Santa Venetia,” says longtime resident Ali Liprot. “It isn’t unusual to come home and see a bag of peaches or pears or string beans sitting on my front porch.” The neighborhood is a “walking community,” she adds; the flat streets make it easy for kids to learn to ride bikes and for parents to enjoy evening strolls.

One walking destination many adults favor is Le Chalet Basque, a gem of an indoor-outdoor restaurant. “I’m all by myself out here in Santa Venetia,” says owner Roger Minhondo, “so I’m the anchor of the community.” Some 40 years ago, Minhondo came to Marin straight from France’s Basque region and has never looked back. Most lunch hours find him greeting regulars on his sunny patio bordered with tulip trees and rose vines; evenings he holds court in his well-stocked cozy, friendly bar area while son Patrick tends to tables. Lamb shank, frog legs and French onion soup are all excellent; if a European vacation appeals but current prices and exchange rates don’t, this place may provide the right fix.

Santa Venetia housing prices are also cost-efficient, compared to most of Marin. “There are probably 1,000 homes in Santa Venetia and around 4,200 residents,” says Arun Burrell of Frank Howard Allen’s San Rafael office. “And in the past six months, 16 properties have come on the market and seven have sold.” Most sales have been in the high $400,000 to high $600,000 range. “The lowest price was $479,000 for a three-bedroom, two bath. The highest was $699,000 for a four-bedroom, two-bath property. Both homes were on 7,000-square-foot lots, common in Santa Venetia.”

Burrell’s records show the highest price ever paid for a Santa Venetia home was $779,000. “That was18 months ago. And the buyers got a nice two-bedroom, two-bath home on a 10,000-square-foot lot that backed to the waters of Gallinas Creek.” Not exactly Venetian canals, but a flickering reminder of this community’s origins.