The future of lower-cost housing in Napa may arrive in town piece by piece, at least for one apartment complex.
An upcoming 20-unit rental development will consist of factory-built modules of steel and fiber cement – a novel construction method architects say will save enough in cost and time to create worker-friendly housing even amid Napa’s punishingly pricey real estate market.
Backers of the affordable apartment project – which officials had made a condition last year for a hotel developer to build a Marriott in south Napa – on Thursday shared details of the design with the city Planning Commission, which endorsed the proposal and paved the way for a future City Council vote of approval.
The plan offered by the Irvine-based nonprofit developer Caritas Corp. will lean on standardized units prefabricated by Blokable Inc. of South Seattle, Washington, which would be trucked to the three-quarter-acre site at 2375 Old Sonoma Road.
There, the components are to be joined into a trio of buildings — two three-story, 10-apartment structures to be formed from one or two pieces, along with a third, three-piece structure to serve as a community space with a multipurpose room. A playground and picnic area with a grill would be installed on the grounds.
The Old Sonoma Road complex is the first Napa apartment project to be tied directly into the approval of hotel construction. In July 2018, the City Council granted Pacific Hospitality Group, the developer of the Meritage Resort and Spa in south Napa, the right to build a 253-room Marriott hotel nearby – but also required it to fund at least 12 units of rent-limited housing to offset the creation of lower-wage hotel jobs unlikely to cover local rents, much less typical home-sale prices.
Joelle Gallagher, a member of the Napa Housing Coalition advocacy group, praised the apartment plan and Pacific Hospitality’s role in launching it as proof that tourism-driven businesses can help provide for the industry’s workers – particularly those who are forced into long commutes by high rents and minuscule vacancy rates.
“I hope the other developers, especially hotel developers, will see this as a model and look at how they can contribute to housing, especially with the number of low-wage jobs in this county,” she said.
The Caritas project will include 11 one-bedroom apartments and nine with two bedrooms, with 29 parking spaces, according to city associate planner Steven Rosen.
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Two of the apartments will be offered at rents attainable to households making less than half the local median income, eight will be set aside for those below 80 percent, and the remainder will be restricted to renters earning no more than 20 percent above the median.
Planners generally complimented the flat-roofed, streamlined design of the Old Sonoma Road apartment buildings, which are to include light-colored metal facades contrasting with cement cladding pigmented green to eliminate the need for paint – one example of the absence of volatile chemicals that Blokable vice president Timothy Miller said will reduce the project’s environmental impact.
However, some planners questioned the absence of solar rooftop panels in the design, on the cusp of a state requirement that takes effect in 2020. Passed by the California Energy Commission last year, the “net zero energy” rule will require most new housing, including multifamily buildings up to three stories high, to produce as much energy as they consume.
Caritas’ chief investment officer, John Woolley, acknowledged the nearness of the solar-panel law taking effect but added that the project needs to shave costs where it can, given its lower-than-market-level rents and the region’s already high construction costs.
“The challenge we have is to have it pay for itself,” he told planners. “We want it to have as many units as we can. Yes, we know we’re against the gun, but the community would be better off by having more affordable housing.”
Members of the Caritas team said the parking area will include footings to support carport structures, to which solar panels can be attached in the future.
Such quibbles ultimately were not enough to prevent commissioners from offering their support to the project – particularly one that Paul Kelley described as more stylish than its price tag would suggest.
“I look at this and appreciate the overall design of the project, (the fact) that this is something new,” he said before the land-use authority’s unanimous vote in favor. “This looks market-rate; this looks like a place where I would be happy to live.”
“The fact that we’re kicking the tires on this means we really care about this project,” he added.