Anyone who studies history knows that trends and ideas often repeat themselves. And so it is with the direction of downtown streets.
For nearly a half-century, downtown’s major thoroughfares have been one-way. Then last May, the Napa City Council approved a conversion to two-way as part of the Downtown Specific Plan.
When one-way was adopted, the goal was to speed traffic through downtown. With the reversion to two-way, the hope is to slow it down.
Former Public Works Director John Lindblad, who worked for the city from 1963 to 1991, remembers the arguments supporting efforts to streamline passage through the central business district.
“Cars were backing up on First Street in the 1960s,” said Lindblad. “It got so busy and jammed up back then that we received many complaints. So the city changed it.”
Unlike the street conversion of 1967, which the city paid for itself, this road revamp has seen the downtown businesses volunteer to finance a large portion of the project — about $1 million of the $1.3 million first phase, which will convert First and Second streets to two-way between Jefferson and Main streets.
The city, however, spent more than $775,000 studying the feasibility of the conversion in the years prior to the plan’s approval.
“Almost from the day the streets were converted to one-way, people said it was a mistake,” said Napa Downtown Association President Craig Smith. “I talked to an old-timer who owned a bar in town in the 1970s, and he said that within months of making First and Second streets one way, four neighboring businesses closed down. Traffic on one-way streets moves much faster. By slowing drivers down, the businesses get more exposure and pedestrians have a safer area to walk.”
Visible signs of the pending reversion to two-way were evident last week as workers painted a rainbow of marks on the pavement to delineate major utility and water lines and streetlights were switched out to LED.
“There are more cars in Napa today then there were in the ’70s,” said Lindblad. “I think First Street is going to be jammed up again when they finish this project. It’s going to be like it was before, but way worse because of the increase in cars.”
The debate has taken on an almost “us-versus-them” quality, pitting tourist-hungry businesses and locals on opposite sides of the table.
Local versus tourist?
The truth is, most people don’t like change. Whether it’s thought to be positive or negative, many people struggle when they’re out of their comfort zone. Supporters of the street conversion project say they are fully prepared to field some complaints when the new two-way streets open this year.
“Change is always hard,” said Smith. “A lot of people will say that it was a mistake and that we should have never done it. But after a while, people won’t think that. They’ll see it was a change for the better.”
Napa Public Works Director Jacques LaRochelle said that from the city’s perspective, creating two-way streets had little to do with business interests.
“While we care about the health of downtown businesses, public safety and convenience is the main concern for us,” he said. “We knew the businesses wanted it, we studied it and we couldn’t find any public downsides. Since the businesses were ready to pay for a majority of the project and studies showed that it would make the streets safer, it was a win-win for us.”
LaRochelle acknowledged that drivers could face longer commute times through downtown, but said that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“It makes the area safer for everyone — including drivers who won’t be able to speed through the area,” said LaRochelle. “Really, we just didn’t find any downsides to doing the project. That’s what it all boiled down to for the city.”
Julie Lucido, senior engineer and project manager for the two-way street conversion project, echoed LaRochelle’s sentiment.
“Everything we’re doing is going to make the downtown safer in the long run,” she said. “It’s going to force drivers to slow down and look both ways and it’s going to increase the walkability of downtown.”
Since the city knows the project will mean substantial changes for drivers and pedestrians alike, Economic Development Manager Jennifer LaLiberté said city staff will conduct widespread public outreach and post highly visible signage alerting drivers to the change. Even so, the city’s reassurances haven’t eased everyone’s concerns.
“We have relatively few crosstown arterial connector streets downtown,” said Lindblad. “First Street is really the best through-route for drivers. This change is going to be disruptive. Yes, tourists may be able to get around downtown more easily, but the traffic will be terrible.”
Even those who claim not to have an opinion on the subject have something to say about what the two-way street conversion could mean for Napa’s future.
Local developer Michael L. Holcomb, who owns 10 buildings in the resurgent downtown area, joked this week that making traffic decisions is “above his pay grade.” But he added that two-way streets could be good for the city.
“We have experts who have told us that it won’t be a bad thing — that it will actually help with traffic flow,” Holcomb said. “We have to hope they got it right this time around. And really, there will always be people who don’t want to change. But it’s not about ‘locals versus tourists’. It’s about maintaining a local downtown Napa where tourists will be welcome.”
Before the hotels, shopping and restaurants, downtown Napa had a “mom and pop” atmosphere. Local store owners had shops that served residents of the county, while tourists flocked to wine destinations like Yountville and St. Helena.
But as Holcomb pointed out, “Tourist dollars make the world go around. First comes the hotels, then comes the retail, then comes the dollars. And that’s what we need to keep Napa vibrant,” he said.
While not everyone agrees with Holcomb’s outlook, two-way streets support such a vision. Several national studies, including a 2012 National Transportation Research Board study, found that two-way streets increase pedestrian and bicycle safety, traffic flow and sales in downtown retail districts.
“This is a way to feature downtown Napa to residents and tourists,” said Councilman Alfredo Pedroza, who supports expanding two-way in downtown once funding becomes available. “Will it slow drivers down? Yes. But you want that. Napa’s changing and evolving and part of that means making it easier for everyone to come downtown.”