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Wiseman Building

The Wiseman Company has won approval from the Napa city Planning Commission for a three-story office, retail and restaurant building at Main and Clinton streets on the north side of downtown Napa. The developer hopes to pay into a city parking construction fund rather than provide 57 vehicle spaces on site.

Three stories high and devoid of parking spaces, an office and retail building envisioned for downtown Napa has endured residents’ complaints and more than two years of city review. But planning officials are letting the 1300 Main Street Building move ahead – though not without a last round of protests about its size and possible effects on the neighborhood.

The Wiseman Co. LLC’s planned 21,500-square-foot complex gained the Planning Commission’s unanimous approval Thursday night. Central to the developer’s strategy is an offer to pay Napa at least $883,500 toward a future parking garage downtown, rather than building the 57 parking spaces the project would otherwise require.

It was a belated green light for Wiseman, which had seen Napa’s land-use authority postpone an approval vote in December as it awaited the details of the city’s long-term strategy to fund parking expansion in its business district.

Since then, the City Council has begun making plans to raise parking impact fees for builders, while reintroducing metered parking downtown to steer more motorists to more distant, but less crowded, curbsides, garages and lots.

But while the builder’s offer satisfied planners, it did little to smooth over the hard feelings of preservationists and nearby property owners – many of whom had spoken out against Wiseman last year – who predicted the building would worsen parking shortages, increase congestion and spoil the neighborhood’s architectural values.

“That the applicant could entertain the idea of having customers park in front of our homes shows a complete disregard for our neighborhood,” Linda Kerr told planners in fiery attack on the developer. “… Say to me that government is still by the people and for the people, and is not corrupted by the special interests of one developer.”

The commercial building would fill a lot at the northeast corner of Main and Clinton, at the northern edge of downtown Napa. It would replace a temporary parking lot that serves employees of the AUL insurance office on the opposite side of Clinton Street. A restaurant or stores would occupy the street level, with offices on the upper floors.

Because of the lot’s tight dimensions, developers have offered to pay Napa at least $15,500 for each of 57 slots in a parking structure the city seeks to build near the site of the demolished Cinedome movie theater off Pearl Street. Wiseman also has said it will accept any increase in parking payments the city imposes before construction begins.

Earlier, the developer promised to create a temporary lot with room for 90 vehicles a block away, on land owned by the Napa Sanitation District. A city-owned skateboard park occupies the site, but became expendable with the opening of a larger and more elaborate skate center last October at Kennedy Park.

Attempting to create parking below the building, as some audience members suggested, would create room for no more than 10 vehicles and an entry ramp nearly as long as the parcel itself, said Derek Dutton, principal for TWM Architects + Planners.

Napa has estimated a four-story garage with room for 350 to 400 vehicles will cost at least $12 million. Downtown projects scheduled to launch in the next few years, like the Archer Napa hotel on First Street, are expected to produce $9.2 million in parking impact fees, requiring the city to find at least $3.4 million more.

Wiseman’s offer more than doubles the city’s current developer charge of $7,500 for each parking space a new project requires, although council members in March discussed raising that fee to at least $20,000 per slot.

The Planning Commission’s vote shifted the Wiseman parcel into a district exempt from on-site parking requirements, whose boundary currently stops just south of the property. Under land-use rules created in Napa’s 2012 Downtown Specific Plan, the site is in a “transition zone” with requirements for on-premises parking, as well as lower maximum building heights than in the downtown core.

Several critics of the building worried its approval would encourage other developers to build higher and wider on the fringes of downtown, blocking light and views to homes and small storefronts farther from the core. By being included in the downtown parking-exempt zone, the Wiseman site also gains the ability to erect a building up to 38 feet, 10 inches tall – beyond the 35-foot maximum farther north on Main Street.

“This will set a precedent for future development to attack the height limit and push for higher limits,” predicted Ernie Schlobohm, board president of the Napa County Landmarks preservation group. Holding up a wooden dowel at the City Hall lectern – cut to 3 feet, 10 inches, the difference in allowed heights – he declared: “This is a line that should not be crossed.”

In the end, such protests failed to sway city planners, who told opponents the scarcity of buildable land will force hard choices between design rules and efficient land use.

“We’re heading in that direction of higher-density uses, and what comes with that is a bit of a change in culture for how we find parking,” said Commissioner Beth Painter.

“There’s a challenge in everything we approve from here on out,” added Paul Kelley. “That’s the way it’s going to be.”

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. 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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