To help foot the nine-figure bill for a new city headquarters, Napa proposes to tear down its current one and have a developer build tax-generating housing, hotel rooms and stores in its place.
But who would staff the new businesses downtown? And what housing could be created for them, with rents and sale prices running far ahead of many service workers’ wages?
Such was the dilemma that dominated a public forum Thursday evening to seek answers to what has become one of Napa’s most vexing problems – the mismatch of housing supply and prices to pay levels in the city’s burgeoning hospitality industry.
The Napa Housing Coalition, an advocacy group that organized the meeting, promoted it as a way to gather ideas to cope with the effects of a major development that is the flip side of the city’s effort to raise a combination civic center and police station: the housing-hotel-retail blend that would replace the current City Hall and police station on Second Street.
“We really are at a crisis point,” the coalition’s chairperson, Joelle Gallagher, told a 100-strong audience at the Napa County Library. “Every time we look at growth and development in our cities, we need to solve the housing crisis, not exacerbate it.”
The housing coalition staged its forum three days after a city-sponsored meeting to update residents on progress toward the civic center, which the City Council green-lit in May 2017. Estimated to cost some $120 million, the four-story, 130,000-square-foot downtown building on First Street would unify city offices, currently spread across seven sites, with Napa Police, replacing the Community Services Building, and a converted Safeway grocery.
Officials for Napa and its project planner, the Plenary Group, have announced negotiations with an unnamed partner firm to convert the present City Hall site into a “superblock” with about 170 hotel rooms, 60 housing units and 10,000 square feet of store space, which would produce room and property tax revenue to help the city pay off construction bonds over 30 years.
City plans call for the construction of the civic center and mixed-use block to take place simultaneously, with the new City Hall being built from 2019 to 2021.
However, the reliance on another hotel to raise money for a civic center has raised concerns among some Napans about creating more jobs that could stress a housing market already marked by chronically low vacancy.
John Salmon, a Napa attorney and formerly director of California’s Office of Asset Management in the early 1990s, urged Napa leaders to look beyond the current City Hall neighborhood for both new offices and housing, describing the civic center plan as too complex and vulnerable to costly delays.
He instead urged the city to look toward its existing landholdings downtown – many of them serving as parking areas – as potential sites for affordable housing, and to consider not building a new City Hall immediately near the existing one. (At previous City Council meetings, he has advocated Napa city and county jointly building an administrative center, an idea the two governments discussed in 2011 but never acted on.)
Audience member Michael Setty also supported the use of city-owned land for lower-cost housing, and further called on Napa to ease on-site parking requirements downtown to make smaller-format housing easier to build – perhaps by allowing parking to be located up to two blocks away – to meet the needs of workers and others currently shut out of the residential market.
“Let’s open up opportunities for seniors, for college students, to have some sort of housing for them,” he said.
City Manager Mike Parness, meanwhile pointed to the potential of two properties – one already marked for temporary offices while the civic center is built – outside of downtown to add to Napa’s housing stock in years to come.
At the city corporation yard on Jackson Street and Lincoln Avenue, a pair of buildings totaling 25,000 square feet will replace existing shop buildings, serving as Napa Police’s temporary home before housing Public Works staff and equipment. That project would clear enough space in the corp yard for subsidized housing to be built along its north side near Lincoln Avenue, Parness said.
Another 100 dwellings or more may occupy part of the Napa County’s former Health and Human Services campus on Old Sonoma Road, which the city is attempting to buy as transitional office space, Parness told the audience.
Nonetheless, Gallagher, of the housing coalition, joined other speakers in urging Napa to demand more help from builders in chipping away at the housing shortage – at the City Hall block and elsewhere – not only with cash payments and set-asides of less expensive dwellings but also with directly building other affordable homes in the city.
“The whole point is that people need to hold the City Council accountable to do what needs to be done to create housing and create better wages,” Gallagher said after the two-hour forum. “It’s been in the council’s power for many years, and it didn’t get done because there wasn’t the political will – but now I think there is that will.”
“We just need to hold their feet to the fire and say, let’s hear it, let’s see what the solutions are and work together. It’s essential that they participate in the process.”