The cars roll into Napa County every weekday morning like a shifting tide, slowly seeping along Highways 12 and 29 by the tens of thousands to their drivers’ jobs in the valley.
As they cross over the Butler Bridge, some glance north to an expanse of concrete nestled along the east banks of the Napa River that’s dotted by a crane. Most eyes will behold no beauty in the site, a remnant of the county’s industrial past where scores of Napans once worked in steel production. But thousands may one day call it home.
It’s Napa Pipe, the 154-acre site that could be home to one of the largest — and most controversial — development projects in county history. Where the Kaiser Steel plant once stood, the site’s developers want to build 2,050 residential units, plus markets, restaurants, parks, offices, a hotel and other commercial space.
On Monday, the Napa County Planning Commission will meet at 6 p.m. at the Little Theater at Napa Valley College to hear public comments on the proposal. Almost certainly, complex, competing visions for the site will unfold.
The developers, Napa Redevelopment Partners, envision creating the kind of dense, walkable, urban neighborhood found in San Francisco or New York — something far different from the single-family tracts that dominate in Napa.
They push the project as an effective means of stemming the tide of traffic on south county highways by providing commuters with housing that’s closer to jobs.
“We’ve created all these jobs,” said Keith Rogal, the public face of Napa Redevelopment Partners. “We’re a magnet for all these people. Are we really going to tell all these young people, ‘We love having you here, we just don’t have the space for you to live here?’”
Slow-growth advocates see a development whose eventual population would be equal to or greater than St. Helena or Calistoga, and would bend long-standing growth-management and land-use policies.
Approving the project would require an exemption to Napa County’s annual cap on the number of residential building permits and would allow the site to use the groundwater beneath it, contrary to the county’s stated preference that groundwater be used for agriculture and for those living in rural areas.
Union locals for electrical workers, plumbers and sheet-metal workers lament the prospective loss of a key site from the county’s industrial past, and advocate leaving it untouched in the hopes that industry will once again take root there.
As part of a pro-industry campaign, supporters will begin planting yard signs urging officials to kill the project, said Eve Kahn, chairwoman of Get a Grip on Growth and an organizer of the movement.
Napa County planning staff is attempting to reach a middle ground by putting 700 to 945 residential units on the western half of the site, while the eastern half would remain reserved for industry.
That proposal has drawn critics who say the residential component would be too small for the site to support the retail and amenities needed to keep cars off the road, and question whether it’s too small for the developers to turn a profit.
In the six years since the project was first proposed, the question remains: Which vision for the property fits best? On Monday, the Planning Commission will begin to try to form its answer.
After the public comment period, which may extend beyond one hearing, the commission will debate whether to approve General Plan and zoning ordinance amendments allowing the project’s construction.
After that, the Board of Supervisors would take up the issue, but no dates have been determined. Board Chairman Keith Caldwell pledged in January that the board would tackle the issue this year.
In lobbying for the project’s approval, Rogal wields demographic statistics, which he believes demonstrate the need for Napa Pipe.
Rogal said the U.S. Census Bureau is projecting that by 2020 the number of young adults in their 20s and elderly adults in their 70s in Napa County will increase, while the number of middle-aged adults will decrease. That demographic shift, he argues, needs a complementary shift in housing: away from the single-family home tracts, which account for 92 percent of all homes in Napa County, and toward Napa Pipe’s higher-density housing.
Napa Pipe’s units would range in size from studios to three-bedroom units, although almost half would have two bedrooms. They would be assembled in a mix of rowhouses, condominiums and apartments with a density of 33 units per acre; 80 percent would be sold at market value, while 20 percent would remain as affordable housing. The site would also have a 150-unit facility for seniors.
As a way to reduce car trips for residents, the project would offer:
• 40,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space oriented toward the riverfront that would serve the neighborhood;
• 50,000 square feet of office space, transit and shuttle access;
• River access for water taxis and boats;
• 56 acres of open space and public trails.
Rogal said Napa Pipe represents a way for residents to simplify their lives by reducing the size of their homes, possibly losing a car, yet remaining connected to their community and their jobs.
“It’s a huge change, and a really satisfying change,” Rogal said. “That’s really the essence of Greenwich Village and the Italian hilltowns — the great neighborhoods we hear so much about.”
He pictures a resident’s potential day at Napa Pipe like this: A young mother wakes up and enjoys tea on the back patio, looking at a garden. After feeding her baby, she walks to a fitness and spa center to do some yoga, soaking in views of the river to the west and the gently rolling hills to the east.
After that, she puts her child in a stroller and boards a water taxi, which ferries her to work in downtown Napa. She rides the same taxi back to Napa Pipe in the evening, and on the way home she stops to pick up some groceries. At home, she meets her husband, who recently arrived on a bicycle from his work, and they eat dinner.
Girding Rogal’s vision are other statistics that he believes further demonstrate the need for Napa Pipe.
Using Census Bureau data, Victoria Eisen, a consultant for Napa Pipe, estimates that 28,800 commuters drive into the county every weekday morning for jobs, the majority coming from Solano and Sonoma counties. That’s almost half of the county’s total workforce of 61,000 people.
Eisen concluded that within a 15-minute drive of Napa Pipe, the county had a pool of 43,637 workers earning enough annual income to afford to live there.
“These people are already here,” Rogal said. “We’ve had all this economic growth but we’ve had so little housing growth. You look at ‘What do people need?’ The ideal housing type is not a large house on a huge lot.”
The project’s vision of a dense, urban, walkable neighborhood that would prevent sprawl and shorten local commute times led the Greenbelt Alliance to throw its support behind the project, said Marla Wilson, a field representative for the agency.
“We just think it makes a lot of sense,” Wilson said. “It can really be something positive for Napa County.”
Wilson said her organization doesn’t support the planning staff’s proposal of 700 to 945 units and questioned if the reduced size would be able to support the proposed neighborhood retail.
“It’s not really doing anything for anybody sitting there,” Wilson said. “It’s industrial land. ... It will be an area that the county will cherish.”
Numerous individuals and groups are lined up to oppose Napa Pipe. They disdain it for its size and because of how it would affect growth-management policies. The project would draw upon groundwater beneath it for some of its water, and use recycled water and other sources as well.
Sandy Elles, executive director of the Napa County Farm Bureau, said her organization opposes Napa Pipe because of the residential use of groundwater, which contradicts a county policy stating that agriculture and rural areas would be the preferred users of groundwater.
“It is a conservation policy that should not be overridden,” Elles said. “Groundwater has historically been used for agriculture.”
Elles highlights another reason for opposing the size of Napa Pipe — an expectation that state mandates for housing in Napa County would be lower in the future.
The planning staff’s smaller proposal also highlights this. For its current cycle, the county received an allocation of 651 units, but expects that to be smaller, possibly 370 units, for the next cycle, which runs until 2022.
“They’ve finally given us lower numbers,” Elles said. “Now that we’ve achieved that paradigm shift, now we’re saying, ‘Oh, we want to build a large, mixed-use development’?”
Elles said that the project would result in more traffic congestion, not less, and disagrees with the developer being able to exempt the project from the county’s cap on the number of residential building permits that can be issued annually. The planning staff’s proposal would avoid needing that exemption.
“It’s incomprehensible,” Elles said. “Their proposal would actually exceed by 2,000 percent the annual growth rate proposed by (the Association of Bay Area Governments).”
Kahn, of Get a Grip on Growth, said the site is a poor choice for housing, given its presence in the unincorporated area of the county, and its need for police, fire, school and sanitation services that would have to be extended to it.
She said industry is the most logical choice, and the labor union locals representing electricians, sheet-metal workers and plumbers in Napa County agree. The groups prefer the site remain industrial, but acknowledge that a mix of housing and industrial, as the planning staff version proposes, could also work there.
“It seems that the site could very well provide for manufacturing or industrial jobs in the future,” Kevin Coleman, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 180, said in an email. “We are convinced that the Napa Pipe project is a bad idea.”
Brett Risley and William McIntyre both worked at the site in the 1980s, when it was owned by Kaiser Steel. Risley, who was fresh out of high school and working as a machinist, remembers a site optimal for industry because of its river and rail access, and ample water supply.
Oregon Steel purchased the site and operated it until 2004, when it closed and was sold to the developers.
McIntyre, who worked as a welder, wants that industrial potential to be reached again.
“Look at what you have there,” McIntyre said. “You have access to the ocean. You can produce things here and you can send them to Europe, you can send them to Asia. There has to be some industrial momentum going. Manufacturing just can’t be gone from this country.”
Rogal said that vision would worsen traffic, and doesn’t make sense, given the need for workforce housing.
“It will be built out as something,” Rogal said. “If it’s all industry, that generates much more traffic into the peak traffic hours.”
Rogal said Napa Pipe would act as a valve to relieve development pressures in other, more critical areas of the county, such as the Agricultural Preserve.
“Napans don’t support the conversion of agricultural land,” Rogal said. “We’re suggesting that this takes the pressure off that. The only people who have to be materially affected by this are the ones who opt in. If one doesn’t want to live in a place like this, there’s no problem. We’re not putting this in your neighborhood.”