The green, red and white eatery known to North Fair Oaks locals as "La Casita Chilanga" serves tortas, or Mexican sandwiches, the size of a frisbee.
The tiny storefront is easy to miss for anyone seeking out "La Cubana," a carnivore concoction with six types of meat, jalapeños and a spicy chipotle sauce. Stacked between an automotive shop and a larger restaurant at 2928 Middlefield Road, the eatery only has three tables and one cook.
Manuel Ramirez, a local activist and chair of the North Fair Oaks Community Council, the area's informal political body, was sitting at one of them last Friday, glancing out of a window, torta in hand.
"This is what you call a real hole in the wall," Ramirez said. "Many of the restaurants in North Fair Oaks are small mom and pop businesses."
Ramirez is a 20-year resident of North Fair Oaks, the largest unincorporated area in San Mateo County that has evolved for decades outside the scope of city government. Surrounded by Redwood City and contiguous to small portions of Menlo Park and Atherton in the south, the 1.2-square-mile enclave is home to roughly 15,000 people, according to national census numbers. About two-thirds are Latino and the majority of that demographic hail from the Mexican state Michoacan, giving North Fair Oaks the nickname "Little Michoacan." The southern half, however, is more affluent and mostly white, comprising roughly 21 percent of North Fair Oaks.
The county has attempted for years to beautify the area and eventually regulate it more. But most of the studies did not make it past print, Ramirez said.
"The county has never really put together a plan," Ramirez said.
Recently, however, the county has resurrected the North Fair Oaks Community Plan, thanks to a $750,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's Station Area Planning Program that was accepted by the board of supervisors in early 2008. The county hired Berkeley-based urban planning firm MIG to draft the preliminary design and land-use plan. The firm and county also meet with a community steering committee to discuss progress.
So far, the county has held two community study sessions, one during the summer and the most recent on Dec. 4. The first meeting drew about 100 people, while the second brought in about 50, county planner Will Gibson said. The next meeting is loosely scheduled for March.
Because of the contrasting communities in North Fair Oaks, Gibson said the county is traveling a fine line between interests and has to be as transparent and open as possible.
"We are not proposing redevelopment," Gibson said, adding that unlike many cities, San Mateo County does not have a redevelopment agency. "But we see this as a possible precursor to some redevelopment, or even new development, in the future. So far, the county has identified road improvement, pedestrian access, better mass transit connectivity and parks and recreation as the areas needing improvement, Gibson said. The county is also looking at rezoning certain areas to allow higher density, mixed-use developments with retail on the ground and homes on top.
The visioning process, however, will bring all of this into focus and is crucial if the county wants to created a balanced plan.
"North Fair Oaks has different constituents, different opinions and different interests," Gibson said. "We want to make sure that the process is open and transparent."
Nowhere in North Fair Oaks is the dilapidation, need of redevelopment and need for code enforcement more evident than in the northern half.
The roads are rough, falling apart and do not drain during rain. Traffic signals and streetlights are scarce.
The area has two small parks, but they're currently fenced off because of waterline work.
And the Caltrain and Dumbarton Rail Spur tracks slice North Fair Oaks into pieces, leaving residents two crossings on the north-south tracks at Fifth Avenue and Highway 84.
It's common to see a tiny house or two squeezed between larger warehouses, scrap yards and auto shops throughout the northern half. The light industrial zone actually houses a mobile home park on Barron Street.
The patchy and sporadic growth could never happen in a city, which keeps a watchful eye on parking, blight and zoning, Ramirez said. This lack of oversight, he said, is part of the reason he entered local politics.
"The county is so relaxed with its codes that it makes for a lot of chaos," Ramirez said as he was leaving "La Casita Chilanga."
During a short tour of the area, Ramirez went down the list:
Middlefield's two hour and also 20-minute parking regulations are not enforced by the sheriff's department, so retailers miss quick sales because of extended parking at their storefront, Ramirez said. Even worse, mechanics park their inventory on the street, which leads to congestion and constant oil and fluid leaks on the street, he added.
Residents dump garbage on vacant lots and street corners, he said, pointing to an abandoned mattress that four children were sitting on. Someone had ditched another mattress, leaning against a fence, across the street.
"We find condoms and needles — just constant garbage and illegal dumping," Ramirez said.
In nearby Menlo Park and Redwood City, homeowners would be required under city code to store motor homes, away from residential lots and streets. But as Ramirez rolled across the Atherton city limit into North Fair Oaks, one of the first houses had a giant RV parked in the driveway. And in the northern half, Ramirez said people are living in trailers and motor homes parked on the street.
Blocks Away, Worlds Apart
A quick right from Marsh Road into the southern portion of North Fair Oaks seems like a step back in time. Oak trees and 1950's-style ranch houses line the windy, rural-like roads. Retail is scarce save Marsh Manor, a small shopping center with a supermarket, some restaurants and a few other businesses.
Although the North Fair Oaks Community Council represents the south, residents here have become highly organized through neighborhood watch groups.
Kathleen Peregrin heads Neighbor to Neighbor, or N2N, which represents 380 homes on the southern fringe and boasts between 15 and 20 block captains.
"Some of these homeowners have lived here since the 1950s," Peregrin said. "Original owners."
The group launched about a year ago after a half-dozen burglaries hit the area in as many months.
That's how Peregrin said she learned about the county plan. Since then, she has used the N2N Google group to poll homeowners about the plan and what they would like to see happen. Save a few outliers, the top three concerns are crime, street improvement and traffic.
The corner of North Fair Oaks between Middlefield and where Marsh Road shifts to one lane, gets overrun by cut-through traffic heading into Redwood City during rush and school hours, they said.
Some of it spills along 17th Avenue into the Town of Atherton, which has attempted to fix the problem, unintentionally making it worse for residents in North Fair Oaks, Ramirez and Peregrin said.
Last year, Atherton erected dividers along its city limits to permanently halt through-traffic. Luckily for the residents, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District squashed the idea by pointing out the obvious issue of fire engine access.
Atherton followed that by asking the North Fair Oaks Council to erect a sign at the nearest corner of 17th Avenue that prohibits through traffic on that street between 7 and 9 a.m. Ramirez said they shot it down, so Atherton put up the sign in the middle of the block on the city limits.
"This isn't even a helpful sign," Ramirez said, pointing to it. "Are people just going to turn around at the sign and head back? That just makes it worse."
The traffic issue might seem a minor quibble to most, but it underscores the frustrations residents in North Fair Oaks have. Traffic issues across city limits are normally discussed between city planners and traffic engineers. With massive San Mateo County as their government, however, sometimes people in North Fair Oaks feel overlooked, Peregrin and Ramirez said.
Is City Government the Answer?
Ask a developer, a resident building a new home or a driver with a freshly inked parking ticket and they're likely to vent an earful about the woes of city government. Ramirez and Peregrin, however, both say that consistency should not be taken for granted.
Despite the diverse opinions and backgrounds in North Fair Oaks, most residents agree that the lack of city government has led to many problems, especially regarding business development, or lack thereof.
"We have ended up with all of the unwanted businesses," Ramirez said, pointing to what he described as a "massage parlor."
Although he didn't single out a specific business, Ramirez hinted that the parlors in North Fair Oaks go beyond the massage packages listed at their front desks.
A few blocks away, one can't help but notice the seemingly seedy strip bar, the Hanky Panky, on El Camino Real. A few blocks north is the Secrets Adult Superstore. And in between are liquor stores.
On Middlefield Road above 5th avenue, liquor stores and check cashing shops stand on almost every block.
The local community council has been trying for more than a decade to eliminate adult entertainment along El Camino Real and in North Fair Oaks.
"This just wouldn't happen as easily in Redwood City or Menlo Park," Ramirez said.
A North Fair Oaks under one city charter is highly unlikely. A majority of the residents would have to vote in favor it. A stronger possibility is Redwood City taking it over. But the process of annexation is complicated and it's highly unlikely Redwood City would take North Fair Oaks in fell swoop, said Martha Poyatos, executive officer with the San Mateo Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), the state agency that regulates government incorporation, land use and annexation.
Another issue, she said, are the different identities in North Fair Oaks. People in the south identify with Atherton and Menlo Park, while people in north feel they are part of Redwood City.
According to the state agency, however, Redwood City has the established rights to annex the area because of the long contiguous city boundary that almost surrounds North Fair Oaks. "The area of North Fair Oaks has long been designated as within Redwood City's sphere of influence," Poyatos said, using LAFCo's technical term.
Menlo Park only touches North Fair Oaks for a few hundred feet along Marsh Road, meaning an annexation of the southern half to that city would create a tiny bottleneck into a larger area.
That prospect didn't sit well with Peregrin.
"We consider ourselves Menlo Park," she said. "We have a Menlo Park zip code."
Poyatos, who lives in North Fair Oaks on 17th Avenue, said a more likely scenario is that Redwood City could annex the area in small chunks, which starts with a petition to the state agency. Analysts there will crunch property tax numbers and municipals service costs and the 16-member board will eventually approve or deny the city's move, she said.
Meanwhile, residents can organize to shoot down the annex during a protest period.
If between 25 and 50 percent of voters in the unincorporated area sign a petition against the annexation, it goes to a vote. If more than 50 percent sign the petition, the annexation effort dies, Poyatos said. Residents can attempt to join a city through annexation, but that is much more challenging, Poyatos said.
Although North Fair Oaks has its share of problems and may get overlooked, it plays a crucial role in connecting the Peninsula to Silicon Valley and could eventually be a transport hub to the East Bay.
Plans to develop the Dumbarton Rail Spur into a mass transit route are far from the concrete, but that line ends in North Fair Oaks. Caltrain cuts the area in half, meaning the California High Speed Rail Authority will have to deal with active residents like Ramirez.
"I support it, but look at those houses," Ramirez said, pointing to a line of tiny homes sitting against the corridor, separated by a chain link fence. "They don't even have backyards. [High-speed rail] has to build a trench."
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission water mains run diagonally through North Fair Oaks, as well. Evidence of the commission's $4.3 billion plan to overhaul its water system is everywhere. Land is torn up and fenced off, including a city park, and crews seem to be working constantly.
So deep down, the residents probably have more in common than they realize. Crime is a concern for everyone, as are roads, traffic, street lighting and code enforcement.
The fact that the county is inching closer to an actual plan has people excited.
"The people I speak to seem to be very excited that something might be done," Peregrin said, sitting in the Starbucks in Marsh Road.
Standing in front of La Casita Chilanga, Ramirez ponders the possibility of redevelopment. While it's balance and the county will have to work hard to preserve the mom and pop businesses that have grown into local staples, the possibility of new retail and higher density housing has him excited.
"I see businesses like these on the bottom level, with homes on the second or even third floor," he said gesturing down Middlefield Road. "It would be awesome."