Where the coast meets the neighborhood

Special to The Times

Paint me a picture

They pull away from their ocean-view homes and, while they wait for the traffic light to change, the residents of Sunset Mesa watch dolphins frolic in Santa Monica Bay — it's just another day in paradise.

Sunset Mesa has a milelong list of attributes that drew people 40 years ago, when the homes were built. That list endures, and it still draws house-hunters moving up from a starter home or condo in West L.A., or perhaps seeking 20 degrees of relief from broiling San Fernando Valley summers.

Sure, there's Pacific Coast Highway — the thorn in the side of all Mesa residents, who have no alternative because it is the only way to go out or to get home. A mudslide to the north during the rainy season or a crack in the cliff, as happened in February, and residents can count on adding two hours onto the evening commute.

For them, it's all worth it — what's a little delay when Eden awaits?



Beginnings

Two early housing developments — one called Sunset Mesa, the other Pacific Riviera — gradually became less distinct and the Sunset Mesa name won out. Because "mesa" means "table" in Spanish, the name also effectively describes the plateau carved into the cliff that offers sweeping head-on ocean views.


Drawing cards

Strict Sunset Mesa covenants, conditions and restrictions protect ocean views and have effectively prevented the mansionization that has occurred in other communities nearby. Low-trimmed trees and underground utility lines protect those views and give the neighborhood a clean, sweeping feel.

The area is part of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, and many Mesa residents count on using those excellent public schools instead of having to cough up private school tuition. School bus service tames the trek to those somewhat distant public schools.

For shopping, residents have their pick of nearby small but congested Pacific Palisades or the city of Malibu. For big-box stores, they drive south to Santa Monica or into West L.A.

Despite a bruising (and ultimately unsuccessful) legal battle over the expansion of the Getty Villa at the mouth of Sunset Mesa, many residents are now looking forward to its reopening in 2006.


Housing stock

There are about 500 single-family homes in Sunset Mesa, and 53 condos, built from 1962 to 1965. At the time, the houses sold "like hotcakes," original owners say, in the range of $38,000 to $48,000. Although built as tracts with a handful of different floor plans, over the years significant remodeling inside and outside has given the homes a more individual appearance.

Marta Samulon, a Mesa resident and Coldwell Banker real estate agent nicknamed "the Queen of Sunset Mesa" because of her market niche, has sold more than 80 homes in the area during her 17-year career. She notes that the going rate per square foot is about $1,000 for homes with ocean views and $738 for homes with average views.

"People pay a lot of money for an ocean view. It makes a huge difference," Samulon said.


Good news, bad news The good is very, very good: the stunning, edge-of-the-continent views; the proximity to the beach for easy recreation; and a calm, safe "Mayberry RFD"-like neighborhood where parents still let their youngsters walk alone down the street to the neighbor's house. Sunset Mesa is a notch beyond quiet — there are no through streets and no retail destinations, so no one passes through unless they live there or are visiting.

The hilly aspect is good because it affords many people that prized ocean view and provides a nice cardio workout for the power walkers and jogging-stroller set. It's also bad, because there are only three or four streets that are flat enough for a kid to ride a bike on.

The bad can also be downright threatening — wildfires in the mountains periodically cause a scare and occasionally an evacuation order — or merely annoying and frustrating, such as summer beach traffic.

In the "manageable annoyances" category is the fact that the area is entirely residential, so there are no opportunities to stroll to a market or frozen yogurt store, or to swing by a close ATM. Heading north, the library is 15 minutes away, the elementary school 20 minutes and the high school 30 minutes, so if Junior forgets his lunch, tough noogies. Plain and simple, you need your car for everything you do.

Longtime residents have learned to fudge a bit when they are phoning for a service call — appliance repair, furniture delivery, etc. Once schedulers hear "Malibu" in the address, they assume it will add an additional 30 minutes to the drive time. So Mesa people commonly say "Pacific Palisades" to gain more favorable delivery fees or timing. But unless you're talking deliveries or service repair visits, Mesa residents are quick to correct people who mistakenly believe they live in the Palisades. They paid for that Malibu address, so they're going to claim it.



Insider's viewpoint Although there are no neighborhood parks or community pools, a sense of community persists.

"It's a real neighborhood with real neighbors — that has its ups and its downs," said Lisa Ney, an 11-year resident.

"Because houses are so close together, people watch out for each other in a way they don't when you're not so close," she said.

"But everyone knows your business, all the nannies know each other, and if there's a barking dog, it's right under your window. If someone's having a party you know it. But if you are on the ocean side, you have the illusion that you have no neighbors at all."


Report card On the 2004 Academic Performance Index, Webster Elementary School scored 863 out of 1,000, and Malibu Park Middle School and Malibu High School's combined score was 810.


Historical values

Residential resales:

Year...Median Price 1990...$660,000

1995...$455,000

2000...$690,000

2004...$1,335,000

2005...$1,397,500*

*Year to date


Sources: DataQuick Information Systems; Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District; http://www.smmusd.org ; historian Betty Lou Young.

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