Increasing affordable housing stock and saving historic structures from the wrecking ball is not an either-or proposition. Unfortunately, in the case of the former Health and Human Services campus along Old Sonoma Road, there are those who would have you believe it is.

Make no mistake. As residents, neighbors, parents, seniors, employees and employers, we absolutely support infill development and workforce housing on the site. The question of appropriate density remains and should be determined in partnership with all stakeholders. But as preservationists, we believe that neighborhoods that retain and celebrate their unique and historic attributes aren’t just more aesthetically pleasing, environmentally responsible, and more enjoyable for residents and visitors – they are better long term community investments.

What makes neighborhoods, towns and city districts livable and attractive? Thoughtful design that’s sensitive to local context and that enhances our experience of the built environment. Adaptive reuse – or repurposing old buildings for new use—is a common strategy for preserving historic structures and can: Preserve local history; Define/retain/improve neighborhood character; Conserve resources and reduce waste; Serve as catalysts for neighborhood revitalization efforts; Offer developers a range of state and federal tax credits.

The historic Napa Infirmary buildings are another distinct part of our town fabric dating to 1910. These three Spanish Colonial structures and crescent drive are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and a great candidate for adaptive reuse, but the option has yet to be honestly explored.

Consultants MIG were hired by the county to provide a range of conceptual sketches at a second public workshop back in February, but offered only one possibility for retaining the century-old buildings and crescent: Flanking the complex with five-story apartments to achieve a theoretical density target. Clearly, MIG’s preservation option was designed with only perfunctory effort and was a non-starter to anyone who saw the rendering. In the end, they did the county and citizens a disservice with their polarizing presentation.

The good news is that since then, county leaders have acknowledged citizen disapproval with their demolition plans in order to maximize density on the site and have postponed the project indefinitely. Instead of rushing ahead without a clear mandate, they should now commit to vetting developer partners experienced in infill projects that involve historic resources.

Our “mini Presidio” is a perfect candidate for creative repurposing and could accommodate low-moderate income, senior or veterans housing, as well as commercial mixed-use opportunities and communal areas for future residents. The distinct crescent drive and lawn could continue to serve as a street buffer and public green/open space.

Some local examples of citizens rallying to save threatened structures with the help of visionary developers in the past include: Blue Oak School; Napa Mill; Napa Opera House; Jarvis Conservatory; County Hall of Records; First Bank Building (now Allegria); Franklin Station Post Office.

What would Napa be without these iconic landmarks? Once neighborhood eyesores/detractors, all are now cherished architectural icons adding value to their immediate neighborhood and contributing to town character and our shared sense of place. With effort and creative thinking, we can do it again.

A cursory search online of the terms “adaptive reuse” and “infill development” reveals a wide range of award-winning projects across the country reflecting just such a collaborative approach. Most, if not all, took advantage of a variety of federal and state tax credits and local grants to make their projects reality – including low income housing tax credits, state and federal historic preservation and new markets tax credits, grants/offsets from municipalities and foundation and private support.

While preserving the historic resources at the old HHS campus may add another layer of complexity to what promises to be a challenging process, it needn’t necessarily be more expensive given potential tax credit offsets and the fact that the buildings are not extraordinarily elaborate. And the quality of construction of these century-old structures should certainly factor in any cost/benefit analysis: affordable housing simply cannot be built to the same standard.

Napa County Landmarks (NCL) recently submitted an application to have the three buildings and crescent officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places to draw greater attention to this threatened resource. At the same time, NCL stands ready and willing to help explore the options afforded by the site so that a sustainable density target is met and these unique elements lend distinction to the neighborhood for another century.

For starters, let’s not regard significant historic assets as obstacles to meeting our collective need for housing. Let’s see them instead as opportunities for accommodating growth while revitalizing communities and preserving our shared past. With that approach we can unequivocally say, “Yes In Our Backyards!”

Dolcini is a member of the Board of Directors of Napa County Landmarks. She wrote this on behalf of the whole board.

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