The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence performed a study for the Association of Bay Area Governments, one component of which was identifying examples of how recently completed infill parks were financed. We will be publishing each of the four case studies (see the first one here), with Windsor Town Green as our second case study.
Windsor, a town of 27,000 almost 30 miles north of San Pablo Bay, is the site of one of the newest central parks in the Bay Area. Interestingly, the Windsor Town Green grew not from the needs of a park-starved citizenry, but from a community’s desire to reclaim a largely abandoned downtown, provide a public gathering place – and, not least, compete with nearby towns for Sonoma County wine country tourists.
Even before Windsor incorporated in 1992, there was momentum behind the idea of transforming the underutilized downtown area into a public plaza. That vision, first articulated by Sonoma County in 1986, remained in place after incorporation and served as the foundation for turning the downtown, once a wine processing and railroad hub, into a true walkable civic center anchored by shops and residences.
Windsor decided to develop the Town Green, as well as its new municipal center, on the grounds of a vacant junior high school campus, thus fortunately eliminating any opposition from neighbors. Owned by the Sonoma County Office of Education, the 21-acre site was broken into two parts and sold — 7.5 acres of buildings to the town (for a new town hall), and 13.5 acres to a private developer, subject to a town planning process.
In 1999, after the exact location of the Town Green had been selected, the Windsor Redevelopment Agency purchased the 4.84-acre park site for $1,142,670, which included more than $450,000 in matching grants from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation Open Space District. The remaining funds came from the agency’s capital fund, which is replenished by the collection of the tax increment in the growing area. Two years earlier, the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District had acquired another small part of the property to protect a stand of historic oaks. The remainder of the land has been (or is in the process of being) redeveloped for housing and retail around the park.
Finding a private developer willing to gamble on a unique project in an area of traditional subdivisions was not easy, even with the redevelopment agency spending $2,900,000 to build the park, widen sidewalks, bury utilities, and improve the surrounding streets.
“The town had been promoting the concept of mixed use for a long time,” says Senior Planner Rick Jones, “but no one was willing to take the risk” on a new urbanist development. Finally, in 2001, a developer named Orrin Thiessen took the plunge. In addition to the park, Windsor provided Thiessen with some other incentives. He was given the right to develop his three properties at higher densities than code allowed, and also to encroach on sidewalks for restaurants and commercial use. He was also given an expedited planning review process and reduced parking requirements. By now, almost 14 acres of colorful three-story townhomes with commercial space below have been built.
The Town Green itself features a stage, covered pavilions, a playground, a plum tree orchard, a fountain, reflecting pools, and a historical time-line walk. (The historic oak grove is directly adjacent.) The park, as well as the adjacent restaurants and businesses, are supplied with a Wi-Fi network. In 2008, a community member offered to help underwrite the expansion of the stage, which is now outfitted with a sound system, used for the numerous programs held on the green. Programming is varied and popular, and all events are free. The Summer Nights on the Green concert series is expected to attract 40,000 attendees in 2011. Other regular summer events include the Farmers Market, Tuesday Night Kid Movies and the outdoor Shakespeare Theater on the Green.