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Brannan Stables can and should be saved

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I was surprised and saddened to read in the Feb. 4 issue of The Weekly Calistogan (City approves Grant Street apartment/condominium project) that the Calistoga Planning Commission recently approved the demolition of the historic Brannan Stables with “a unanimous vote of support" to make way for a 50-unit condominium/townhouse complex that a Concord construction company wants to build on the site instead.

City manager Mike Kirn’s answer to historical advocate Dean Enderlin’s concerns about this decision is that although he appreciates Enderlin’s position, “The city must respect the individual rights of the property owner and apply industry standards of care when considering development proposals.”  

Of course it is true that the city must respect the rights of property owners, but in my view the owners also have a reciprocal responsibility to understand and respond to the history, community values and context of the city and community that they seek to develop their project within.

I think we also understand that it is important to increase housing opportunities in the area, especially more affordable options, thus the cultural price, as well as the financial price of a development on a particular site must also be taken into consideration. 

Kirn says that a historical evaluation concluded that this development “will not affect a historically significant resource.”  This is a very different perspective from those who are well versed in Calistoga’s history and the importance of preserving it. The historical assessment Kirn refers to was done by Clark Historic Research Consultants of Santa Rosa in 2007.  It would be important to know more about who commissioned and funded this study, why it was done, and what level of research and expertise went into the effort. My hunch is that there are probably many other Calistogans that would disagree with the study’s conclusion and, perhaps even more would disagree if they knew more about it.

There are many success stories about preserving the past of our unique little jewel at the top of this valley. Look at the old Hospital, now splendid again and a famous hotel, and what about Indian Springs, wrestled back into its charm and glory over the last many years? The Calistoga Depot, too, is now entering another new and exciting era.

Everything cannot and should not be saved. It takes careful judgment and consideration to decide what it truly worthwhile, valuable and possible to preserve, but this should not be clouded by mere profit, convenience or a lack of creativity or vision.

Sam Brannan, who named this Saratoga of California also created a race track after that namesake, with a stable filled with fine horses that ran that track, owned by legendary historical figures such as Leland Stanford, James Lick, Mark Hopkins and more. It’s amazing it’s still there, behind a stucco covering and hidden from sight. There could be sensitive, visionary commercial development on that site, along with added housing, and it is almost guaranteed that the success and acclaim of that development would rest on and be enhanced by its connection to Calistoga’s past.

I think that the decision by the Planning Commission may demonstrate its misunderstanding of the often surprising position in history that Calistoga holds. For instance, have you read about our connection to the Bear Flag Republic? Just ask historians like Kathy Bazzoli or Dean Enderlin to tell you about this remarkable tale. Ben Sharpsteen, along with many other community members, understood the value of Calistoga’s legacy. After moving to Calistoga when he retired from his position as one of Walt Disney’s very first animators, Sharpsteen and many volunteers worked tirelessly to create a museum that could help people visualize and understand this precious commodity. They had vision and the creative will to organize and focus the efforts to manifest it, so that others could understand it. Many other Calistogans have recognized these attributes of place and worked to preserve and celebrate them.   

Great and meaningful development can both enhance a valuable cultural artifact for the community and be profitable. Do not be convinced that this project on this site will not affect a historically significant resource — this is just not true. Good community-minded development requires creativity and grit and lots of thought and energy to come up with new approaches and solutions. It also requires open minds and compromise. We need the long view; it’s worth the effort.

Please open this discussion to authentic public comment and documentation before final approval and please consider how important this “humble” stables really is. How wonderful it would be for future citizens to have a greater glimpse into how unique Calistoga really was, and is, and to see the places of the past integrated even more into the future of our town.    

Jan Sofie

Sofie Contemporary Arts, Calistoga

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