If the owner gets his way, a Soscol Avenue building that once supported Napa’s electric railway could become part of a proposed hotel and apartment complex. Preservationists are wondering if that’s the best idea.
Property owner Peter Dwares has filed a preliminary review development application with the city with the goal of creating a mixed-use project on the one-acre parcel, located at 668 Soscol Ave.
The project would encompass an entire city block bounded by Soscol Avenue, Sixth Street, Seventh Street and Burnell Street. The block’s most noteworthy feature is the former car barn and repair shop of the Vallejo, Benicia & Napa Valley Railroad built in 1905.
The block also contains two smaller auto repair shops with surface parking lots. Directly to the north of the proposed project is Bell Products, while Napa Valley Expo is to the east and the Soscol Cafe is to the south. The city’s transit center is a block north.
Napa Councilwoman Juliana Inman, who is on the board of Napa County Landmarks, isn’t sold on the redevelopment plan. The railroad barn is historically significant and definitely worth preserving, she said. “Perhaps (Dwares) should be looking at converting the building to a different use” instead of tearing it down, she said in an interview.
The shed-like building remained after the electric railroad went belly-up in 1935. Today, the commercial building and its additions are home to a smoke shop and auto-related businesses.
According to the application, the site is not listed as a historic resource, but is eligible to be recognized as such.
“We are at the very initial stages” of planning for redevelopment, said Dwares, who reported owning the property for more than 15 years.
“The time is right (to start the project. I’m getting too old to do it 10 years from now,” he said jokingly.
“This project will lead Napa into the future,” said Stephen Cuddy of Napa Design Partners, a local firm tapped to work on the project. “The city of Napa Soscol Design Guidelines envisioned mixed-use projects in close proximity to the downtown.”
“With the development of the new transit center, this property is in an ideal location to begin to address the vision of the downtown and the Soscol Corridor districts,” as well as add much-needed housing to the city’s inventory, Cuddy said.
A 72-unit, four-story apartment building would face the fairgrounds along Burnell Street. Live/work units would be located on the first floor. Above the first floor, studios and one-bedroom apartments, some in a loft style, would be offered in sizes ranging from 613 to 1,306 square feet.
A “boutique” four-story hotel oriented toward Soscol and the Napa River would offer 108 rooms. In addition, Dwares has proposed a 9,500-square-foot restaurant with a rooftop dining area.
“It’s also obviously a busy thoroughfare,” with good visibility, said Dwares of the site.
To provide parking for the project, a 216-space underground parking lot is proposed, featuring 191 automated parking spaces and 25 valet parking spaces.
Known as “puzzle parking,” the automated system parks cars using a carousel system, explained Cuddy. “It takes 30 seconds. It’s amazing stuff,” and cheaper than building a traditional parking garage, he said.
“All of that history is going to be gone if they tear down every single one of those buildings,” said Nancy Levenberg, the executive director of the Napa County Historical Society. “I think it’s worthy of a careful review.”
“I think that they’ve got a hurdle,” said Inman. There are other areas along Soscol – parcels without historical significance — that would be better to redevelop, she said.
Cuddy disagreed, saying, “I think the gain we get out of the site outweighs whatever gain you have by keeping a big barn that has already been modified over the years.”
“I think the majority would like to see a development that really is beneficial to the city over saving that structure,” he said.
The city planner for the project, Scott Klingbeil, said he hasn’t begun his evaluation of the application and couldn’t comment on the plan. A staff report on the project could be completed in about two weeks. The project will go before the Planning Commission for a “workshop”-style evaluation on Feb. 18, he said.
“As part of the process, we will ask for a historic evaluation,” said Klingbeil. But as of now, no information has been submitted as to the historical relevance of that building.
Since the pre-application is so new, Rick Tooker, director of Napa’s Community Development Department, also said he couldn’t comment on it yet. “Whether the structure or site itself is historic is just one of the important questions,” he said.
Other questions center on compatibility with adjoining uses, design, scale, traffic, parking, pedestrian and bicycle amenities, environmental issues, affordable housing and others.
Napa is changing, Dwares said. There is increased demand for hotels and housing, and leaving the building as-is “is not the highest and best use” of the property, he said.
At the same time, “there are a lot of variables,” he said. The entire process, including seeking financing, could take a while. “The tenants that are there now have nothing to worry about” for now, he said.
“It’s going to take a whole for this to go through the process,” said Cuddy.
To honor the past use of the property – and satisfy the art requirement for new developments – Dwares proposes saving materials from the building and creating a mural facing Soscol Avenue depicting the history of the electric rail system that once served the Valley.
The proposed buildings would be contemporary in style, using stone, tile, composite wood and glass. “The urban style mixed-use project will provide housing for the newer generations who are looking for alternatives or may not be interested in the suburban home lifestyle,” according to the application.
The project will also help to shape the sustainable “green” goals of Napa – a walkable city, less auto congestion and less visible parking lots, encourage sustainable building design, provide housing close to where people work and live, Cuddy said.
This isn’t Dwares’ first project in Napa. He’s also the developer of the Bridgeview Apartments on Brown Street. A number of new units are being added to that complex.