(Editor’s note: The Register asked residents from four age groups for their thoughts about life in the Napa Valley today and their concerns for the future. This is the second installment.)
As a millennial living in Napa, I’ve always felt a bit out of place. When I moved here from Boston for a job at the Napa Valley Register seven years ago, I was just 22 years old and drowning in the culture shock of small-town life.
Finding other friends my age was tough, and people often asked me what I was doing there, when Napa was a place to retire, not start your adult life.
Where was the nightlife? The Apple store? Why is the airport so far away?
I never thought I’d still be here seven years later, but I’ve since gotten married and settled into this town that’s grown on me immensely. Napa has also come a long way in that short time—there’s Uber, a Bevmo, and soon even a Costco (so they say)—and I personally love the renaissance it’s undergoing, with new restaurants, bars, tasting rooms and shops to check out every week. We still don’t have that Apple store, but I’ve managed. At least I have my choice of five airports.
Elana Hill, 34, grew up in Napa, but took a 14-year hiatus after high school (most of which was spent in Los Angeles), pursuing her degree and living as a professional artist. She was admittedly a bit weary to leave the big city life when she moved back to Napa two years ago.
“Napa was really small, downtown didn’t really exist at that time. It was basically a couple of yarn shops, The Beaded Nomad and an old department store,” she recalled of her childhood. “Growing up, when people came, everything was Upvalley. Downtown Napa wasn’t cute; you didn’t stay there.”
But she, too, has settled back in, enjoying the benefits of both country life and city life at once.
“Where I live, it’s rural, quiet, peaceful. But because there’s stuff to do at night, I’m getting the best of both worlds: the benefits of being in a city, but getting to live in the country. I was pleasantly surprised by how much there was to do,” she said.
And yet, with that growth comes some consequences.
For instance, Christina Nicholson, 32, grew up in Calistoga and has spent most of her life in Napa Valley, and she’s a bit saddened to see her hometown lose some of the familial farming roots that it was so proudly built on.
“Before it was all very family owned, family-farmer driven, and it was always kind of dominated by a couple big families, like the Trincheros and Mondavis,” said Nicholson. “Now it’s a lot more, I don’t want to say commercial, but developed, and more densely visited. There’s not a lot of family farmers anymore. Families are getting bought or pushed out, and a lot of dot-commers, or foreign investors are kind of taking over.”
Charles Yeo, 34, relocated to Napa from Orange County with his wife in 2011 seeking the small-town life of his childhood. Both are teachers in the Napa Valley Unified School District and recently welcomed their first child, a girl.
“When I first came up here, it was super different from where we came from. In Orange County, everything is right next to each other. But here, you can live in the suburbs, but still feel like you’re far away from the big city, the traffic and all that,” said Yeo.
But as development in Napa is booming, he’s feeling a sense of deja vu creeping in, fearing that the town headed in the same direction of the home they left behind.
“I feel like it’s trying to be something that it was never meant to be. It’s expanding far too much. There’s breweries opening up, all these restaurants opening up, there’s more houses being built, and I think it’s turning into something that obviously business owners like, but not something Napa residents like,” he said. “I grew up in a small town too, and I know the feeling of how big city things or big city ideas can come and basically destroy a way of life.”
Although Yeo understands the economical pros of this growth, he also pinpoints some inevitable drawbacks, including increased traffic congestion and crime rate. His family moved here for the quiet, and Napa is undeniably turning up the volume.
Hill, on the other hand, said Napa can have its cake and eat it too — handle the growth, and still keep its rural side.
“I really believe in a European structure of developing town centers, with rural areas around them. I’d much rather have a 10-story building in downtown Napa — as long as they have parking — but if you can keep it super central, it’s going to benefit the restaurants and shops, while protecting the spaces in between,” she said. “I like that it’s difficult to get permits to build and the land is super protected, and I think downtown Napa can handle being bigger.”
Yet across the board, the main outcry from millennials when it comes to Napa’s growth is that there’s a severe lack of affordable housing. While many lucky friends of mine, like Yeo, could now cash in big on investments they made just a handful of years ago, my husband and I find ourselves with extremely limited options. If we want to stay in Napa Valley, we’re going to have to continue to rent (at least for now), but even the rental prices aren’t easily manageable.
According to Zillow, “Napa home values have gone up 3.5 percent over the past year and Zillow predicts they will rise 0.7 percent within the next year. The median price of homes currently listed in Napa is $733,000. The median rent price in Napa is $2,700.”
If half of our income goes to rent, how will we ever save up enough to buy a house in the current seller’s market?