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Napa tries to bring a little traffic relief to busy Highway 29 section

Frustrated motorists may find driving in coming weeks a little more bearable along the Highway 29 traffic signal gauntlet of Salvador, Wine Country and Trower avenues.

Changes came earlier this year with a new Napa Valley Vine Trail segment sandwiched between Highway 29 and adjacent Solano Avenue. Trail users cross Salvador, Wine Country and Trower avenues and traffic lights were added to help them do so safely.

The result: drivers complained that the new signal timing regime caused them more rush-hour delays on both Highway 29 and Solano Avenue.

Noting that Caltrans controls the traffic signal timing along this highway stretch, city officials agreed to work with Caltrans and a traffic consultant to see if something could be done.

Caltrans discovered some of the vehicle detection loops in the pavement needed repairs, city Deputy Public Works Director Eric Whan said. Those loops are being fixed.

“That’s a step in the right direction,” Whan said this week.

Vehicle detection loops allow traffic signals to work on demand. Otherwise, signals can go through green light cycles even though no cars are waiting to pass through an intersection.

Such a situation could be observed along this Highway 29 section recently. An empty southbound Highway 29 left turn lane onto Trower Avenue had a green light, causing northbound Highway 29 traffic to sit at a red light for no apparent reason.

The detection loops need to be working for the traffic signals to function properly, Whan said.

The next step is trying out an adjusted timing pattern for the traffic signals based on simulations and traffic modeling. The goal is to create the optimum traffic flow and avoid undue delays for any one direction.

Whan said that this tryout could happen during December.

“We’re going to take a look at that and see what that does,” Whan said.

This section of Highway 29 handles about 48,000 autos on an average day, according to Caltrans. Salvador, Wine Country and Trower avenues cross the highway within just over a half-mile. Six signals – three along Highway 29 and three along the Solano Avenue frontage road – must be in sync.

A wildcard to traffic signal timing is when the Napa Valley Wine Train passes by, forcing Trower, Salvador and Wine Country cross-traffic to sit longer than usual. The new Vine Trail crossings are yet another twist.

“It’s an extremely complicated timing,” Whan said. “That’s what we’re working through. We’re working through all the factors and working with Caltrans and seeing what we can do to make things work better.”

Napa Mayor Jill Techel acknowledged the problem at a recent Napa Valley Transportation Authority meeting. She said making crossings safer for the Vine Trail users had an unintended consequence.

The next few weeks could bring some relief, though to what degree remains to be seen.

“The big message is, ‘We get it,’” Whan said. “There’s an element of frustration (among drivers). We understand the importance of trying to fix the problem and trying to make it the best we can.”

Public Art
Without controversy this time, new public art installed at Archer Napa hotel

A new piece of public art has been installed in a prominent location on First Street, adjacent to the newly opened Archer Napa hotel.

Napa artist Gordon Huether was commissioned by the hotel developers to create the piece, called The Basket.

The artwork is meant to serve as “a focal point and wayfinding element” to the entrance of the downtown hotel, said a news release from Huether. It’s located immediately north of the new hotel on First Street in a small plaza area.

“I’m thrilled” to be a part of Napa’s growth and creating “a gateway into this new part of downtown,” Huether said.

“We’re excited about the Napa installation not only because of the piece but also because it represents the progress of the hotel and the rest of the project towards completion,” said Mike Daood, president of LodgeWorks Partners, owner and developer of Archer Napa. The hotel, located at 1230 First St., was estimated to cost $70 million.

The hotel is one part of the redevelopment of First Street Napa, formerly known as the Napa Town Center.

Huether said completing an installing on such a large project “is like having a baby.” The process “was particularly long and painful because of The Hand debacle.”

Huether and LodgeWorks originally intended to install a sculpture of a giant orange-yellow hand holding a clear orb at the Archer.

Called “The Hand of the Land,” the proposed artwork generated heated debate about its prominent location on First Street, the design of the sculpture itself and the choice of Huether as the artist.

After public outcry, the plan for The Hand was dropped.

In an interview this week, Huether reflected on the controversy over The Hand.

“I’m not sure what that was about,” he said. “Somehow it got personalized because it was me. Apparently I am on a list of high-profile citizens of the community… and an easy target. I’m still perplexed by it all, to tell you the truth.”

And what became of The Hand?

Huether had the sculpture made and it is now prominently displayed at his studio on Monticello Road.

The Hand was replaced by The Basket, a 22-foot sculpture, which incorporates horizontal woven aluminum bands and inset dichroic glass panels that refract light colors.

Installed last month, the artwork weighs about 400 pounds, Huether estimated. It was made at his Monticello road studio, which was not affected by the Atlas Fire, he said.

Huether said he took inspirational cues from the hotel’s design when conceptualizing the new sculpture. According to the artist, the concept for The Basket was inspired by the indigenous peoples of Napa Valley who were known for the artistry of their basket-making.

Huether said his intent was to honor and remember these artisans with the sculpture’s basket design, while integrating broader, fundamental human themes, the values of the Napa community and the interwoven experiences of an interdependent community.

Napa’s municipal code requires a public art element for commercial construction projects that cost more than $250,000. The cost of the art must be equal to at least 1 percent of the project’s construction costs. Huether estimated that The Basket cost around $225,000.

According to a news release, Huether’s knowledge of Napa culture “and broad experience in creating site-specific art installations with a distinct contemporary aesthetic resulted in his being selected for this unique sculptural project.”

Huether previously collaborated with the Archer team on a suspended art installation for its New York City property.

Criminal Justice
Suspect charged with murder in crash that killed 2 Napans

MARTINEZ — A man arrested in connection with a deadly hit-and-run crash that killed a Napa father and his 14-year-old son was charged Wednesday with four counts of murder, according to county prosecutors.

In addition to the murder charges, Sacramento resident Fred Lowe, 47, faces charges of drunken driving and felony hit and run, on top of several enhancement charges that could add to his sentence. And court records revealed that Lowe has previous convictions for driving under the influence, and a prior strike related to a robbery conviction in Solano County.

Lowe was arrested after he allegedly crashed a blue Mercedes into a white Nissan sedan while going eastbound on Interstate 80 near the San Pablo Dam Road exit around 8:10 p.m. Saturday. The Nissan lost control and went over the center divide and into the westbound lanes, where it overturned.

The four victims were passengers in the Nissan and were related to Jared Horn, a UC Berkeley sophomore from Napa who pitches for Cal’s baseball team and was driving his family back from a father-son basketball tournament. His father, Daryl Horn, 50, 14-year-old brother, Joe, uncle Troy Biddle, 52, and cousin Baden Biddle, 13, of Bainbridge Island, Washington, all died at the scene of the crash.

Jared Horn was the only one in his car to survive the crash. He was hospitalized with serious injuries but returned home Sunday, police said.

On Tuesday night, friends of the Horns held a candlelight vigil in north Napa and walked to the Horn home to show their support for the grieving family. Many were members of Napa Little League or students at Redwood Middle School where Joe Horn was a student

Lowe immediately drove from the scene, but Contra Costa Sheriff’s Deputies recognized his car and arrested him a short time later, authorities said. He was arrested on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter, but prosecutor Derek Butts — who filed the charges Wednesday afternoon — said Lowe’s history of driving drunk, as well as “the nature of the collision and his driving prior to it, and the flight from the scene, and the high alcohol content in the defendant’s blood,” all added up to murder.

“That all showed what we look for, which is such a high degree of recklessness that it displays implied malice, which supplies the necessary mental state for a second-degree murder,” Butts said.

Murder charges are uncommon but not unheard of in cases involving a fatal car crash. The standard for a murder charge in a DUI crash was set by the California Supreme Court in 1983, in a ruling over a 1979 homicide where the defendant drove drunk through city streets at twice the posted speed limit, and ran a red light before colliding with a car and killing two people at the next intersection.

To prove murder, prosecutors must establish that the driver should have known his actions had a high potential to kill someone, experts say.

Authorities say the collision was one of the most deadly in Contra Costa’s history, but crash statistics weren’t immediately available. The county’s worst fatal crash happened in 1976, when a school bus full of honor students from Yuba City overturned while getting off the freeway in Martinez, resulting in the deaths of 28 children and one adult.

Lowe remains in jail on $4.2 million bail, according to jail records.

Tour shows condition of St. Helena facilities, warts and all

ST. HELENA — In a tour that was called depressing and enlightening, members of the new St. Helena Assets Planning Engagement (SHAPE) Committee got their first look last month at the city’s public facilities.

Sights like a red-tagged elevator at the flood-prone Carnegie Building, hours-old roof leaks at the Corporation Yard, and hazardously sloped floors at the police station underscored the difficulty of the task facing the committee assigned with assessing St. Helena’s public facilities and making recommendations to the City Council.

Deteriorating buildings suffering from decades of deferred maintenance are only one piece of the puzzle. There’s also the question of how to use them most efficiently.

The Head Start building at Crane Park is occupied for only eight weeks a year, the Carnegie Building has been reduced to a venue for exercise classes and recreational programs, and the tenant who leases a city-owned office building on Railroad Avenue is vacating the building at the end of the year. Meanwhile, in a cramped City Hall, cubicles are awkwardly installed in an area that used to be reserved for printers, which have been relegated to a break room.

City employees who led the tour pointed out various problems, starting at City Hall, which is plagued by a meandering floor plan, poor insulation, accessibility problems, inadequate storage, outdated heating and cooling units, code violations involving electrical panels and roof access, and chronically overflowing sewer lines.

A bathroom shortage occasionally sends City Hall workers to Lyman Park in search of relief. The overall lack of space is so severe that the committee’s meeting had to be called to order in the break room, since the building’s only conference room was being used by financial auditors.

The building’s exterior walls are stained by moss, lichen and rainwater that can’t be corralled by the gutters. On the roof, a black tarp covers a plywood wall to prevent leaks.

Inside the police station, cinder block walls make it impossible to hide wires and cables, which instead snake across the walls and ceilings. A hand-painted cardboard sign warns “Caution Uneven Surface” over a visibly slanted floor.

Police Chief Bill Imboden assured the committee that the sign was “not a joke.”

“I’ve had employees fall flat on their face walking through here,” he said. “It’s caused some injuries that have caused time off.”

The city’s Railroad Avenue property – home to the Teen Center and an office building — has been floated as a possible site for a new police station. Adventist Health, which had been leasing the office building, is moving out at the end of the year, leaving the future of the building uncertain.

Meanwhile, the city’s recreation staff have been trying to make better use of the adjacent Teen Center. Since only six to eight teens visit the center on a regular basis, staff moved the teen activities to a separate game room and converted the main building into a headquarters for the parks and rec department, which had been split between the Teen Center and the Carnegie Building.

That leaves a lot of unused space at the Carnegie Building, where an elevator installed as part of a seismic retrofit in 2010 has caused endless headaches. On three occasions, people have become trapped, due to water entering the basement and activating the elevator’s emergency shut-off feature. One city employee had to stand in calf-high water for hours until she could be rescued from the elevator.

“We thought we’d figured out (the cause) of the first two, which were rain events,” said Carlos Uribe, Public Works maintenance manager. “Then we got one in August.”

A track system was installed to divert water out of the basement through a pair of sump pumps, but the elevator has still been red-tagged as unsafe to enter.

The lack of a working elevator prevents the building from complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act, which rules it out as a venue for public meetings. However, the SHAPE Committee could evaluate other uses for it – factoring in a quirky floor plan that makes it hard to use the building efficiently and bad windows that need to be replaced.

Perhaps worst of all was the Corporation Yard on Charter Oak Avenue, where temporary trailers installed after the 2005 New Year’s flood have turned into permanent offices for Public Works staff.

Committee members arrived to discover two major roof leaks that had occurred during the previous night’s storm: one leaving large coffee-like stains on the floor of a common area and the other soaking a desk in Uribe’s office. Uribe said the leaks occur every year at the seam where the two temporary trailers are joined.

The low-lying yard is susceptible to flooding from Sulphur Creek. Every time the creek threatens to top its banks – most recently last year — city employees scramble to evacuate the city vehicles that are stored on the property, or else risk having them destroyed or cut off from the rest of the city during a disaster when they’re needed the most.

The flooding risk is bad enough, but even during heavy rain the low-lying areas in the center of the yard where the vehicles are stored become “one big puddle,” Uribe added.

The tour also included stops at the firehouse, Scout Hall, the secondary fire station on Dowdell Lane, the library and the Signorelli Barn, which is used for storage.

Submitted Photo 

Daryl Horn and his younger son, Joe, pose for a Napa Little League photo.