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City planners endorse Napa Pipe housing, retail project; council to have final say

Napa Pipe

Jim Swindle pauses near one of the dry docks at the Napa Pipe property during a 2017 tour of the former Kaiser industrial site, where a developer is seeking to build 945 housing units, retail and office space, parklands and the Napa Valley's first Costco store.

After years of planning and debate, the blend of housing, stores, parks and waterfront that could become Napa Pipe may be two steps away from final approval and groundbreaking.

The mixed-use community in south Napa on the dormant Kaiser Steel industrial property, envisioned to include up to 945 homes, won the city Planning Commission’s endorsement last week.

The unanimous support by Napa’s land-use authority leaves its developer Catellus Development Corp. facing a vote by the county Airport Land Use Authority to ensure Napa Pipe’s compatibility with Napa County Airport to the south – followed by a final vote by the City Council that could come as soon as January and allow work to start next year on its first phase, which would include some 300 housing units and the county’s first Costco warehouse store.

With the development close to acquiring all its permits – and a county agency having approved Napa city’s annexation of the remaining 43 acres needed for the project last month – planners remarked on the air of finality over Napa Pipe’s future seeming to take hold, 15 years after the manufacturing ceased at the 154-acre site by the Napa River.

“I can’t wait to get my Costco hot dog and my Costco chickens,” Commissioner Paul Kelley said jocularly. “I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting.”

The agreements supported by Napa planners include a major change to the housing layout from earlier proposals, with homes now occupying both sides of the Union Pacific rail line that bisects the property north to south rather than being concentrated west of the rails. Catellus executives recommended spreading homes over a wider area, saying a lower density would attract more developer interest and allow the project to be built without costly parking structures.

Home sales for first-phase homes east of the railroad are expected to run from 2021 to 2023, and the Costco may open in the middle of 2022, said Tom Marshall, executive vice president of Oakland-based Catellus. Housing at Napa Pipe’s western tract would form the project’s second phase, he told planners.

Besides housing and a Costco, Napa Pipe is slated to receive a further 150 units of senior housing along with a 150-room hotel, office buildings, a mix of commercial and light industrial buildings, 40,000 square feet of retail areas, and 34 acres of parks and open spaces.

Despite some lingering questions about the project’s future direction – including whether Napa Pipe can fill all its retail space as online shopping eats away at brick-and-mortar businesses – commissioners opted to accept Napa Pipe’s ground rules and make any changes as the need arises.

“I want to make sure things aren’t so set in stone that you can never come back and say, ‘We’re five years down the road and we’ve got this great idea, and we’re working off of documents that are 10 or 15 years old,’” said Kelley. “We can’t overturn every stone at this point.”

Marshall of Catellus promised flexibility in meeting Napa Pipe’s requirements, though he placed a high priority on a healthy retail presence around Kaiser Steel’s former dry dock by the Napa River, which is to become a prime waterside recreational area at the development.

“The concentration of retail around the dry dock area is sacred to the people, including yourselves, who worked on this plan, he said. “The viability of the retail, optimizing where it’s located, the incorporation of pop-up retail, weekend retail, kiosks, stuff like that, we study this stuff all the time.”

The remaining votes by the airport authority and City Council could complete a journey that began in 2004, when Napa Pipe’s last industrial owner, Oregon Steel Mills Inc., halted pipe-making operations, saying the World War II-era property that once produced ships, natural-gas pipelines and deep-water oil-drilling platforms had become too costly and outdated to operate. An investment team led by Keith Rogal, developer of the Carneros Resort and Spa, acquired the site in December 2005, turning Napa Pipe into a tabula rasa for housing and businesses.

“It could be a cathedral for the valley, if we do it right,” former Mayor Ed Henderson, a member of the team, told the Register two months after the purchase.

But early estimates of as many as 3,200 townhomes at the 154-acre site aroused the suspicion of Napa Pipe’s opponents, who questioned placing the equivalent of a second Calistoga on land that was then outside the city limits and subject to Napa County’s stricter land-use restrictions. The project also pitted county leaders seeking an easier way to meet state affordable housing requirements against city officials wary of the effects such dense housing would have on traffic congestion and water demand in south Napa.

The Napa Pipe blueprint began to round into its current shape in 2012, when developers announced major changes that cut down its residential portion to about 945 dwellings and added Costco as the project’s anchor retailer. In the years since, Napa city and county have slowly worked out the details of transferring the old industrial site to city control, and crafting development agreements for the construction to come.

Developers cleared a major hurdle this fall with the passage of Senate Bill 235, allowing Napa County to claim credit for affordable housing built at Napa Pipe toward its state commitments even after its land fully passes into city hands. The bill, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in October, allows the city – which absorbed 111 acres of the site in 2016 – to speed up its acquisition of land it was not scheduled to annex until the end of 2022.

You can reach Howard Yune at 707-256-2214 or

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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