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Napa council narrowly approves 4-story hotel for Oxbow District
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Napa council narrowly approves 4-story hotel for Oxbow District

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Oxbow district hotel plan

An image of a proposed Oxbow district hotel project, as seen from Soscol Avenue and First Street. The shadowy building to the left of it is the five-story Black Elk hotel approved by the Planning Commission in 2017 for First Street, but not yet built. 

A lengthy and contentious debate over a future hotel in downtown Napa ended with the project’s approval by a single vote — but with the question of whether the project would overwhelm its neighborhood, or strengthen it, still unresolved.

The developer J.B. Leamer saw his proposal for a 74-room luxury hotel straddling both sides of the Napa Valley Wine Train line barely approved by a 3-2 City Council vote on Tuesday night, after more than three hours of discussion at City Hall. The vote followed the Planning Commission’s decision in July not to endorse the development, citing its height, bulk and the cutting-off of eastward views into the Oxbow neighborhood and valley hills.

Leamer’s project, which would occupy the southeast corner of Soscol Avenue and First Street, will move ahead with the builder’s promise to create 22 new housing units on Napa land already acquired by the developer, and set aside three of the dwellings for lower-income households.

However, the road to approval revealed a split between Napa leaders worried another hotel would become a barrier for local residents, and other leaders who emphasized its backers’ efforts over four years to meet the city’s requests — including the offer to create housing rather than simply paying Napa’s housing impact fee.

Councilmember Mary Luros was wary of a project she said risked cutting off residents from the Oxbow — a traditionally residential neighborhood that has become home to tourist draws like Copia and the Oxbow Public Market — and erasing whatever low-rise, small-scale feel remains in the area.

“That charm of the neighborhood is why we love the area so much, and I’m really struggling to see how such a large, massive hotel improves the charm of that neighborhood,” she said before joining Mayor Jill Techel to vote against granting permits for the hotel.

However, Luros granted that the hotel’s planners should not be held responsible for housing shortages and long commutes caused by growth elsewhere in the city — and other council members argued that doing so would unfairly target a builder working with the city in good faith and offering new housing rather than only cash.

“I don’t think it’s fair to put the whole burden (of the housing shortage) on this project team,” said Liz Alessio, who joined Scott Sedgley and Doris Gentry in support. “For them to contribute housing and offer this alternative is fantastic and sets a precedent for future commercial and especially hotel projects. I see that as a win, as we hopefully establish more clarity in what we require of (developers).”

Despite worries from councilmembers and residents about the hotel’s size, height and location, Sedgley urged his colleagues to accept the design as long as it meets the zoning rules of the Downtown Specific Plan, which governs growth in Napa’s core and marks the area as the city’s preferred tourism hub.

“It’s amazing that no variance was requested on this project, not one,” he said of the hotel project, which falls within the downtown area’s 60-foot height limit.

In 2017, the Planning Commission approved the five-story Black Elk hotel across the street at 728 First St. That project, which has not been built, would also reach 60 feet into the air, as measured from the sidewalk, not the bottom of the sunken lot upon which it would sit.

Leamer’s offer of housing to complement the hotel was a late addition to the plan, substituting for an earlier proposal to add 20% to his mandatory payment into Napa’s affordable housing fund. On Tuesday, Leamer told the council he intends to have the new housing complete and ready to occupy before the hotel is cleared to open.

Announced by Leamer in 2016 and originally branded Foxbow, the complex would include two four-story buildings on either side of the Wine Train, each containing 37 hotel rooms, ground-floor retail space and two levels of sunken parking.

Plans filed with the city call for an interior courtyard and private terraces, along with a swimming pool, spa, fitness center, conference and meeting space, and a cafe featuring a sculpture garden — all intended, Leamer said, to refresh a busy but underused gateway into central Napa.

“This is not just a chance to serve our community with a hotel, restaurant, spa and a rooftop bar; it’s not just a gateway or a landmark,” he told the council during a Zoom video call. “It’s a fresh start for a tired and blighted corner.”

With City Hall still closed during the coronavirus pandemic, Napa received more than 50 emails ahead of the council meeting supporting or opposing the hotel. Luros, in voting against the project, acknowledged sound arguments both in favor of and against the plan, and added that Napa has not made clear enough its vision for the Oxbow neighborhood’s purpose.

“We haven’t said clearly what we want in the Oxbow,” she said. “We haven’t said how many hotels are enough; we haven’t said if we want housing built instead of an in-lieu fee and if so, how much affordable housing is enough to offset the impact of the hotel. We haven’t created that detailed vision of what Oxbow could be.”

With two new council members taking office Dec. 8 and Napa developing a new general plan to guide land use through 2040, Luros held out hope for stronger direction. “Looking to the future, I think this is a great time for the new council to tackle these issues and work on our vision of what our Napa community should look like,” she wrote in a newsletter released Thursday.

Nonetheless, others like Gentry accepted Leamer’s efforts to work with the land-use rules as they currently stand, and to invest in a city struggling with budget cuts amid a sharp fall-off in tourism due to COVID-19.

“We may say all kinds of things in the future, but we’re here today to vote on this project or not vote on this project” according to Napa’s existing rules, said Gentry, who will leave the council next month after losing the Nov. 3 mayoral election to Sedgley.

“And quite frankly, I don’t know any other people coming to the city of Napa in this economy saying, ‘Oh, please, will you let me spend $100 million and build a building — and by the way, I’m also going to build you 22 units and three that are affordable, and I’m not going to ask for any waivers or variances.’”

“At this minute, based on the laws we already have on our books, this project has done its due diligence. … For today, this is a project we should approve.”

The housing tie-in for Leamer’s hotel complex follows a 2018 agreement that led Napa to approve a 253-room Marriott hotel in south Napa in exchange for housing to offset the addition of lower-wage jobs likely to increase commuter traffic.

Under the deal, developers promised to build a 20-unit apartment cluster on Old Sonoma Road, which the City Council approved in December 2019. Half of those units were set aside for tenants making less than 80% of the median income, with the rest reserved for renters earning no more than 20% above the median.

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You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or hyune@napanews.com

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. 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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