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Napa delays downtown Dwight Murray Plaza overhaul

Dwight Murray Plaza’s new, 21st-century look will have to wait some more.

A long-planned overhaul of the public square in downtown Napa is being put on hold due to rising construction costs and fears of disrupting local businesses over the summer, the city has confirmed. Instead, the renovation – which the City Council approved nearly two years ago – is likely to begin over the winter of 2018-19, Mayor Jill Techel said Wednesday.

Heavy demand for construction teams around the Bay Area has made Napa’s original price tag of $1.5 million unrealistic, she conceded.

“Given the budget constraints, the City is revisiting the design to identify areas that could be redesigned including selection of material type that can work within the construction budget,” John Ferons, senior civil engineer for the city, said in an email.

“The concerns are twofold,” said Techel. “One, all the bids were really high and the project was over budget; and two, we’re getting toward the end of the winter season so we’re trying to be responsive to the businesses that are out there.”

Any building work at Dwight Murray Plaza, on First Street west of Main Street, could affect several nearby businesses, including at least four restaurants – Jax White Mule Diner, Don Perico, Napa Noodles and Ristorante Allegria – that face the square on three sides. The plaza also connects to the Brown Street pedestrian mall, a corridor leading visitors to the Kohl’s department store and a city-owned parking lot.

Napa officials have begun contacting restaurateurs, property owners and the Downtown Napa Association merchants’ group to learn what construction schedule will cause them the least interference, according to Ferons.

A co-owner of Allegria said the delay in remaking Dwight Murray Plaza has left him uncertain about how to plan for the future, and even about how many seats will be available at his restaurant.

“The thing is, we thought we were going to lose some of our patio” to construction, said Rodi Yildiz, who opened Allegria with his brother Baris in 2002. “We thought they would start this summer and we took reservations according to that – but now it’s another year (later).

“It’s challenging, not knowing what’s going to happen, how much of our patio we were going to lose,” he said, pointing to uncertainty about how much outdoor seating he can offer during the busy summer months.

Public works directors for several years have sought an update to the square, which Napa opened in 1974 with hopes of transforming it into the city’s prime public gathering place downtown. The project endowed the site – where the early 20th-century Migliavacca Building had been torn down – with a sunken, stepped seating bowl covered with then-fashionable brick-colored pavers, as well as a stone waterfall fountain and a 70-foot-tall clock tower of timber beams studded with light bulbs.

Time, however, was unkind to the landlocked and street-bound plaza, which gradually lost out to river-facing Veterans Memorial Park as a hub for downtown events. The clock tower drew scorn from residents for its quirky appearance and balky timekeeping before finally being removed, and Napa converted the fountain into a planter box after mischief-makers repeatedly dumped soap into its basin.

A project designed by Oakland-based Bottomley Design & Planning and approved by the city 2016 would leave few traces of the public square untouched. The seating pit would be filled and replaced by a light-colored, single-level surface, London planetrees would be added for shade, and parasol-topped tables and chairs provided.

As a visual centerpiece, Dwight Murray Plaza also is to receive an art installation, “Veil of Water,” designed by the Sonoma County artist Ned Kahn. The piece would occupy the center of the square and include a ring-shaped canopy strung with several thousand aluminum tiles, which would catch the breeze and create a reflective effect suggesting rippling water.

Kahn’s 50-foot-wide, 15-foot-tall artwork replaced earlier plans for a floor-mounted central fountain that was meant to encourage children to play among its flumes while also creating event space when turned off. The city dropped the water feature after learning that a 2013 state law reclassified so-called “spraygrounds” as public swimming pools, which are required to include permanent restrooms for separate genders on the premises.

AmeriCorps youths help Enchanted Hills recover from Napa fires
J.L. Sousa, Register 

AmeriCorps NCCC worker Drew Johnson sands a door at Enchanted Hills Camp on Wednesday. AmeriCorps workers are helping to rebuild and repair damage the camp sustained in the Oct. 2017 wildfires.

Thirteen young adults from other parts of the nation are spending three months amid the charred Mount Veeder landscape helping a camp for the blind heal from the Nuns Fire.

These AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps team members are becoming disaster recovery pros. They previously spent time stripping flood-drenched homes in Texas down to the studs in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Now they’re washing and painting smoke-damaged buildings and constructing a small barn at Enchanted Hills Camp in the mountains northwest of the city of Napa. The goal is to have a section of the 311-acre property ready for campers this summer.

The young men and women come from different states and different life situations. Some have gone to college, some have yet to attend. They joined a federal community service program with about 80,000 participants annually.

Caroline Miller, 18, said that, whatever their diverse backgrounds, the team members at Enchanted Hills want to help.

J.L. Sousa, Register 

This locker room and bath house at Girls Town at Enchanted Hills Camp was destroyed in the Oct. 2017 wildfires.

“Our hearts are in the same place,” she said.

The Nuns fire charged down Mount Veeder on Oct. 10 through parts of the Enchanted Hills property. Part of the lower camp still has a smoky smell. Camp buildings there are heaps of wreckage near blackened trees.

AmeriCorps participants do little fire recovery work in the lower camp. Experienced contractors overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will haul away the burned-out structures.

The fire wreaked far less havoc in the upper camp, where many buildings remain. That’s where the AmeriCorps group is hard at work. On Wednesday, team members began putting up the framing for a two-donkey barn.

Wood for the barn comes from fire-damaged redwoods, Miller said. A local resident has a portable mill and turned the wood into lumber. The barn’s tin siding will come from a building destroyed in the fire.

J.L. Sousa, Register 

AmeriCorps NCCC workers Marcus Long, left, and Joseph Molea cut lumber for a donkey barn at Enchanted Hills Camp on Wednesday morning. A group of AmeriCorps workers are helping repair damage at the camp from the Oct. 2017 wildfires.

All of this makes the barn a kind of Nuns fire destruction recycling project.

Miller comes from a rural Virginia town, and prior to her AmeriCorps experience had never traveled west of West Virginia. She applied for AmeriCorps in part because a friend had gone through the program and Miller saw how the experience changed her.

“She changed – especially just the slowness of her temper,” Miller said. “The way she talked to other people. We’re breathing, living, cooking with the same 12 people for a whole year.”

The team members are living in surviving Enchanted Hills Camp buildings.

“We only get off the mountain area every two weeks,” Miller said. “We’re kind of everything for each other.”

J.L. Sousa, Register 

Girls Town at Enchanted Hills Camp sustained severe damage in the Oct. 2017 wildfires. Workers from AmeriCorps NCC are helping to rebuild some of the camp.

Tynia Goldensoph, 23, comes from Wisconsin and has one semester left at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.

“I wanted to take a break, to do something positive and productive before I decide what to do after college,” she said.

Both Goldensoph and Miller remember seeing news reports last October about the Napa fires. The team was assigned to the Hurricane Harvey recovery in Texas, but Goldensoph said members had a hunch they could be headed to California next.

J.L. Sousa, Register 

AmeriCorps NCCC workers are helping Enchanted Hills Camp rebuild following damage it sustained in the Oct. 2017 wildfires. Some of the workers are seen building a donkey barn.

Enchanted Hills Camp has hosted AmeriCorps teams during the winter for several years. The teams usually concentrate on making camp improvements, such as finishing deck railings and working on horse trail fencing.

AmeriCorps wasn’t going to come to Enchanted Hills this year, though. The need was too great in Florida and Texas in the wake of hurricanes.

“Once the Northern California fires took place, all of a sudden we became an emergency area,” said Anthony Fletcher, the camp director. “So they were able to send a team to help with our cleanup project. We’re extremely grateful for that.”

That relationship built in past years with AmeriCorps paid off. Fletcher said AmeriCorps contacted Enchanted Hills Camp to see if help was needed.

J.L. Sousa, Register 

A melted bunk bed frame is seen near one of the cabins that was destroyed at Girls Town at Enchanted Hills Camp in the Oct. 2017 wildfires.

AmeriCorps participants receive something in return for their 10 months of service. Miller said they earn a $6,000 education award. They earn a $150 stipend every two weeks. Their room and board is covered.

Some rewards transcend the material.

“It’s really nice to be doing something important every day with your two hands,” Miller said.

Enchanted Hills Camp is run by LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. A history provided by the group says Enchanted Hills was founded in 1950 as the first camp for the blind west of the Mississippi River. It offers such confidence-building opportunities as exploring trails and creating team skits.

J.L. Sousa, Register 

Elias Lynch, an AmeriCorps NCCC worker, assembles a donkey barn on Wednesday morning. A number of Americorps workers are helping Enchanted Hills Camp rebuild following damage it sustained in the Oct. 2017 wildfires.

Thanks in part to the AmeriCorps team, Enchanted Hills could be back in action on a limited basis within a few months. Fletcher said the first session could be a summer camp for blind babies and their families starting June 15.

At one point, the AmeriCorps team left the Enchanted Hills property and hiked to the top of nearby Mount Veeder, where the fire was at its destructive worst. Miller said the landscape looked like a black-and-white movie, with no green.

In contrast, Enchanted Hills Camp still has areas of green grass and trees mixed amid the black. The AmeriCorps volunteers living in the fire zone are not faced with unrelenting bleakness.

“This part of the camp is pretty intact,” Miller said as she stood near the donkey barn site.

And it will look even better when the AmeriCorps team finishes its work on April 6 and heads off to another work site, wherever in the United States that might be.

J.L. Sousa, Register 

Tynia Goldensoph, AmeriCorps NCCC worker, carries lumber at a construction job at Enchanted Hills Camp on Wednesday. Workers are helping rebuild parts of the camp that sustained damage in the Oct. 2017 wildfires.

Finding solar farm sites a challenge in Napa wine country

Solar power could be coming to Napa County to feed the power grid with renewable energy, though photovoltaic arrays are unlikely to gobble up vineyards.

Various public and private buildings are already powered by arrays on rooftops and carports and in fields. From Napa Valley College to the Napa Sanitation District plant to schools to private homes, solar panels are a common sight.

Now a developer wants to do something bigger and install solar panels at two local sites to generate power to sell to Marin Clean Energy (MCE). J.R. Killigrew of MCE said the projects combined could generate six megawatts by year’s end.

“It’s the equivalent of powering 2,000 homes,” he said.

MCE provides renewable energy to various Bay Area communities – including Napa County and its cities—using PG&E’s transmission and billing system. If the two local projects come to fruition, Napa County will create renewable energy for MCE.

But where would the two proposed solar farms go in Napa County, where land for development is tight? Killigrew said MCE is bound by confidentiality not to reveal this information or the identity of the developer.

MCE officials said they would give the developer the Napa Valley Register’s contact information. As of Friday, the developer had yet to call. It was unclear if the developer has made a formal application with a local community.

Killigrew did say the arrays would be on private land. It takes five acres to generate a megawatt, he added. That indicates a total of about 30 acres are needed in areas near transmission lines.

The rural county is a possibility for solar farms. Napa County allows electric generation plants in any zoning district with a use permit. But top grapegrowing sites would seem to be out, given land prices and local sentiment.

Solar farms can also be in cities, such as the 10-megawatt MCE Solar One farm at the Chevron refinery in Richmond. They can be on the rooftops of airports, such as at San Rafael Airport.

But whether any of this applies to the proposed Napa County project is unknown at this point.

“This is a Bay Area company that’s developing it,” said David Potovsky of MCE. “I heard they plan on hiring locally. It’s land that sounds like it wouldn’t be used for anything.”

The idea of building a Napa County solar farm to generate electricity for the power grid isn’t new. Finding possible places to put one has led to creative thinking.

For example, a closed dump doesn’t have much competition for other uses. The county in 2010 approved having a 6.7 megawatt farm with 25,000 door-sized panels on the old landfill near American Canyon that is owned by the Napa-Vallejo Waste Management Authority.

“We had a tentative deal that didn’t work out for financing reasons,” said Richard Luthy, executive director of the waste management authority. “Since that time, the board has decided to take a little time to see how the solar market is playing out.”

Installing a solar array on top of a landfill is a different proposition from other sites, Luthy said. The landfill settles. It has pipes for collecting methane gas.

The authority recently installed a 55-kilowatt solar system on the landfill to provide power for the landfill flare station. The array, which Luthy said cannot be readily seen from the hiking paths around the landfill, started working late last year.

“It’s kind of an experiment for us,” Luthy said.

So the American Canyon landfill remains a candidate for a commercial solar project, with nothing apparently on the horizon.

A wastewater retention pond is another place that doesn’t have development competition. The Napa Sanitation District has a mile- by half-mile system of ponds near the airport industrial area.

Last year, the Napa Sanitation District Board of Directors held a closed session to discuss a possible deal with a company that specializes in floating solar farms. It took no action.

Another site mentioned as a solar power candidate is the former Homestake Mine in the remote mountains of eastern Napa County. The gold mine closed in 2002 and is now part of the University of California’s Natural Reserve System.

A 2015 MCE document said the Homestake Mine could have a large-scale Napa County project – 125 megawatts, enough to power 40,000 homes.

“I think that’s the Holy Grail because it’s an enormous size,” Potovsky said. “Once you get to that site, you can really build an affordable project.”

County Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht represents Napa County on the MCE Board of Directors. He sees possibilities for Napa County to contribute renewable solar energy to the grid.

“If you have some other value for the land, you’re probably going to use it for some other value,” Wagenknecht said. “But if you have some piece of land that isn’t valuable and it’s not going to produce anything for you, solar can be an answer.”

If someone has a large rooftop area that isn’t bringing in any money, they can put solar on it, he said.

“Why not?” Wagenknecht said.

MCE has its “feed-in tariff” program to encourage solar projects. The program provides predictable energy prices for small-scale renewable energy developers over a 20-year contract.

Those solar farm projects that MCE officials mentioned at the unidentified, two Napa County sites would be under the feed-in tariff program.

“We’re very happy there are some projects coming to Napa,” Potovsky said. “We’ve done a significant number of projects in Marin and Contra Costa counties. We haven’t done anything in Napa County.”

Historic registry
Two homes may be dropped from Napa's historic preservation list

For two houses in Napa, historic status may not last forever.

The Napa roster of historic architectural resources may become shorter Tuesday, when the City Council decides the fate of a pair of homes built in the early 20th century. One of the homes, in the “alphabet street” neighborhood west of downtown, has been boarded up and empty since the 2014 earthquake and may be razed as a safety hazard. The other home on Yount Street stands to lose its landmark status due to what officials have called a snap judgment carried out more than two decades ago without any further research.

Homes and buildings on Napa’s inventory of historic properties receive extra scrutiny when their owners apply to expand or modify them. Such work requires Napa’s Cultural Heritage Commission to grant a certificate of appropriateness, which affirms the construction will not sacrifice a building’s historic character.

Currently listed on that registry is a two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot Craftsman-style cottage, built around 1910 in the 2200 block of Georgia Street a block south of Lincoln Avenue. The gabled front roof, porch and side-entry stairs mark it as a symbol of Spencer’s Addition, an early Napa neighborhood that evolved from the early 1890s until World War II, according to Rick Tooker, community development director.

But the South Napa quake severely damaged the wooden cottage, and it has remained unoccupied and red-tagged as unfit to enter. Antiquated building techniques – including short “cripple walls” enclosing a crawl space but not the full height of the structure – have left the home uninhabitable without radical repairs that would cost more than the house’s value, Tooker wrote the council in a memorandum.

If Napa removes the site’s historic status, the homeowner will demolish the home and build a replacement closely modeled after it, according to Tooker.

A city ordinance allows historic buildings to be delisted if heavy damage from a “catastrophic event” causes them to become “a hazard to public health, safety or welfare.” In November, Napa’s heritage commission also endorsed replacing the Georgia Street residence rather than repairing it.

The other building that may become non-historic is a light blue, picket-fenced 1,155-square-foot Victorian-style house in the 900 block of Yount Street, part of an odd neighborhood mix that includes a warehouse immediately east, the Jarvis Conservatory annex to the west and New Technology High School across the street.

Napa added the Yount Street cottage to its historic resource list in 1997, but only on the basis of a consultant’s quick and unscientific “windshield survey” two years before, wrote Tooker.

A fresh review of the property last August cast further doubt on the home’s historic significance. Although it was built around 1900, the additions of a garage and carport have removed it from its original appearance, and its design and craftsmanship are not distinctive, wrote Mark Parry, an architectural historian endorsed by the state Office of Historic Preservation.

Removal of the Yount Street house’s historic listing would free its owner to elevate the structure to add more living space and an attached garage, according to city staff.

Although a building’s placement on Napa’s historic inventory is meant to protect it from excessive modification, properties previously have been taken off the list. One of the largest such changes took place in 2008, when surveys of five older neighborhoods led to the purge of 407 sites from the landmark roll, according to Tooker.

Also on Tuesday, the City Council will review the planned widening of a block of Trower Avenue in north Napa.

The upgrade would involve 300 feet of the road west of Linda Vista Avenue and add a sidewalk, parking shoulder, bicycle lane, curb, gutters and buried utility lines to the eastbound lane, mirroring fixtures already in place on the westbound side. A new central turning lane would separate the two existing lanes.

To gain the 22 feet of extra width needed for the improvements, Napa plans to acquire pieces of four residential parcels on Trower’s south shoulder, according to Public Works Director Jacques LaRochelle.