As businesses evolve in a never-ending effort to remain viable, how much impact should neighbors and the community be expected to handle? And what level and what kind of benefits should the community expect in return?
There are no easy answers to those questions, which are playing out all around the Napa Valley, most recently with the Culinary Institute of America’s request to increase enrollment at its Greystone campus and expand its dorms on Pratt Avenue.
The project is part of a broader shift at the CIA, which is expanding its programs to Copia in Napa. The new site will offer consumer-friendly programs such as culinary boot camps, but some of those programs will also continue to be offered at Greystone, which will also still host industry conferences such as Worlds of Flavor, Premiere Napa Valley, bASH and Flavor Napa Valley.
The big change is the expansion of the not-for-profit college’s actual college operations. The CIA wants to increase its permitted enrollment from 200 to 300 and become more of a “food university,” according to Managing Director Tom Bensel, who visited our board along with Anne Girvin, the college’s manager for marketing and communications.
Those additional students have to live somewhere, so the CIA is proposing to demolish the old Marlinda convalescent home and build new dorms on its Pratt Avenue property, for a net increase of 123 beds and a total of 224.
That’s drawn the ire of neighbors, who are protesting the building’s size and the impact on traffic, water, wastewater, noise, parking, etc.
Our board is usually pretty good at hearing evidence and formulating an opinion. But on a project this complex and impactful, we’re nowhere near consensus, even after an hour-long interview and a lively half-hour board discussion.
Here are the pros and cons, as we see them.
PRO: The project is crucial to the long-term viability of a world-class educational institution that enhances St. Helena’s reputation for culinary excellence, produces skilled workers for the local economy, and spends upwards of $3 million a year to maintain the historical treasure that is the Greystone building. Bensel says he has no fall-back proposal in case this one is rejected.
The CIA attracts visitors from all over the world to St. Helena. Bensel says the CIA contributes more than $2 million a year to the St. Helena economy, and he says that won’t change even with the expansion to Copia. We don’t know enough to ascertain whether that’s true, but we take him at his word – and we’ll hold him to it if the project goes through.
Finally, it makes practical sense to house college students in dorms rather than some of the most expensive rental housing in California. The CIA rents seven apartments in Napa and nine homes in St. Helena, and Bensel is understandably looking forward to getting out of the housing business.
CON: The dorms’ impact on neighbors is heavy and undeniable. While a shuttle will transport students between the dorms and the campus, there will be more cars trying to make dangerous left turns from Pratt onto Main. The intersection already has a “level of service” grade of F, and the new dorms will only make things worse.
The request for two variances (for parking and front setback) is highly unusual for a project in St. Helena, and deserves close scrutiny, as does the CIA’s claim that the dorms cannot be reasonably constructed on the campus site. The CIA is proposing 103 fewer parking spaces than required by city code. The CIA says not all students bring their own cars, but you can’t blame neighbors for being skeptical.
The dorms are quite massive, especially for a residential/agricultural neighborhood outside the city’s urban limit line: three stories tall and 40 feet high for the buildings farthest away from Pratt.
Finally, neighbors describe incidents of vandalism and other disturbances associated with the students at the current dorms. That’s not surprising – these are college students, after all – but it has to be taken into consideration.
We’re not taking a position for or against the project, but we’re applauding the Planning Commission for taking a two-week breather after hearing three hours of reports and testimony on Feb. 21. A project this complicated deserves a deep, thorough discussion. And regardless of how the commission votes, you can count on this being appealed to the City Council.
How much should neighbors have to endure in order for a business to stay viable?
We’re no closer to an answer than we were before. But it’s a question we’ll have to grapple with, over and over.