From a Depression-era risk to multimillion-dollar homes
Photo by Tim Porter
“I thought you were crazy,” neighbors often tell Belvedere’s Bill Rothman. They’re referring to his protests against America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he has led every Friday afternoon for the past nine years—from a prominent corner in Belvedere, no less. “But now I agree with you,” they often add when walking away.
Rothman is Belvedere’s token gadfly. His favorite attire is a worn pair of denim bib overalls, and for kicks he drives his 1908 Stanley Steamer through town, leaving billowing plumes of white behind him. Oh, and he raises chickens on the land surrounding his multimillion-dollar home that has breathtaking views of Richardson Bay, Sausalito and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Belvedere and Rothman are two of a (very different) kind. For years, Rothman has been of the opinion that the Pledge of Allegiance should not be recited at the start of city council meetings. “First of all, I don’t believe in God,” he says, “and I’ve always felt the pledge had a childlike quality to it.” Now, when attending council meetings, as he often does, Rothman remains silently seated. Meanwhile, the Belvedere city council continues (and pledges) to do what it maintains is best for Belvedere.
The town of just over 2,000 residents is one of the smallest and most conservative in Marin County—with registered Republicans just a few percentage points behind the Democrats (36.2 percent to 36 percent, as of 2009). In another rarity for Marin, almost 97 percent of Belvedere’s residents are white. (Overall, the average in Marin County is about 80 percent.) The town’s per-capita income of $113,600 ranks it first in the U.S. for cities with populations of over 1,000. While Belvedere’s city limits encompass 2.4 square miles, almost 80 percent of the town is—pardon the expression—underwater; with just over half a square mile being dry land.
Belvedere was first settled in the 1890s and incorporated in 1896; it opened its post office a year later. How and why did the town come about? One word: Fog. San Francisco had it; Belvedere did not—and city folks wanted an escape. Therefore, the Belvedere Land Company was formed and began selling lots—sunny side up—on the island that was just 30 minutes by ferry across the bay. Don’t forget, back then there was no Golden Gate Bridge, and only a narrow dirt road all the way out the Tiburon Peninsula to Belvedere, and to nearby Tiburon, which was a rough-and-rugged railroad town.
In fact, to keep its residents from having to shop in Tiburon, a small downtown—which was made up of a market, drugstore, soda fountain and hotel—was developed in the neighborhood where the still-thriving Belvedere Land Company and the always-active San Francisco Yacht Club now reside. “It was in 1935 that my grandfather bought the Belvedere Land Company,” says its current president, the affable Jim Allen. “The purchase included some apartments, an office building and about 200 acres of land—half of which was bay mud.”
Allen acknowledges that his granddad was strongly advised against the purchase. “The Depression was on, and a world war was looming,” he points out. “The purchase was in the $250,000 range, which for then was a lot of money and a huge risk.” Now, well—suffice to say Belvedere is some of the priciest property on the planet.
“And I love it to death,” affirms Kathy Perasso, a young Marin mom of six-year-old Kelly and wife of lawyer/consultant Claude. “Ten years ago, I came kicking and screaming from San Francisco,” she continues. “Now I feel we have the best of both worlds: I see the city and can get there in minutes, and I live in paradise.” High on Perasso’s “things to do in Belvedere” list are weekends at the Tiburon Peninsula Club,
entertaining friends at home and supporting her daughter’s school. “Reed School not only has outstanding teachers,” she says, “but creative
administration.” To express her appreciation for Belvedere’s excellent schools, Parasso, an interior designer, is co-chairing this year’s Reed Regatta, the spectacular fundraiser staged in a massive white tent on Blackie’s Pasture that hopes to raise $200,000 for the Foundation for Reed Schools.
With that million-dollar segue, let’s discuss Belvedere real estate. “Frankly, it’s rather slow,” says Jean Cromwell of Frank Howard Allen Realtors in adjacent Tiburon. “However, that’s great news for buyers.” Overall, according to Cromwell, prices are down about 20 percent from previous highs, and there are currently 31 active listings and five properties in escrow. And while Belvedere’s “buy-in” price is still above $1.5 million. “There’s a nice three-bedroom on the Lagoon for $1.9 million listed for sale,” she says. Cromwell notes that there are three homes priced at over $25 million and one at $19.5 million.
Regarding her own five-bedroom listing, a $3.65 million home on the Belvedere Lagoon, Cromwell exclaims, “It’s a beauty—a perfect floor plan on a big lot! Every room you’d want to be on the lagoon, is on the lagoon.” Her parting words: “Spring is always the best selling season.”
Even in multimillion-dollar Belvedere—where over 75 years ago much of the town was purchased for “around $250,000”—that just might be true.