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Vista Grove housing site in Napa

A worker pauses while cutting up eucalyptus trees at Wine Country and Linda Vista avenues in November 2017. A westward extension of Linda Vista is to lead to Vista Grove, a 27-home development with 11 junior dwelling units that won the Napa City Council's approval on Tuesday.

Is denser housing necessarily cheaper housing?

Tuesday night, the Napa City Council grappled with that question – then narrowly approved a 27-house development that also will feature 11 junior-size dwellings meant to become a more affordable option in a costly and supply-poor residential market.

Vista Grove passed on a 3-2 council vote despite the reservations of housing advocates who called on Napa to seek stronger assurances that at least some Vista Grove dwellings be affordable to lower-income tenants. Combined with opposition by a variety of neighboring homeowners to Vista Grove – and traffic and safety worries over an extension of Wine Country Avenue to create access to the new houses – the project faced spirited resistance before gaining the minimum three votes needed to move ahead.

While the denser-than-usual construction and second dwellings are meant to produce a less expensive housing option, a firm requirement of lower rents for at least some units is needed to actually put homes within easier reach, according to Councilmember Mary Luros, who voted in opposition along with Liz Alessio.

“At the end of the day, it meets the requirements we’ve imposed. The problem is not with the project; the problem is with the requirements,” Luros said, recommending that two of the accessory dwellings be reserved as affordable units.

Other council members, however, were reluctant to impose more rules on Catherine Okimoto and the development team, giving them credit for trying to place a large number of homes in a district that has languished since being zoned for higher-density housing more than two decades ago.

“If we put in a (zoning) overlay that makes it impossible to build, then we don’t get housing,” said Mayor Jill Techel, who voted in support along with Scott Sedgley and Doris Gentry.

The distinctive feature of Vista Grove will be the inclusion of accessory housing as an integral part of a project otherwise composed of single-family homes, mostly with three bedrooms and in a mix of one- and two-story layouts. Along with the junior units, the development will equip five other houses with plumbing connections to speed the conversion of a bedroom into a separate dwelling.

The inclusion of granny units within Vista Grove stems from the 4.9-acre site’s location in a unique city zone dating to the late 1990s. Within the district on Wine Country Avenue, at least 40 percent of new homes must include accessory dwelling units (ADU) smaller than 1,200 square feet and with less than half the original home’s floor space. The requirement is intended to provide a supply of smaller dwellings likely to be offered at lower rents than in other parts of the city.

Project designer Kirk Geyer described the layout as a response to the increasing number of homes where two or more generations of the same family live under one roof, from about 30 percent of single family homes in the late 1970s to 70 percent today. Homeowners also can use revenue from renting out a second unit to meet their mortgage payments or cover other expenses.

Skeptics, however, questioned whether even the most compact dwellings would truly be offered at low rents when only 1 percent of tenant housing is vacant and housing demand remains unquenchable.

“It’s not the case that ADUs equal affordability,” Joelle Gallagher of the Napa Housing Coalition told the council, saying a junior unit she is building at her own home could command as much as $1,800 a month despite its small size.

While supporting Vista Grove’s higher density and the inclusion of junior dwellings, coalition member Sharon Macklin called an affordability requirement a must for the project’s homes to be truly attainable to working Napans.

Without such a set-aside, “we’re missing the boat in trying to provide affordable housing,” she said. “Restaurant workers make $14, $15, $16 an hour; can they really afford $1,200 or $1,500 a month?”

In response, a lawyer involved in the project argued that Vista Grove is not a substitute for all-affordable apartment complexes but instead provides a diverse range of dwellings to meet different needs – families taking in an aged relative, for example, or accepting a tenant to supplement their income or downsizing after a divorce or job change.

“You could burden this project with all the needs of housing in Napa, and it’ll collapse under the weight,” said Katherine Philippakis, a St. Helena attorney and a member of the Vista Grove development team.

Objections from other Napans stemmed less from new housing than from a related project – the filling of the gap in Wine Country Avenue to link Linda Vista Avenue with Malaga Way to the west. In addition, Winedale Lane would be extended south from Ravenwood Lane to Vindel Lane, and a short northward extension of Wine Press Way would end in a cul-de-sac.

Homeowners told the council such street additions risk worsening traffic congestion and speeding in surrounding neighborhoods and on Linda Vista Avenue and Dry Creek Road, northwest Napa’s primary north-south roadways.

“We’re not opposed; we just want safety for our kids and pets, it’s as simple as that,” said Heidi Grapes, one of several residents to speak out against a Wine Country Avenue extension.

While additional stop signs and other fixes may address safety issues, an increased vehicle count is inevitable if Napa is to build denser housing within its boundaries, replied Councilmember Scott Sedgley. “If you can add housing without adding traffic, tell me how to do that,” he told residents of the north Napa neighborhood.

With the city’s approval in hand, Vista Grove’s planners expect to sell the project to a developer in about four months, according to Randy Gularte, the Realtor involved with the project team. Grading could start as early as the fall of 2019, followed by the start of construction in the spring of 2020 and the first move-ins that summer, he said.

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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.