Off Route 101, between B Street and Lindaro Street
San Rafael, CA
Contributed by Project for Public Spaces
Six outdoor bocce courts, surrounded by cafe tables, planting beds, and a food kiosk, helped make this 11-acre park a thriving community place.
Located along the edge of Albert Park, the bocce courts have become one of the main centers of outdoor activity in San Rafael. Stewardship has increased in the park, resulting from the innovative design process used by the parks director: A once-unused area now has people who care for it, because local residents were involved in the entire process of revitalizing the park. Not only did they select bocce as a new use for the park, but they also helped to install the courts at greatly reduced cost. Now, the area is maintained by the Marin County Bocce Federation, and nearly every evening groups gather to play bocce, have picnic dinners, and socialize. People also bring cuttings from their yards to donate to the planting beds.
History & Background
Albert Park occupies a spot in downtown San Rafael between the business district and the residential community of Gerstle Park. The park has baseball diamonds, tennis courts, a children's play area, and an active community center. But over the years, a five-acre portion had been colonized by transients. A makeover was spurred by local residents who attended a series of meetings 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 undertook each element of the plan. Early on, a bocce committee member found old photographs of Albert Park that showed bocce courts in an area adjacent to what was then primarily an Italian neighborhood. Excited about reconnecting the city with its heritage, local residents canvassed San Rafael's 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 Italian-Americans with links to San Rafaels sister city in Italy, Lonate Pazzolo (where many of San Rafael's Italian residents trace their ancestry) provided information from visits to Italian facilities.
The city approved the proposal for bocce courts and provided seed money to begin construction. The proposal had a number of elements that made it an attractive project for the city: the courts were sited along the street, creating activity in the most visible part of the park; the federation had secured sponsorship and in-kind donations before the approval, allowing this project to have a quick impact on other park improvements; bocce appeals to all ages and types of people; and the federation wanted to build top-of-the-line courts to attract tournaments and attention to San Rafael. Six state-of-the-art courts were built into a surrounding brick patio area, with a wheelchair-accessible building providing a restroom, kitchen and administrative office for the federation. An expensive synthetic surface for the courts has paid off considerably by limiting maintenance and making the courts playable year-round.
Indeed, 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. Twelve teams, with 10-12 people per team, compete every evening of the week. Players and their families come from all over San Rafael, with wine, picnics and barbecues. Seniors, who use the park's community center extensively but rarely ventured into the park before, now have 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 and from Europe. Expansion of the facility to eight courts will allow for world-class tournament play.