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McGrath & Brenkle apartment buildings under construction on McCorkle Avenue

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Construction on Joe McGrath's project on McCorkle Avenue

Construction was underway last August at Joe McGrath’s eight-unit apartment complex on McCorkle Avenue.

Walking down eastern McCorkle Avenue is difficult these days. Two eight-unit apartment buildings are under construction at the same time: Our Town St. Helena’s Brenkle Court and Joe McGrath’s 632 McCorkle project.

Brenkle Court is a “sweat equity” affordable housing project — the future residents contribute their labor, possibly stretching out the construction timeline. The St. Helena City Council approved the Brenkle Court Apartments in December 2017 with no neighborhood opposition.

Resident Elizabeth Goelz said it’s not easy living on the street.

“On any given morning there is at least one very large hole in the street either in front of the Brenkle project or 632 McCorkle project due to utility work,” Goelz said. “We often have to make an appointment with the contractors to be able to get out of our driveway and drive down the street. There are multiple cars from the already existing apartments sprinkled up and down the street and on Monday and Tuesday there are at least 25 garbage cans on the street. Everything on the street is covered with a thick layer of dirt and we’ve had to call the city and insist that the dirt be sprayed with water to keep the dust down.”

Upon entering the McGrath project, Joe McGrath, in work clothes and a tool belt, introduces himself. A St. Helena High Class of 1983 graduate, McGrath has a bachelor’s degree in architecture but has worked in the tech industry. He left tech in 2011 and invested in multi-family projects in Calistoga, St. Helena and Fairfield. His new project consists of two-bedroom apartments (projected rent $2,400) and three-bedroom units (projected rent $2,800). If all goes well they will be ready to rent next April.

But not much has gone well for McGrath since he held the first neighborhood meeting in April 2016 for what was then a 10-unit apartment building. Neighbors were concerned about parking, density, traffic, overcrowded units, and drainage (McCorkle Avenue has no storm drains). McGrath reduced the number of units to eight and promised a property manager would have strict oversight over other concerns. In December 2016 the Planning Commission approved a demolition permit and design review. Because the project didn’t require a use permit, the city attorney did not allow discussion of issues related to California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

In 2015 the state Office of Housing and Community Development required the city to make the changes as a condition of approving St. Helena’s 2015-2023 Housing Plan, which was adopted in May 2015. According to the Star, multi-family projects in high-density zoned areas (such as the north side of McCorkle Avenue) on affected parcels will no longer require a use permit, but they will still be subject to the city’s design review process and to environmental review under CEQA.

This is where the McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group (MENG) and the St. Helena Residents for an Equitable General Plan (SHREGP) enter the stage. Charging that the city did not follow the General Plan, CEQA and its own ordinances, the two groups appealed the December 2016 Planning Commission decision to the City Council.

On Jan. 24, 2017, the council denied the appeal. The lawsuit is about the city’s failure to follow CEQA requirements and its own city ordinance, said a representative of the groups.

According to SHREGP, there is no state or local agency that enforces the CEQA law. The only way to appeal a city’s CEQA decision is through the courts, so SHREGP lawyers went to Napa Superior Court. The court denied the appeal. The groups are now pursuing the case in the First District Court of Appeals.

Vickie Bradshaw, SHREGP member, said even though the McGrath project is located in a high density residential area and multi-family projects are a permitted use in those areas, the city zoning ordinance still requires the developer to go through the design review process.

“We are not arguing that the project is not a permitted use and that it is required to go through design review. We are saying the Planning Department erred in the CEQA analysis and the City Attorney would not let the City Council discuss all of the issues related to the analysis the Planning Department did and the CEQA conclusion they reached,” said Bradshaw.

Joe McGrath soldiers on. Construction continues, foundations are in, and framing has begun.

As a condition of approval, McGrath must pay the city’s legal costs, with $350,000 spent so far.

“I’m sorry that the extraordinary legal costs must get passed on to the tenants in higher rents,” said McGrath. “I wanted to build housing in my hometown. After this experience, I would not recommend anyone to invest in housing in St. Helena. Had I foreseen the events that occurred, I would not have done it.”

“This is a common example of what is stopping housing from being built in California,” he added.

According to the Star, the St. Helena City Council is investigating an ordinance that would take some of the financial burden off would-be housing developers who face expensive lawsuits over the approval of their projects. The proposed ordinance would call for the city to pay legal fees only after a project has been upheld in a lower court and then appealed to a higher court. The proposal is under review.

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