Chapter 5- Key Projects
Over the years, we have worked on numerous projects which all brought a variety and different types of controversy. It seems every time we did something, there would be an undercurrent of discord or a sense that we were upsetting the apple cart somehow.
Whether the project being private or public, even our best projects had periods where they became a grind. A reality is that the “controversy” became time consuming but it never deterred our drive to get things done. The results in many respects were better than we imagined!
When I actually write my book, I will detail the very many projects, but I thought I would share in this edition the two most important which I think were fun and groundbreaking for the getting Winters to where it is today.
Main Street Village:
Probably one of the leading and pioneering projects in Downtown was Main Street Village which was the vision of John Siracusa and Paul Fair.
The project started with a simple request which was to move a former school building which John had purchased from the rural part of the Winters in Solano County. The Central Lane School and John played like it was “historic.” The idea was to move the structure into Downtown and rehab it. In 2002, John had done a similar rehab and move effort with the Abbey House which he and his wife Liz turned into a bed and breakfast. The move of the Abbey House was quite a spectacle but it showed the creativity of John and the idea of finding buildings which could be relocated and bring a classic flair to business development.
The site for Main Street Village at the time was a compilation of uses. A truck and trailer storage lot, the City Parking Lot on Railroad Ave, an old ag shed for wool processing and the Penmakers Building and property owned by Elliot Landes and Al Vallecillo.
The project entailed bringing the old school building to the site, constructing a building and doing an extensive rehabilitation to the wool building. The tenants would be “a coffee shop, restaurant, offices and artist lofts.”
The portion of the project with the Penmakers Building and property was to become mixed use with housing and more commercial. An apartment building was eventually proposed but never materialized into a meaningful project. Eventually, the property was sold to John Pickerel and it is used as mostly a storage building for various Buckhorn businesses, a vegetable and herb garden for the Putah Creek Café and parking.
I would describe John Siracusa as the real pioneer in the renaissance of Downtown because he was the first to really risk the idea of expanding businesses from the Historic Main Street District block which had not seen any new construction since the mid 1960’s. John and Paul brought an unconventional approach which needed to be tested in how they pulled off this project. I will be honest, the “artist lofts” we felt would just be studio apartments and we never really understood how this artist colony would jell into a business community. John was determined and we needed to just sit back and see what would happen.
The controversy of this project came quickly when they delivered the former school building into town and placed it at the location it now sits. Literally the next day, the naysayers started chipping about the ‘eyesore” now sitting in our business core. A couple weeks later, someone broke out the windows over night. We told them to secure the location and the chain link was just not the look anyone wanted. It was a rough start.
As the project evolved, John and Paul started to deliver. Without question, John is a very creative guy who will do the unconventional which ads a coolness factor to the project. His “Wylie” smile and mischievous nature makes you a little uneasy as he describes his concepts but the reality is that John always seemed to deliver with a quality which is second to none.
The project took some time to take shape but when it started going, it became magical. The rain downspouts were copper, they preserved an oak tree by building the deck around it. John found a collapsed barn outside of town and re-used the old wood and timbers into the project. The wood floors inside the businesses were polished. They found some old railroad track under the ground and decided to re-use them as the parking stops.
Then the businesses started to arrive. Steady Eddies and Ficelle opened and they instantly became a hit. Winters had always been a cycling destination, but now with a coffee shop, it went off the hook. The food from Ficelle was excellent and gave an alternative to the Buckhorn which was very much needed (at the time, the Putah Creek Café was only infrequently open for dinner).
The risk and reward of this project has probably been more difficult than John and Paul would have ever imagined. Hopefully the emerging vitality of Downtown Winters will fill the project in due time.
Downtown and Phase I……
When it came to the renaissance of the Downtown core, probably the quietest, unassuming and most visionary of the City Council I have worked with has been Harold Anderson. During his tenure on the Council, Harold represented the City on many outside boards and commissions which gave him exposure to many of the cutting edge thoughts in urban planning. Much of that evolved through evening meetings, dinners and thought provoking presentations by groups like the Local Government Commission, Valley Vision and other advocates for the “new urbanism.”
Harold would encourage and drag his colleagues to all of these dinner meetings to learn about smart growth concepts, form based zoning codes for existing core areas, the importance of creating opportunities for higher housing densities and vertical development, “parklets” and the idea of regenerating interest in an “old downtown” by creating a pedestrian oriented/walkable streetscape. Harold was persistent in getting these ideas plugged into budgets and his subtle influence led amazing results.
Downtown Master Plan
In 2005, Harold convinced the Sacramento Area Council of Governments to grant us some funds to do a Downtown Master Plan. We got the funds, and ended up hiring an urban planner from the Bay Area named Terry Bottomley to come facilitate a workshop series on coming up with an overall strategic plan for the core Downtown. The process was to involve all of the businesses and property owners and start building a vision to make the area more pedestrian friendly, address parking concerns (ugh!), talk about rehabilitation of existing buildings and plot future business expansion.
We had really kicked many things into gear on different fronts and, frankly, I lost track of time and days with the pace we had set. As we went through the calendar, the only available day for the kick off meeting came up as March 17. It looked good on my calendar, Terry was available, so we dialed it in. As we sent out notices, people started to remind us that we had scheduled an evening meeting on….. St Patrick’s Day! Ugh, for many this is a religious holiday and we needed to make amends.
Dan Sokolow was our Community Development Director and Cas Elena our recently hired Redevelopment Manager. As we sat in the conference room trying to get through the St. Patrick’s Day meeting dilemma, I told them to just “fix it” and maybe get some snacks and drinks. Jokingly, I told Dan (he is a very straight laced non-drinker) that “we better have beer” at this function.
As the meeting night came, Dan, Terry and Cas set up the meeting and I bounced into the room a little late from a prior meeting. The Council Chamber was filled with about 25 people and there was a real positive buzz of folks visiting. As I looked to the back of the room, then Chamber Executive and future key City staff member Dan Maguire comes walking from the back with a handful of Guinness Beers and starts handing them out to attendees. People start handing him back some empty’s and others request a refresh. “Where the heck are they getting all these beers, I thought?” I walked back and sure enough, Dan and Cas had fully stocked ice chests full of beer, corned beef sandwiches and a nice selection of hors d'oeuvres . I grabbed a beer from the ice chest, went into the room and started the meeting. We were off to a really good start.
Over the course of two and a half months, Terry led us through a process which was transformative. Pedestrian and bike amenities, public art, outdoor dining, new street cross sections, a form based code for architecture, parking concepts, bikes, alley activation and locations for future buildings. Terry had a rule that once we agreed on a concept, we would not revisit it until the end, which kept us moving forward. In the end, we had the Downtown Master Plan which became our “projects list”.
Ultimately and not understating any of the future projects (which will be discussed individually later in the book) the Downtown Master Plan resulted in the, Trestle Bridge Rehabilitation, expansion of Rotary Park, the Community Center Parking Lot, Phases I, II, III and IV of the Downtown, gave architectural guidance to the Putah Creek Car Bridge, 27 façade improvements and a real sense of purpose and quality for how we would move forward. Ultimately, the Hotel Winters.
I always preach my “base hits” mantra and we were doing just that. We did the Downtown Street Lights, Little League Lights, just activated the City’s first traffic signal, lots of street projects and were doing things pretty well. I felt really good at this point and with the new master plan we needed to think about swinging for the fence on some items. I had some really good staff and we decided to go for it- let’s do a first phase of the Downtown Street Scape Program- Ground Zero became Main St and Railroad Ave.
Phase I and “The Hole”
“Phase I” involved a pretty radical redefinition of what Downtown would look like. We would completely re-do the Main/Railroad Intersection with brick pavers, narrow the street, provide areas for outdoor dining, create “spaces” for people to sit and enjoy the ambiance and it would construct a new parking lot by the Community Center.
The Planning and City Council processes to get Phase I through were painful to say the least. The hue and cry of “ruining the Downtown”, staff being “anti-agriculture” with the narrowing of the intersection (how are we going to get the corn combines through town?) and, of course, you are eliminating 4 parking spaces in the core block. One thing about Winters is that the members of WAVE are consistent with never talking about the possibilities, they are the “Chicken Little’s” of the community who can never find a positive aspect to any proposal.
One aspect of the process to note came from our Redevelopment Manager, Cas Elena which I think was critical. During the design phase, she took a stand before the City Council that we needed to use “real brick” versus concrete pavers. It would add $100,000 into the project costs but would create a higher quality feel to the streetscape. The naysayers challenged the idea of trying to be “to fancy” and escalating costs. Cecilia Curry, who was on the Planning Commission at the time, backed Cas and made an argument for enhancing the image of our Downtown. When it got to the City Council, it was decided, real communities have real brick!
The project was let to bid in the late summer of 2008. The proposals come in and the contract is awarded to Maxicrete, led by Winters resident Dave Rodriguez who would be the foreman with KO Construction of Winters as the lead subcontractor. It could not have been better news, with Winters interests leading the project.
The project involved the complete excavation and replacement of the Main/Railroad Intersection. This would involve replacement of all utilities, the pour of a giant concrete pad, then the installation of a new brick roadway. It also involved the removal of all sidewalks and frontages in front of the Buckhorn and Putah Creek Café with the installation of seat walls and patio construction. “Easy!”
Dave and Joe Ogando hold a business meeting at the Putah Creek Café one evening to announce “the plan”. They have decided that to do the project correctly, they would completely close the intersection, detour traffic and do it all at once. As Dave said, “we are going to tear the band aid off all at once and get it done!”
The next morning, the calls are non-stop with the idea that we are closing down the entire Downtown. “How could you even thing about doing this?” I met with the project team and they were firm on the strategy. Tearing the band aid off was the best alternative and they needed me to support it. I gave the green light and off they went.
Within the next week, the excavators came in and the project was off and running. Everything was torn out along Railroad Ave, including trees and hardscape. Then, the intersection and up comes the chain link fence, k-rail and the flashing lights.
Oh, and did I mention the YEAR? Yup, this is 2008 and the damn economy decides to melt down while we are in process. The Great Recession decides to crash in on us and the worst hit were restaurants which were closing all over the region. Just at the time when we decide to throw up a chain link fence and block the entrances into both the Café and the Buckhorn. Our timing was perfect!
One of my most cherished photo’s is a picture taken in front of the Buckhorn at about 2:00 am and it is just a big hole in the ground. It was an important hole and defines a lot of the risk and reward which leaders and businesses face in their decision making almost every day.
The key aspect of the brick installation is the pour of a concrete slab underneath. You have the concrete, then a sand cover and then the brick goes on top. You excavate, pour, sand then lay the brick.
Dave and Joe put together a 24 hour a day construction schedule to knock the project out. The big nights were the final excavation and grading which would essentially tear out the front of the restaurants. The concern was doing excavation next to 100 year old buildings and the timing to the businesses could reopen the next days. No messing around, they needed to get in and out in one night.
This was a big deal so I decided to stay out all night with the construction crews. The intersection is completely lighted, the tractors and crews are working hard and they move in to start the Buckhorn. They are not messing around as they dig in and it is me, John Pickerel and Joe Ogando standing there watching. As they dig they bring up garbage from the 1898 Earthquake, they hit some unmarked pipes and they keep on going but they hit a snag and John, Joe and I watch as the workers start re-evaluating strategy. The freak out factor at this point is very real.
John is calm but nervous. He takes out his cell phone and snaps a couple pictures. The thoughts running through my head are some spurts of panic and doubt. There is complete silence and all I can say to John is “I hope all this works?” John shared a couple expletives and we each walked to different parts of the project for a bit.
A couple days later, John brought me one of the pictures he took of “the hole.” I have kept it on my shelf since that day.
This project helped us embrace the idea of doing things in an unconventional manner. Some examples which we implemented:
- When we closed the intersection, an older gentleman named Frank Ramos who ate breakfast at the Café each morning could not walk through the detour. The construction crews would allow Frank to drive into the construction zone, they would help him into the café, then take his car and park it and bring it back when he was done.
- We rented this oversized golf cart which seated 9 people and the City Staff took turns shuttling people from the parking lot to the restaurants. People LOVED it and it gave us a change to ad some hospitality to the many visitors.
- Signage is really important and we probably had 5 iterations. We made fun of the disruption and it made people laugh.
I need to recognize the people who I think really got the Phase I project done. The contractors included Dave Rodriguez, Joe and Cole Ogando and an entire slew of guys from Winters. The project literally defines us and if not for the care of these guys and the quality of workmanship people would have a different view of us.
The Ogandos are an amazingly talented family and I think they really came through for us on this one. Dave Rodriguez brought this totally crazy excitement and made the project special. Dave passed away a couple years ago and I told his sons at the service that his legacy lives on every day in Downtown Winters.
Nick Ponticello, Alan Mitchell, Dan Sokolow, Cas Elena, Dan Maguire, Shelly Gunby, Carol Scianna, Nanci Mills and Dawn Van Dyke from the City Team were amazing. From the design to funding to construction, they are the ones who brought this project forward. I tell folks how blessed I feel to have worked with some really good people, and on Phase I, this is the team who got it done!