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Oxbow district, Napa

The Oxbow Commons park by the Napa River is the hub of several large outdoor gatherings in the city, including the annual Walk for Animals in August 2018. A study presented to the City Council suggests ways for Napa to promote the surrounding Oxbow neighborhood as a distinctive attraction.

The Oxbow district is a breed apart within Napa – and urban planners are calling on the city to brand the neighborhood accordingly so more people can enjoy it.

An evolving mix of older and human-scale architecture, food and crafts, and the beauty of the Napa River and surrounding valley make the district east of downtown a place worthy of promoting to residents and visitors alike, according to an Urban Land Institute report shared with the City Council on Tuesday.

The study, based on site visits and interviews by the San Francisco-based institute, lays out possible steps to raise the Oxbow’s profile, including outdoor public events and themed signage to guide passers-by into and through an area that has become an emerging Napa attraction over the past decade.

“It’s a special area, and to be able to highlight an area that wasn’t on the map for a long time, to focus on the river, it’s exciting,” said Councilmember Liz Alessio.

The proposal to brand the Oxbow neighborhood comes in Napa’s early stages of rewriting its general plan, which guides the types and location of land use and development across the city. According to Planning Manager Erin Morris, city planning staff made suggestions to the Urban Land Institute team and may consider its suggestions for the area while drafting the new general plan, which is expected to stay in force through about 2040.

Authors of the report, which was previewed to the council in August, urged city leaders to think of the Napa River – whose cupped bend lent its name to the surrounding area – not as a boundary line but as the center and focus of its surroundings. Event planning, pedestrian links and land-use decisions should be made with a goal not only of attracting more people to the neighborhood, but also to make clear its walking connections west into downtown Napa, according to the study.

Besides its waterside setting, what sets the Oxbow apart is its blend of elements – setting tourism hubs like CIA at Copia and the Oxbow Public Market, and the green space of the Oxbow Commons linear park, alongside smaller shops and restaurants in an easily walked setting of mostly low-rise construction, according to Robin Schabes, city economic development director.

In the course of being interviewed for the study last year, “folks said the Oxbow is the best of Napa, all in one place,” she told council members.

Napa can build on the Oxbow’s emerging popularity in various ways, members of the institute wrote. In addition to increasing signage to guide visitors and promote the area as a distinctive place, the report suggested, the city should foster activities by area craftspeople and artists – and make access via the First and Third street bridges more comfortable by adding seating, shade structures and lighting.

In the long run, according to the report, city leaders can craft a vision plan for the Oxbow that encourages developers to focus on mixed uses and active ground floors, as well as consider zoning that would prevent new construction from blocking views of the river and Napa Valley edges – an idea emerging amid proposals that would add multistory hotels to the neighborhood mix.

Promoting the Oxbow’s character and easing access to the area is a laudable goal that should be extended beyond the river’s immediate surroundings, said Francie Winnen, secretary of the preservation group Friends of the Napa River. While the Urban Land Institute focused on the area from the Oxbow Commons and Soscol Avenue east to the river’s west bank, Winnen asked the city to extend the neighborhood’s boundaries farther east to the Silverado Trail and south to Third Street – areas with similarly low-slung buildings and water frontage.

Whatever the extent of the Oxbow, she said, giving it a clear identity is a strong step toward its preservation. “We’re aware that branding is not the same as land-use planning,” she told the council, “but it can be an excellent land-use tool for the city.”

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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.