Issuing the Adams RFQ/RFP and evaluating the responses is the penultimate step in the Adams decision process. As a community, we must take this step. It does not bind the council to sell anything. It does create the opportunity for us to evaluate whether there is a willing partner with proven development experience and the financial wherewithal to deliver a project that we define and has the potential to benefit St. Helena now and for the future.
“Too many councils have failed to address [Adams], have not had a vision for it and have been flummoxed by diverse community input. No decision cannot again be a decision – it is unhealthy for the city, financially and as community.” These are not my words. They are thoughtful comments Loraine Stuart wrote to council as Jesse Duarte reported we “put the brakes” on Adams.
Over two years ago, while the prior RFP was hibernating, Tom Ferrell urged us to develop a “written set of parameters for hotels . . . location, visuals, infrastructure.” Doug Barr, on behalf of Citizen’s Voice, pressed the council to make it a practice to perform a “cost benefit analysis” of major development proposals in order to obtain the best project for the costs. In other words: “don’t sit back and react; be proactive, arm yourselves and the community with good information to make decisions.”
Council took that route. The draft RFQ/RFP envisions a significantly smaller hotel on less property than 2016. It preserves land for public use. The draft speaks to the importance of sustainable land planning and architectural design, aesthetic character that respects the neighborhood and community. It preserves a walking path to the river, requires a workforce housing needs profile and more. Unlike the previous iteration, St. Helena residents will evaluate this RFQ/RFP. On May 28 the council sought more input. The result — “flummoxed” once again. Truth be told, more letters and speakers favored moving forward than were opposed.
Only by receiving, understanding and analyzing specific proposals can we explore Adams as a true opportunity and undertake the cost/benefit analysis Doug Barr urges. Anything short of that is a shot in the dark. If we lack the courage to take this step, St. Helena is destined to repeat this process over and over again. Tourists are here, but many choose to overnight elsewhere. The preliminary look is that use of part of Adams for a smaller hotel is far and away the most beneficial hotel project for the city in terms of sales proceeds, TOT and property tax revenues, impact on business and the potential to create an Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District (EIFD). We need to see more.
While we’ve hit the pause button, misinformation fills the vacuum. We haven’t just suspended the process. We seem to be in reverse. Two years ago the council began a multitude of fact-finding tasks; developing information through careful analysis and robust citizen engagement to place us in a position to make well-informed decisions. I respect everyone’s right to their opinion, but not their own facts. However well-meaning these comments are, much of the solid information and analysis developed over the past two years is now being disregarded.
Some suggest we just lower our sights and “fix up City Hall.” Through SHAPE we learned that every building we own is in poor or fair condition; City Hall is so bad that renovation is off the table. You may have missed the SHAPE movie which played out over seven months. The last scene was a report containing a range of recommended alternatives, not just for City Hall but every building we own. SHAPE was the work product of 11 residents of deliberately divergent viewpoints and scores more who participated in workshops and focus groups. Among the criteria SHAPE created to inform its recommendations were “high quality facilities, places citizens feel pride in and safe working environments.” The cost to rectify decades of neglect will be significant. Bids for recent Noll and Tam civic projects approach $1,000 or more per square foot, suggesting that $600 per square foot basis for a $8 million new City Hall is probably low. There is much to do beyond City Hall. As we delay, costs will only increase.
There are postings for “hotels wanted” — anywhere and everywhere except Adams. Through the 2019 Kosmont Hotel Market Analysis we learned that hotel feasibility is a function of average daily rates. Due to high fluctuations in occupancy, Adams appears to be our most financially viable site, considering the broader market, existing hotels and the two in the pipeline. Through the 2019 Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District (EIFD) Preliminary Feasibility Analysis we learned that at 50 rooms, a hotel on Adams yields nearly 20% of the projected increased property tax revenue that makes EIFD viable. EIFD can create millions in bonding capacity to fund a broad range of city needs – low and moderate income housing, park maintenance/development, infrastructure, civic buildings and more — without raising taxes.
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Why champion hotels outside the city that impose all of the costs of development on us but deliver none of the benefits? We can’t even perform an analysis of a hotel at Krug because we know virtually nothing about it. But for starters, our General Plan and Zoning Ordinance confirm that this site is outside our urban line where growth is severely restricted and is zoned A-20 where hotels are not permitted. We don’t know if or when either of the two “pipeline” hotels (one entitled eight years ago) will be constructed.
Some question whether a hotel on Adams supports downtown businesses. Through the well-received 2018 Downtown Market Study we learned that St. Helena’s demographics are insufficient to support our businesses. To survive, many of them depend on tourists and customers from elsewhere in Napa Valley. To address this issue, Kosmont recommended that among other steps taken, we consider a luxury hotel on Adams precisely because it is proximate to downtown.
Initiatives are in the air. Let’s preserve Adams for public use, notwithstanding that the actual transaction history is not what some want us to believe and that some Vision 2009 scenarios incorporated private commercial development. Let’s force a bond issue that raises real estate taxes to pay for all the necessary work. This approach comes with a multitude of inequities including taxing all newer residents probably 10 times more than older residents. And as they move in, do we really want to hand the new low income families now building their homes on Brenkle Court a tax bill they didn’t foresee and perhaps can’t afford? The 2018 St. Helena Housing Update Report detailed myriad housing issues and means to address them. Imposing higher real estate taxes is not high on the list of financial tools to solve our housing problems.
Then there is the initiative to sell half of Adams for $12.5 million. This figure likely does not reflect current market conditions or draft RFQ/RFP criteria. If successful, it could actually force the city to sell the property and leave millions of dollars on the table, along with all the benefits that might otherwise flow through a negotiated sale and development agreement.
“Minimize the time to achieve the outcome” — another tenet of SHAPE. An admonishment to act on SHAPE’s recommendations, develop a capital program that respects community needs and values, and develop a financing plan that completes the work in the foreseeable future and not generations from now.
Back in motion, the Adams RFQ/RFP is a five- to six-month process, dovetailing nicely with completion of “Reimaging Civic St. Helena” and refined costs and revenue options. With RFP responses in hand, we’ll be better prepared to make decisions and bring something to fruition. That was the workplan. Let’s get back to it. Time’s a wasting.
Mary Koberstein is an elected member of St. Helena’s City Council.