Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles: Where Mountains Meet the Sea

Nathan Miller and Emily Kane Miller loved their little house in Mar Vista, a Westside Los Angeles neighborhood with leafy streets and easy access to shops, restaurants and cute cafes. But when their daughter, now 3, was born, the $1.3 million home that had seemed so spacious when they first moved in became cluttered with baby gear.

“We suddenly felt like, gosh, this house that was so adorable doesn’t even fit us and a baby,” said Ms. Miller, 37, the founder and CEO of Ethos Giving, a philanthropic services company. “And once we had a child, we realized we wanted to be somewhere that felt more like a neighborhood.”

The couple also planned on a second child, which would only contribute to the crowding. And they were concerned about the quality of Mar Vista’s schools. “We’re both products of public school and we really would like to send our kids to public schools for a whole host of reasons,” said Mr. Miller, 34, the founder and CEO of Miller Ink, a strategic communications firm. “In Mar Vista there are some schools that are good for elementary, but we weren’t crazy about the high schools.”

They turned their attention to affluent Pacific Palisades, another Westside neighborhood with public charter elementary, middle and high schools, as well as direct access to both the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Coast.

In August 2017 they toured a four-bedroom, two-bath house in Pacific Palisades that was built in 1947 and renovated in 1968. They loved its midcentury architecture and spacious layout, but it needed significant renovations, and its $2.8 million asking price was out of their range. They reluctantly passed, only to get a phone call a week later from their real estate agent saying that the price had been reduced to a more manageable $2.5 million. But they had to act fast. “The price came down at 2 p.m. and we were in the house again by 4 p.m.,” said Mr. Miller. “We put in our bid at 6 p.m.”

They bid at asking price, and closed the following month. Then they set to work updating the home, putting in HVAC, new flooring and a new kitchen.

They didn’t make any changes to the home’s exterior. “In Los Angeles real estate right now, a lot of people buy land and start over. But we were really excited to find a place where we could be part of the house’s story,” said Ms. Miller. “This house has character. It feels like a cool, funky Palisades house.”

The bidding process was such a whirlwind that the couple found themselves wondering if Pacific Palisades was the right choice for their family. But the doubts were quickly dispelled.

The family, which now includes a 1-year-old son, loves taking weekend hikes along Temescal Canyon Trail, which runs north from the neighborhood into Topanga State Park, or having friends and family over for Shabbat dinner on Friday nights. It was also important that they be close to a Jewish community, and they felt welcomed at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue within walking distance of their new home.

For the most part, the couple — both of whom work out of a nearby office in West Los Angeles — avoid the neighborhood’s traffic woes.

“I wake up every day feeling lucky to be in the Palisades,” said Mr. Miller. “It’s like a respite here. We have busy careers and busy young kids, and living here, it adds a layer of calm to your life.”

Chris Blanchard, 41, a restaurateur and the co-founder of the Chicas Tacos restaurants, moved to Pacific Palisades last year with his wife, Deepa Blanchard, 42, a pediatric dentist, hoping for a similar outcome. They had many reasons for leaving their rental condo in Santa Monica, he said — they’re currently trying for a baby, and they wanted to own a home that they could renovate and put their stamp on.

They also wanted to stay close to the coast. In October 2019 they settled on a 1956 ranch-style home with two bedrooms and two baths, paying $2 million. It was just a few blocks from Marquez Charter Elementary, a well-ranked local school.

“We will be able to walk our future child to school,” said Mr. Blanchard. “There’s a certain level of adulting, and peace of mind, that comes with living in a neighborhood like the Palisades, and we truly appreciate it.”

Credit…Beth Coller for The New York Times

Pacific Palisades, where Sunset Boulevard forms much of the border as it winds toward the Pacific Ocean, is one of only a few Los Angeles neighborhoods offering direct access to both the mountains and the beach. With around 24,000 residents spread across 22.9 square miles that include state parkland, it also boasts one of Los Angeles’s lowest population-density ratios.

Temescal Canyon Park and the Santa Monica Mountains form the northwest border, and many of the neighborhood’s houses are set on bluffs overlooking canyon roads or Portrero Canyon Park. Will Rogers State Beach runs the length of the neighborhood, lined by the Pacific Coast Highway.

Many residential lots are large, and many homes are set behind high hedges — including those belonging to Steven Spielberg, Billy Crystal and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine.

Some of the homes are midcentury landmarks, including the Eames House, which was part of the postwar Case Study House Program that challenged architectural norms from the 1940s to the 1960s. The housing stock also includes many newer homes, particularly in the partially gated Palisades Highlands community, near the end of Sunset, and among the less expensive section known as the Alphabet Streets, which is popular among young families.

Credit…Beth Coller for The New York Times

Palisades Village, a retail complex conceived by billionaire developer Rick Caruso, opened in 2018 with upscale restaurants, a park and high-end shops, as well as a Cinépolis movie theater, at the intersection of Swarthmore Avenue and Sunset Boulevard.

Pacific Palisades is an affluent area, with single-family homes starting at $1.6 million and running as high as $50 million. In 2019, there were 210 single-family homes sold, at a median price of $3.09 million; that compared with 228 single-family homes sold at a median price of $3.35 million in 2018, and 259 single-family homes sold at a median price of $3.15 million in 2017, according to the Combined L.A. / Westside Multiple Listing Service.

Rental properties start around $2,000 a month for a studio apartment or $6,000 a month for a two-bedroom home and reach into the five figures for an ocean-view compound.

Credit…Beth Coller for The New York Times

“Pacific Palisades has the best of both worlds,” said Dan Urbach, an agent with Compass Real Estate who works and lives in the neighborhood. “It has the mountains and the beach. It gets you just enough out of Los Angeles, while still being close enough to be fully engaged in all that it has to offer.”

Despite its high prices, Mr. Urbach said, Pacific Palisades is “a low-key bedroom community,” where neighbors gather for the annual Fourth of July Parade and trade gossip at the farmer’s market every Sunday. “There’s a lot of wealth here, but people still come for the public schools,” he said. “Most buyers have kids, so there’s a real family feel.”

The neighborhood is primarily residential, with shopping, dining and grocery stores clustered around the Palisades Village area.

And while it has its fair share of A-listers, Mr. Urbach said, the celebrities who choose Pacific Palisades over neighborhoods like Brentwood, Malibu and Bel Air do so for a reason. “It’s not as exposed, and the big celebrities who live here appreciate that,” he said.

Credit…Beth Coller for The New York Times

All public schools in Pacific Palisades are charter schools operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District. Elementary-age students attend either Marquez Charter Elementary or Palisades Charter Elementary. During the 2018-19 school year, 81 percent of third-graders at Marquez and 85 percent at Palisades met benchmarks for English language arts on the California Smarter Balanced Assessment test, compared with 43 percent districtwide and 49 percent across California. During the same year, 78 percent of third-graders at both Marquez and Palisades met benchmarks in math, compared with 44 percent districtwide and 50 percent statewide. (According to the California Department of Education, students with scores at or above benchmark levels on these tests are ready for higher-level coursework.)

Middle-schoolers attend Paul Revere Charter Middle School (technically just over the border in Brentwood Park) and high schoolers attend Palisades Charter High, where during the 2017-18 school year, 88 percent of students taking the SAT exam met benchmarks for English, compared with 56 percent districtwide and 71 percent statewide; 70 percent met benchmarks for math, compared with 31 percent districtwide and 51 percent statewide. (For the SATs, the College Board defines students as “college ready” when their test scores meet a benchmark of 480 in English and 530 in math.)

Pacific Palisades’ scenic location has a flip side: Getting in or out can be difficult. Commuters rely upon either Sunset Boulevard, which winds its way around the mountains toward Downtown Los Angeles, or the Pacific Coast Highway, both of which are often locked with traffic at rush hour. A ride downtown takes 25 minutes on clear roads, but up to two hours otherwise. The San Fernando Valley is about 30 minutes away; Culver City and Playa Vista can usually be reached in 20 minutes.

Thomas Ince, the pioneering filmmaker known as the “father of the Western,” built his massive film studio, Inceville, in Pacific Palisades in the early 20th century. Pacific Palisades was founded in 1922 by members of the Southern California Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, who bought the land. During the years of World War II, many exiles fleeing Nazi Germany settled in the area and built a community of intellectuals.

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