New City Hall planned for Napa

This artist's rendering shows the downtown four-story civic center planned by the city of Napa as the new home of municipal offices and Napa Police.

Napa is in the early stages of planning a new four-story downtown home for its city government and law enforcement. But one resident is leading a push to throw on the brakes – and turn the campaign for a new city hall into a new direction.

John Salmon, a local attorney and a California governor’s aide in the 1990s, is asking the City Council to rethink a four-story, 130,000-square-foot First Street civic center in the early planning stages that would centralize city offices as well as house the police department.

Attacking what he called the project’s excessive cost and fragile funding plan, he has called on Napa to suspend planning of the new City Hall – estimated to cost some $121 million – and instead work with the Napa County government on an exchange of land parcels that could hold separate homes for city offices and the police.

After opposing the shape of the civic center project in comments during City Council meetings, Salmon, who was the director of state asset management under Gov. Pete Wilson, sought wider audiences for his alternative in July, posting a petition to Facebook and detailing his plans with the Napa Valley Register editorial board.

“The time has come for the council (and all November council candidates) to take a very hard look at the proposed project and to decide whether it is going where it needs to go,” he wrote in a July 22 letter to the editor. “Staff will argue it is too late to stop it, but it is not too late to redirect it to a far better result.”

A swap of more than two dozen city- and county-owned parcels would enable the city to build separate administrative and law enforcement hubs Salmon says will each operate more cheaply and efficiently apart than together. He proposed placing a city hall building on the county-owned Sullivan block at Third, Randolph and Coombs streets, and suggested that the city’s Jackson Street corporation yard – already targeted for a temporary police building – is one option for a permanent police station site.

At issue to Salmon are the different needs of public safety and civilian departments – and the added expense of bringing a combined building up to the security and safety standards required of a police headquarters.

“A police station needs to be secure, a city hall needs to be open, and those two needs are inevitably in conflict,” he said Monday. “By trying to put the two together, it creates operational inefficiency and adds cost.”

Salmon also has argued that redevelopment following the sale of surplus lands ultimately would create more new housing downtown than the city’s proposal, in which the existing City Hall and police block on Second Street would be rezoned for a mix of housing, hotel and retail uses.

Plenary Group, the Los Angeles developer whose plan won Napa approval in 2017, is working with the city to develop and manage the new City Hall, repurpose the existing site, and find temporary offices for city departments for up to 2 ½ years.

A May presentation by Plenary to the council suggested creating about 60 housing units on the future “superblock” along with 170 hotel rooms, while other dwellings eventually could occupy Napa County’s former Health and Human Services campus on Old Sonoma Road – currently for sale – or part of the city’s corporation yard on Jackson Street.

Among more than 75 signers of the Facebook petition is Mary Luros, a Napa council member in 2015-16 who is seeking to regain her seat in the November election. Also adding her name was another council candidate, Liz Alessio.

Luros agreed with Salmon in questioning the wisdom of combining police and civilian uses in a single block, saying the pursuit of separate buildings will make it easier for Napa to spend within its means.

“When I was on the council I thought it was a great idea, an opportunity to consolidate city buildings into one area (while) providing good jobs and affordable housing,” she said Tuesday of earlier versions of the City Hall plan. “Unfortunately, instead of being simple and focused, the city let it get out of control and gave a long list of things to be accomplished. We originally planned on just a new city hall. Now we have all this other stuff that’s made it complex, and we really haven’t set a budget on it. If all we want is a city hall, we don’t need to add this other stuff.”

“I’d like to see us devote our resources to police station and city hall, not necessarily on the same site. We need to be direct about what our priorities are, and maybe they don’t happen at same time. It can’t just be a laundry list of things.”

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Four councilmembers interviewed about the civic center’s progress, however, largely appeared unmoved by Salmon’s arguments for taking a new path.

“We all work for the city, we have to provide the best customer service, and we can do it best if we are all in the same building and under one roof working together,” said Mayor Jill Techel. “To have everyone in one facility makes sense, and the idea of a separate police department doesn’t work toward that vision and goal.”

“The idea that we’d change after two years, do a 180 from where we started, is literally going back to the beginning,” said Peter Mott. “To change direction now is waste of energy and a waste of money.”

One of the project costs that deserves close attention, added Mott, is how much Napa spends to find or build temporary office space during the civic center’s construction, which is expected to run from 2019 to 2021. Salmon, in questioning the plan’s fiscal soundness, urged Napa to avoid moving city staff twice – from the old City Hall to transitional space and then to its permanent quarters.

Transition plans currently call for Napa to house police in a manufactured building that would be placed at the city corporation yard on Jackson Street. After Napa Police moves to the finished civic center, the 25,000-square-foot building would remain at the corp yard to serve as office space for Public Works maintenance staff.

Councilmember Doris Gentry suggested Napa potentially could save millions of dollars by leaving police and city offices at their existing Second Street quarters during construction, and instead shift planning and building departments to the corp yard from the Community Services Building – the First Street structure Napa would tear down to make room for its civic center. A temporary building for civilian rather than law enforcement uses may be built cheaper due to the lower security requirements, she said.

“The (money) we save without using swing space far outweighs any other ideas,” said Gentry. “We save the disruption of moving employees. We’ll need a corp yard building anyway, and we want this building to be available after they move out and the corp yard (staff) moves in.”

Scott Sedgley, like other council members, dismissed the possibility of Napa city and county agreeing to the size and scale of a land trade that would enable a civic center on county-owned property, pointing to previous efforts that have fizzled. (The two governments most recently discussed building a common administrative hub in 2011, but never acted on those talks.)

“I still believe it’s a great plan,” he said. “The difficulty has been working out details on the public-private partnership side, the housing, the hotels and retail. What John calls complicated steps, well, I agree it’s complicated but everything in today’s governance is complicated.”

Attempts to contact Councilmember Jim Krider were unsuccessful.

Napa’s acting city manager is Steve Potter, who stepped into the role last month after three years as police chief and 31 years in the city police force.

While conceding the higher cost of hardening a city headquarters devoted to public safety as well as civilian functions, Potter suggested such a combination may still be worth the expense – not only to let city workers easily meet among all departments but to identify police as a part of the community and not isolated from it. “To me it’s crucial for the police to be part of the bigger entity, and function hand in hand with rest of city staff to serve the community,” he said Thursday.

Furthermore, he added, the experiences of the 2014 earthquake and the 2017 wildfires should remind Napans of the importance of a headquarters built to withstand another catastrophe – and keep essential services available.

“Having a building that is (designed) so it can withstand disasters is critical to an area like Napa because we’re somewhat removed from the rest of the Bay Area,” said Potter. “We have to be a fully functional city if we experience something like that.”

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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.