Napa County Landmarks wants three county-owned buildings at the former Health and Human Services Agency campus recognized by the federal government as historic treasures, and Napa County is opposing the effort.
The vacant, county-owned, Mission-style buildings along a distinctive, crescent-shaped driveway at 2344 Old Sonoma Road were once part of the long-gone county infirmary. They sit on 8.6 acres that the county wants to devote to affordable housing.
“We’re not against housing,” William Tuikka of Napa County Landmarks said last week. “What we want is a blend.”
He and other historic preservation advocates said the buildings could be part of a housing development, perhaps serving as a community center. The lawn within the crescent driveway could be a park.
The Board of Supervisors last week voted unanimously to oppose the effort to place the buildings and crescent driveway area on the National Register of Historic Places. Supervisors fear such status could complicate efforts to develop the site with affordable housing, which might or might not entail demolishing the buildings.
Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said during the meeting that, given the community’s need, he’s prioritizing affordable housing for the site. He still hopes a scenario exists where the historic preservation could also happen.
“I appreciate all the voices that are here today,” he told the audience. “But there are a lot of voices who aren’t here today because they are commuting into Napa. Now what we can do is give them an opportunity to live here, to be part of the social fabric of our community.”
The State Historic Resources Commission will decide on Feb. 2 whether to forward the Napa County Infirmary Historic District application to the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places. The Board of Supervisors will send a letter to the state objecting to the proposed listing.
National Register of Historic Places status wouldn’t guarantee the survival of the three buildings and crescent driveway. The county or a subsequent owner could still demolish the buildings, unless the property is involved in a project that is receiving federal funds or permitting.
Still, the county views possible historic listing as problematic.
The Board of Supervisors in 2013 approved an environmental impact report for the property that called the possible demolition of the three buildings a “significant and unavoidable” impact. It adopted a statement of overriding considerations to allow for possible demolition.
County Executive Officer Minh Tran said historical designation for the three buildings would cause confusion among the public, given the county’s previous environmental impact report work. County silence on the issue could be interpreted as consent and give rise to false expectations, he said.
Last spring, the county released a possible development plan for the site that called for 172 apartments and townhouses and the demolition of the buildings. But the county then declared a pause in the planning effort and the Board of Supervisors never voted on the proposal.
Historian Kara Brunzell wrote a history of the proposed Napa County Infirmary Historic District for the National Register of Historic Places application.
Napa County established the infirmary in 1869. Two of the buildings proposed for the National Register of Historic Places were built in 1912 and designed by W. H. Corlett, a prominent Napa architect. The third was built in 1934 and incorporates part of an 1897 building.
The county stopped using the property as an infirmary in 1962. The application says the infirmary grounds retains the open quality that dates to the 19th century, with the crescent-shaped entrance lawn dating to the 1880s or earlier.
Chuck Shinnamon of the Napa Housing Coalition told supervisors the county needs a spectrum of housing, for teachers, education staff, hospitality workers, grocery clerks, doctors, nurses, the elderly.
“We are also advocates of thoughtful historic preservation,” he said. “But to devote almost half of this site to save the three buildings is not our preference … we’ve offered to sit down with the small Landmarks design team and architect to see if there’s some way to save at least one of the buildings.”
The buildings need new foundations and substantial rehabilitation, Shinnamon said. It’s important to understand what saving one of the buildings would cost, he added.
Bob Massaro is a local housing developer and member of the Napa Housing Coalition. He said keeping the three buildings and required setbacks would decrease the density of any future housing project by 20 to 30 units.
“The decision to leave any historic buildings or buildings that are suspected to be historic is going to seriously impact the developability of this project,” Massaro said.
Historic preservation advocate Jay Jacobson took a different view. He said properties can be developed with historic components.
“There are many examples of that in California and throughout the country,” he told supervisors.
Also at its Jan. 9 meeting, the Board of Supervisors set the minimum selling price for the 8.6-acre property at $7.5 million. The city of Napa and two nonprofit groups have each expressed interest in buying the site for affordable housing development.