Napa Valley College Upper Valley Campus, St. Helena

The entrance to the Napa Valley College Upper Valley Campus on College Avenue in St. Helena.

St. Helena’s smoke-damaged and dilapidated City Hall might be abandoned for good.

City councilmembers want to open negotiations with Napa Valley College to lease part of the Upper Valley Campus to serve as a City Hall, instead of continuing to pour money into the old City Hall building on Main Street.

“I don’t want to see us go back into the City Hall at all,” Mayor Geoff Ellsworth said during a special meeting on Monday, adding that he’s “very much in favor” of negotiating a move to the college.

After a brief public meeting, the council adjourned to closed session to discuss potential lease terms for the campus, which is on College Avenue near the Pope Street Bridge.

The council unanimously agreed not to spend any more money on the old City Hall. Councilmember Mary Koberstein said moving to the Upper Valley Campus would help the city consolidate staff in a single location and leave the city with a clear financial obligation, in contrast to the unpredictable and expensive problems that keep cropping up at City Hall.

Vice Mayor Paul Dohring cautioned the council not to discuss potential lease terms in public, but City Manager Mark Prestwich said last week that he envisioned a three- to five-year lease affecting only the main campus building, not the separate kitchen and its associated classroom used by the Napa Valley Cooking School.

Dohring noted that the council’s draft decision-making criteria includes principles like risk reduction, cost containment, and minimizing the time to achieve outcomes.

“When we analyze it from that perspective, we win on these issues,” he said. “But everything’s subject to negotiation, so let’s see where it goes.”

A short-term lease would give the city time to plan and build a permanent City Hall, estimated to cost between $12 million and $20 million. But a few members of the public encouraged the council to keep City Hall at the campus permanently.

Buying the campus – or at least securing a 50-year lease – would open up the city’s options for the current City Hall site, the Railroad Avenue buildings, and the Adams Street property, which has been proposed as a possible site for a permanent City Hall, St. Helena resident Anthony Micheli said.

“You could do everything you want at that college site,” Micheli said. “You have unlimited parking, you could move all the departments there, save a bundle of money for the city … and leave Adams Street alone for this community.”

A sewer overflow forced the closure of City Hall last February, and a Dec. 18 heater malfunction caused so much smoke damage that the building is still uninhabitable. Prestwich said it would cost about $40,000 to make the building operational and safe for staff to move back in.

The city has already spent about $200,000 in the last four years to replace three HVAC units, replace carpets, repair a breaker box, and replace damaged flooring.

The damage from the latest incident did not extend to the police side of the building, but Ellsworth said he’d like to find alternatives for the police department as soon as possible “so that there’s no temptation to move back in.”

Prestwich advised the council to “push pause” on whether to invest about $60,000 into the Public Works administration building at 1572 Railroad Ave., which is serving as a temporary City Hall and housing the city’s Finance and Planning & Building departments.

Depending on how the negotiations with the college play out, the city’s Railroad Avenue buildings could provide a revenue source to offset the cost of leasing the college.

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You can reach Jesse Duarte at 967-6803 or jduarte@sthelenastar.com.