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Chris Craiker, The Architex Angle: How Napa’s alleys could help its housing crisis
The Architex Angle

Chris Craiker, The Architex Angle: How Napa’s alleys could help its housing crisis

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We love walking Napa Old Town. On any Saturday or Sunday morning, you’ll find us walking up and down, back-and-forth on the historic Downtown streets, googling the architecture, colors, landscape, and texture of the town. Narrow classic Victorians next to superb Craftsman mansions, mixed with tiny 19th-century cottages in chaotic but wonderful combinations. It’s a delight and feast for the eyes. I call them, a gift to the street.

What are often missed and less visible are Napa‘s alleyways. Not too many of them, but they serve a purpose. To walk them is to see another part of Napa not easily recognized. Could they help solve Napa’s housing shortage?

Alleys are kind of an American invention. European cities grew Piggly-Wiggly, and small narrow streets were common. Courtyards and mews were communal for the horses and carriages. Paris was one of the first cities that had a major redevelopment under Emperor Napoléon.

As American cities grew, subdividing land with standardized narrow lot sizes became popular with the middle class, but they didn’t leave the horse and buggy out front. Rear-accessed alleyways with horse sheds and barns were created for the buggy trade. As the automobile gained popularity, the sheds became garages. Orderly laid out streets with rear-accessed alleys became a very American design tool.

The late 20th century saw alleys nearly eliminated. They took up valuable property and having a garage in the front accessible to the main residential street became the norm. The suburban-style of garage in front, house behind became the main planning model across the country, and as densities increased for economic profits, lots became narrower, until in many subdivisions the front entry garage rules the streetscape.

In the 21st century, Americans are once again embracing the benefits of urban life, including walkable streets and compact mixed-use communities. Along with this “new urbanism,” we find ourselves once again embracing the alley as playing a critical role in the function of our cities and community development. Alleys are returning as a common feature in the planning of our new communities.

However, they do not hold a candle to Napa’s alleyways of Old Town. These are mini-streets, accessible and available for housing without disrupting the historic fabric of the community. We are dedicated to preserving the existing streetscape and enhancing, not derogating them.

We should think more about our alleyways as a secondary means of providing housing. Walking these alleys is not like walking an urban alley, pathogens of trash and disease. Instead, Napa's alleys are alive and capable of supporting more housing while maintaining the classic street frontage of historic, and want-to-be historic, homes without those annoying frontal driveways loaded with cars and SUVs.

Increased housing along these alleys would be consistent with state and local current accessory dwelling unit ordinances that allow additional dwelling units, ADUs, up to 1,200 square feet, and Junior ADUs up to 500 SF. Both state and local ordinances do not require additional parking if the structures are within a half-mile walking distance to a transportation line.

While alleys are often relegated to trash and deliveries, it’s possible to make them function as an active part of the community. Here’s where the city should help make them an integral part of the community fabric, and not an afterthought.

Repaving and even considering permeable pavers could improve the quality and quantity of stormwater runoff. Bio-retention, tree wells, and planters could both enhance and improve stormwater management.

In some cities, these residential alleys have been converted to pedestrian-only access while allowing entry to the rear housing from the main frontage street. To make these alleyways safe and secure, the city should consider providing decent downward-directed non-glare lighting for pedestrian access and sanctuary.

Not only can these alleys provide housing, but they can also reinforce historic neighborhood values for both locals and visitors. Converting these from litter-laden backstreets to community assets would be the greatest thing city can do to celebrate our historic community.

Construction continues at Napa's Stanly Ranch resort. A new section of trail has been added and repairs are expected at other sections. Take a look.

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Chris d Craiker, AIA/NCARB enjoys the downtown eclectic architecture

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