Back from bankruptcy, Orrin Thiessen plans Graton housing project

Orrin Thiessen is proposing to develop 10 houses and a park in Graton on the site of the Graton Community Garden. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)


Sonoma County designer and builder Orrin Thiessen, who already has left his imprint firmly on the village of Graton, is planning a new residential project there — his first building venture since emerging three years ago from a bankruptcy tied to his previously extensive development business.

Thiessen’s proposed housing project would include 10 tightly packed, two-story houses, leaving space on the corner of the 1.4-acre property for a long-sought community park on which he is collaborating with local supporters.

But Thiessen, whose fortunes rose through a series of imaginative urban revitalization efforts that include the distinctive Town Green Village in central Windsor, has to operate a little differently these days, facing new financing hurdles in the wake of financial collapse.

Thiessen said he expects to be seeking private financing for his Graton project, anticipating reluctance on the part of lending institutions to provide construction funding. He said he also may build in phases, if money is tight.

“It’s a little bit like starting all over again,” Thiessen said.

He said he and his wife and business partner, Terri, have been working in the time since their life took an abrupt turn and they lost so much — suspending ambitious projects intended to redefine Forestville and Cotati and surrendering dozens of properties worth millions of dollars to resolve their 2011 Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

They also had to sell their rural home and property a few miles west of Graton, though the couple now lives in a smaller house on the site as caretakers.

Thiessen said he’s returned to contracting, and they’ve kept their business going on landscaping jobs, remodels, interior design work and the like. They have set aside enough money to pay for the $460,000 Graton site, a mostly vacant lot a block off the main drag used in part by the local community garden.

He said he’s confident his proposed Green Valley Village will reach fruition, and he’s excited to be doing the kind of creative work involved in conceiving and designing a project to fit a particular site and community.

“That’s what I love to do,” he said.

Thiessen’s work portfolio includes the $160 million Windsor Town Green project — a mixed-use development of 270 homes and 100 commercial units started in 2001 — and Harmony Village, a conversion of Harmony school in Occidental into a living and working space. The Thiessens donated the school’s multipurpose room to the Occidental Center for the Arts.

His work also defines Graton’s main business district, centered on a block of Graton Road he renovated in the late 1990s — quietly buying up buildings and renovating and rebuilding them using architectural details and profiles he observed in photos from 1905, when downtown Graton was first built, and 1916, when it was rebuilt after a fire.

Thiessen is credited with breathing new life into what had been a dilapidated downtown, where businesses like Willow Wood Market and Cafe now flourish, giving Graton a new identity as a destination for locals and tourists alike.

Thiessen once owned the same property now eyed for his latest project. The grass lot sits behind the popular Underwood Bar and Bistro and is bounded by Bowen, Shirley and Edison streets, and a gravel alley on the north.

When he learned the property on which he had once hoped to build homes and a park was on the market again early this year, Thiessen matched the highest bid in order to reacquire it.

The plan includes a row of 10 small units ranging from 1,100 to 1,600 square feet. Two units would be built through sweat equity under contract with Habitat for Humanity, Thiessen said. Thiessen also hopes to win approval for granny units above four garages, further addressing west county’s severe housing shortage, he said.

The homes are designed for limited environmental impact, with graywater systems, drought-tolerant landscaping, uncompacted soil and roofing angles to suit solar panels. He hopes to sell some units and keep a few for rentals.

Thiessen also is seeking to subdivide the land so a corner of it currently used for the well and storage tanks for the water system serving downtown Graton can be deeded to the water provider.

The other undeveloped corner is to be remade as a public park in conjunction with the Graton Green Group, a nonprofit that has been in search of a community park site for most of the last decade.

Thiessen has agreed to sell the park site to the nonprofit, which just launched its fundraising campaign. The estimated sale price is $180,000. The group plans to apply for a matching grant from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District that would cover half the cost.

Thiessen said his contribution will be the cost of the studies completed for the overall project, as well as bare-bones infrastructure like irrigation, electrical outlets and pathways that will permit the park to be usable right away.

“It’s really a sweetheart of a story,” said Graton Green Group president HolLynn D’Lil.

The property has the advantage of adjoining a seasonal drainage ditch, with mature oak trees along a county-owned frontage that will enlarge the feel of the park.

Thiessen said he will likely file his application for subdivision and permits beginning next week, and hopes to break ground next spring, depending on how the county approval process goes. He already has met with Tennis Wick, the county planning director, who he said advised him to complete all necessary studies at the get-go.

Wick said county agencies “will give it a critical eye,” but said it’s also clear the proposal would help fill needs for scarce, affordable housing.

“Not surprising with Orrin, it’s a very thoughtful project,” Wick said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.