San Rafael, California
A 1992 redesign of San Rafael’s Albert Park included plans for bocce courts. The courts, built and maintained by a local non-profit, are the pride of San Rafael, attracting picnicking families and hundreds of participants and spectators every week.
11-acre Albert Park is located in downtown San Rafael, between the business district and the residential community of Gerstle Park. The park features baseball diamonds, tennis courts, a children’s play area, and an active community center. However, over the years, an open five acre portion of Albert Park had been colonized by transients. A makeover was spurred on by local residents who attended a series of meetings about the park with San Rafael’s Director of Parks and Recreation, Sharon McNamee. These meetings formed a vision for the park, and led to the creation of a master plan which included bocce courts, a garden, a porch to link the community center to the park, two new play areas, and a creek restoration project. In a unique community-based process, separate committees were formed to facilitate the implementation of each specific element.
Early on, a bocce committee member found old photographs of Albert Park which revealed that bocce courts had previously existed in the park, adjacent to what was then primarily an Italian neighborhood. Excited to reconnect the city to its heritage, local residents formed a committee which canvassed San Rafael, going to local clubs, restaurants and shops to raise support for bocce. The Marin Bocce Federation, a non-profit organization, was formed to raise money to build and run the facility. Federation members surveyed public bocce courts in nearby Bay Area towns and were informed by visits to facilities in Italy and Switzerland by Italian community members with links to San Rafael’s sister city in Italy, Lonate Pazzolo, where many of San Rafael’s Italian residents trace their ancestry.
The city approved the proposal submitted by the federation, and provided seed money to begin construction. Carlene McCart, a parks and recreation commissioner, recalls that the group’s proposal had a number of elements that made it an attractive project for the city, including:
- The master plan placed the courts right along the street, creating activity in the most visible site in the park;
- The group had secured sponsorship and in-kind donations before the approval. The city knew that the faster this project began, the more impact it would have on the other projects being developed in the park, such as the garden and the play areas;
- Bocce appeals to all ages and types. According to McCart, San Rafael was “hungry for an adult sport that was less physical than softball or volleyball;”
- The federation wanted to “do it right” and build top-of-the-line courts that would attract tournaments and attention to the city.
Six state-of-the-art courts were built into a surrounding brick patio area. A delegation brought dirt from Lonate Pazzolo to San Rafael and mixed it into the local soil under the bocce courts and garden area. The federation installed an expensive synthetic surface on the courts that they hoped would limit maintenance, a calculation which has paid off considerably, according to Dolly Nave, vice president of the Marin Bocce Federation and its chief fundraiser. The surface also makes the courts playable year-round. “A seasonal activity would not have solved our problem,” said McCart, noting that baseball fields in Albert Park sit unused in winter. A 20 x 20 building with wheelchair access has been separated into a restroom, kitchen and administrative office by the federation.
The bocce courts were built for $450,000. Seed money ($50,000) and a $40,000 loan were provided by the city. Bricks on the patio were sold for $50 apiece. Dolly Nave used her many life-long connections to local builders and contractors, receiving cut-rate prices on building materials and donations of time and labor. The federation charges $310 per team per season to participate in the Marin Bocce Federation League; and there are three separate seasons each year. The federation also charges a small fee for court rental during open play periods. Two fundraisers every year bring in an additional $15-20,000. A concession stand provides beverages and occasionally caters meals. Nave ran the entire facility as a volunteer for the first three years it was in existence. Now the federation has hired a staffer to maintain the courts and plantings and run the league.
The courts are a major source of civic pride for the city, attracting between 400 and 600 people a week for the league, and many more casual visitors and players. There are currently 12 teams, with 10-12 people per team competing every evening of the week. Players and their families come nightly from all over San Rafael, with wine, picnics and barbecues. Seniors, who use the community center extensively, but rarely ventured into the park before, now have organized a daytime league of their own. Local politicians and city managers hold meetings at the park and show it to outsiders. Television features, newspaper reports, and a newsletter have attracted bocce enthusiasts from all over the country as well as from Europe. Expansion of the facility to eight courts will allow for world-class tournament play.
Tremendous volunteer efforts have been a significant part of the success of the bocce project, and the planning for the garden and other facilities. The community has used every connection it could muster, getting donations and support from myriad local businesses and civic groups. The city had to be extremely flexible in allowing construction to take place, since work was contracted quickly, and a great deal of authority had to be delegated to the federation.
Sharon McNamee, Director of Parks and Recreation, City of San Rafael, 415-485-3337