Cob oven puts a finishing touch on Bolinas park

David Briggs
On Sunday Alethea Patton, John Glavis and Michael Bunch laid cob, a mixture of soil, sand and straw, on a barrel oven now available for use in the pavillion at the recently transformed Burnt Park.
06/27/2013

The latest incarnation of a parcel of land in downtown Bolinas long known as Burnt Park received a finishing touch this weekend as volunteers installed a steel barrel oven covered in a natural building material called cob. Though the long-term maintenance plan for the lot remains unclear, the park has come a long way.

The roughly 50,000 square-foot lot was purchased by the Mesa Park Board with funds from Michael Moritz, a Welsh venture capitalist who owns a house in town, from Ernie and James Tacherra. The Tacherras had owned the land since 1971, a few years before the lot’s former owner burned down a restaurant on the site during a bout of psychosis. 

The park’s new manifestation, designed by Bolinas landscape architect Alethea Patton, was selected after several town meetings were called to discuss the parcel’s fate. Other ideas ranged from a full-fledged children’s park to a convenience store, according to John Glavis, a member of the roughly 12-person design committee that manages the park.

“One of the real questions was, ‘Okay, who’s going to use this and for what purpose’? We had a real strong contingent that wanted basketball hoops and playgrounds for children. The Mesa Park already has that… We kept coming back to sustainability,” said Mr. Glavis as a crew of muddied volunteers scooped handfuls of cob—a mixture of soil, sand and straw—onto the new oven, which will have its inaugural use this Fourth of July.

When Ms. Patton presented her design to a crowd of 70 at one meeting, “There wasn’t a single naysayer in the crowd. The only thing they said is, ‘Do it,’” said Jack Siedman, who chaired the park board when the money was donated and has remained close to the project since stepping off the board in 2010.

Mr. Glavis, who also runs BoTierra Biodiversity Research Center and is an advocate of sustainable food systems, stressed the importance of the oven’s placement downtown. “Having a fire at the center of a community, having a hearth, is a very important symbolic and central theme of re-localization,” or creating independent and sustainable communities, Mr. Glavis said.

Mr. Siedman and current park board president Charles Whitefield admitted that there were a few detractors. “There are always a few naysayers, they say, ‘It’s too upscale, it’s too fancy, it’s over-the-hill-ish,’” said Mr. Siedman, who went on to explain that Bolinas can be resistant to change but that he has generally not heard much negative feedback.

“There is a small vocal minority who just hate the park, but most of those people are in the park everyday,” Mr. Whitefield said.

The new park, which received a coastal permit in 2010, features short granite retaining walls at the foot of the hill that also serve as seating; a pavilion where the oven is located and which features a sloping canopy of unfinished wood; and public restrooms. Mr. Siedman explained that the improvement project used soil to create a gentle crest on the parcel so that it would drain properly and no longer be so vulnerable to flooding. 

A small tugboat for children to play on, which will be a float in the Fourth of July parade, will be installed in coming weeks.

Other original aspects of the plan, such as storm-water barrels to collect rain runoff, are on hold due to a lack of funds. 

Leftover money from donations and the sale of one of the three water meters that came with the property is being used to fund maintenance for two years, to provide the park time to formulate a long-term plan for upkeep. (Funding for Mesa Park and the downtown park is kept separate.)

Mr. Whitefield estimated that it would cost roughly the same amount that it costs to maintain Mesa Park—$25,000 a year—to maintain the new park, roughly half of which would go to payments for the public toilets.

Busy weekends that bring surfers and other tourists to the tiny town have long taxed the nearby Bolinas Community Center, which has become the de facto spot where both tourists and locals evacuate their bladders and bowels. 

The center receives about $1,500 annually from the county to help allay the cost, but it only covers a small portion, according to the center’s development director, Randi Arnold. She added that she hasn’t noticed any decrease in bathroom use at the community center since the installation of the park bathrooms last fall.

Mr. Whitefield said his committee is “hoping and praying” they will be able to secure future funding for maintenance. Measure A, which will provide some amount of funding to parks in Marin for nine years, is one possibility. But precisely how that money will be apportioned park-by-park has not been decided yet, and Mr. Whitefield said that the park would ideally not rely on tax money. “It’s not funding that you can necessarily count on,” he said. 

Mesa Park lost parcel-tax funding in late 2012, when the $49 tax supporting operations was not renewed, falling short of a two-thirds majority by less than half a percent. Mr. Whitefield said Mesa Park is now completely operating on reserves and may have to close if the tax, which the board hopes to get on the ballot later this year, is not reinstated. 

Mr. Whitefield also said that since tourists also use the downtown park, perhaps the cost should not be completely borne by residents. Sourcing enough donations to establish a trust or create an endowment that could fund the park in perpetuity is another idea.

For now, the small team volunteering on Sunday labored on the rainy June day to cover the steel oven in cob, which is just like adobe except that it is plastered in a single layer instead of being dried in bricks. The volunteers mixed the material with their bare feet on blue and brown tarps by stomping on the mixture, then grabbing a handful and placing it on top of the steadily growing wall of cob. 

“You’re literally sowing the layer above into the layer below,” Michael Bunch, a former Bolinas resident who helped organized the building of the oven’s cob exterior, explained as he dug his fingers into the wet mixture. 

Although some of the details of how the oven will operate are still being hammered out—including whom interested parties should contact if they want to utilize it—it will be available for either public events or private gatherings and will remain locked when not in use. But Mr. Glavis was firm that it shouldn’t be overtaken by a commercial interest.

“We’re frowning on someone coming in and making this a commercial thing, but if someone wants to come in one day and make 40 loaves of bread [and sell them],” that might be possible, especially since there is no bakery in Bolinas, Mr. Glavis said.