Napa has a few sights that might elicit a reaction of “What were they thinking?”
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A beat-up, abandoned complex of white stucco and cement structures sits in the midst of now-touristy downtown Napa. The thick concrete wall to contain Napa bypass floodwaters has a section that’s a leaky chain-link fence. A short Napa River trail seems like a trail to nowhere.
Here is the why behind what at first glance might seem like puzzlers.
Old city bus depot
That small complex of stucco and concrete structures is on Pearl Street near Napa Creek and Kohl’s department store. Overhangs, aging benches, a building with an iron door and a graffiti-covered pay phone, minus the receiver, are ghosts of another era.
Nothing here fits in with today’s downtown, with its fancy hotels and restaurants. What is this abandoned misfit and what might its future be?
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RIP, former Napa bus transfer station, which was born in 1988 and died in 2012. This is a once-bustling mass transit hub that is no longer used.
“I would agree it’s a bit of an eyesore,” Napa Mayor Scott Sedgley said.
The city in 2020 approved selling the old bus transfer station and an adjacent parking lot for $870,000 to a development group. This land is to be redeveloped along with the bigger Parkway Plaza property that includes the Kohl’s building.
But the sale isn't a done deal. It has an escrow that lasts until a development agreement is created and building permits are issued for a Parkway Plaza project, with an outside closing date of Dec. 31, 2035.
For now, the city remains the official owner of the bus transfer station.
Sedgley doesn’t want a worst-case scenario of having that abandoned station sit deteriorating for years to come. If the Parkway Plaza project is delayed terribly long, the city or Parkway Plaza owners might improve or remove the structures, he said.
“Even if you could make some curbside parking, a few additional spots,” he said.
It all comes down to budget priorities and who pays, said Sedgley.
Napa was proud of its brand-new, $701,000 bus transfer station on Pearl Street in June 1988. It even offered free bus rides to show the complex off.
The station near Mervyn’s department store — Kohl’s today — had such features as bus shelters and restrooms. Bus officials and riders seemed upbeat.
“It makes it easy, convenient and classy to ride the bus,” city transportation manager Cindy Romaine said on that long-gone day.
No longer would Delores Frensley sell tickets from the Gordon building downtown. She had a ticket booth at the new place.
“There’s more room, it’s brighter and more cheerful and I’m more accessible to the people,” she told the Napa Valley Register.
By 2000, the city wanted to move the bus transfer station. The Napa flood control project along Napa Creek would change the access to the Pearl Street location, making it harder to reach.
That flood control work didn’t happen for another decade, as things turned out. By then, a new site for the transfer station had been found. The Napa Valley Transportation Authority in late 2012 opened a bigger, more modern facility a half-mile away on Burnell Street.
The Pearl Street complex had ended its life as a bus hub and begun a phase that extends to this day — a downtown white elephant.
Trail to nowhere
Local resident Yvonne Baginski is among those who sometimes hike one of Napa County’s short, sweet and more puzzling trails.
“It doesn’t go anywhere,” she said.
Built in late 2014 and 2015 at a cost of $250,000, the trail begins near the entrance to the Napa Sanitation District wastewater plant. It runs briefly along the Napa River, then along a slough until it peters out at Napa Valley Commons.
The total length: about seven-tenths of a mile.
“I don’t walk it as often because it’s so short,” Baginksi said. “I usually want to walk two or four miles.”
Thousands of people, without knowing it, pass within about 100 feet of the trail every day — 100 feet above it, to be exact. They are on the Butler Bridge that takes Highway 29 over the Napa River near the Grape Crusher statue. The trails runs under the bridge.
This tiny trail seems like a missing piece in search of a bigger puzzle. And that’s what it is.
The trail is part of the Napa River Trail, the Napa Valley Vine Trail and San Francisco Bay Trail. There just aren’t any connecting pieces to anything else yet. It’s ahead of its time.
Someday, the trail is to extend south into American Canyon. The Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition in 2021 approached the Napa Sanitation District about building a connector piece on the district’s Somky Ranch property.
Someday, the trail is to extend north to the Napa Pipe property and then to Kennedy Park, where it is to connect to existing trails leading to the downtown city of Napa and Yountville.
“By doing this link now, we’re ready for Napa Pipe to put in their section,” former Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District General Manager John Woodbury said when the trail opened in 2015.
For now, users can enjoy the trail for what it is. Those who feel uncomfortable walking alone might want to bring a friend, as they will be off the beaten track.
“There are not a lot of people on that trail,” Baginski said.
Sights range from waterfowl skimming the glassy waters of the slough to boats on the Napa River. Sounds include the constant stream of Highway 29 traffic on the Butler Bridge towering over the trail. Smells include a faint boggy odor from wetlands.
The surface of the trail seems like a cross between a pavement-like surface and gravel. It is rutted in spots. The idea was to avoid using asphalt that can have tar in water run off.
Flood wall gap
Napa’s $18.5 million flood bypass opened in 2015. This quarter-mile-long swath linking the Oxbow and downtown Napa is usually a park, but not during monster storms.
Then the bypass becomes a parallel Napa River, carrying potential floodwaters past a curve in the river and keeping the downtown high and dry. That has happened on a few occasions.
The bypass has never been tested to its full capacity. It’s never held so much water that it’s been bursting at the seams.
Lining the bypass are concrete walls about a foot thick. They would keep the water inside the bypass boundaries if a storm of the ages ever strikes. They are there for the Big One.
But there’s a 130-foot gap in the concrete wall near Soscol Avenue and Pearl Street, near the eastern half of the parking lot where the Napa Farmers Market is held. Here, there’s only a chain-link fence.
No, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers didn’t suddenly run out of money for more concrete and finish the barrier wall on the cheap. The gap isn’t to let water escape the bypass. Rather, it’s to let water in.
Jeremy Sarrow, operations manager of the Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, explained the situation.
As it stands now, a 100-year flood could see the Napa River jump its banks in the Lincoln Avenue area. Water would run down Soscol Avenue for more than half a mile and reach the bypass. If a concrete flood wall was there, water would crash up against it.
Instead, there is the gap so water can flow from Soscol Avenue into the bypass and back to the Napa River.
The federal government in 2021 awarded $48.3 million to build flood walls along the Napa River near Lincoln Avenue. Sarrow said groundbreaking could take place in a couple of years. The project is being designed.
When that project is finished, the Napa River flood threat at Lincoln Avenue and on Soscol Avenue should be gone. Sarrow said the gap in the flood wall at the bypass will then be closed.
Had the bypass existed in January 2006, the bypass gap would likely have been needed then. A New Year’s storm sent muddy, brown Napa River water flowing south of Lincoln Avenue.
The Maxwell Bridge rises about 60 feet over the Napa River, carrying Imola Avenue and Highway 121 on a graceful concrete arch.
But why is the bridge so tall? After all, a boat some four or five stories tall going up and down the Napa River would be a rare sight indeed.
The answer to that question might lie all the way back in the 1940s, long before the current version of the bridge existed.
Napa County in that era wanted a bridge built to take Imola Avenue over the Napa River. The proposal was for 35 feet of clearance. But the shipping interests objected and apparently so did the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, saying the height was too little.
A compromise was reached. A drawbridge would be built with a fixed height of 25 feet, which would allow 90% of water traffic to pass underneath. The drawbridge would open to a height of 60 feet when needed to take care of the rest.
In October 1949, the Maxwell drawbridge debuted. The green metal structure that looked like an Erector Set creation served the city for decades, its metal deck making for a jolting auto ride.
Boats wanting to use the drawbridge had to give Caltrans 72 hours' notice to raise it.
Cut to the late 1990s. Napa County was looking at a flood control project. An improved Maxwell Bridge would help with the Living River concept of creating floodplains. Also, a new bridge could be four lanes, rather than the bottleneck of two lanes.
The flood control environmental impact report from 1999 settled on a bridge with a clearance of 60 feet to match the clearance of the drawbridge it would replace.
Then-Public Works Director Mike O'Bryon in a 2003 opinion page piece in the Register mentioned the 60-foot height. This would allow boats that historically used the river to continue doing so and also ensure that the Army Corps of Engineers would continue to perform maintenance dredging on the river, he wrote.
The new bridge opened in 2005, though work remained to be done into 2006.
As for a four-story boat, American Cruise Lines advertised that its American Jazz riverboat will include Napa on its San Francisco Bay cruises. But it's no sure thing the big ship will be traveling under the Maxwell Bridge on the way to downtown Napa.
The bridge is tall enough to handle the Jazz. But Charlie Gondak of Tideline Marine Group — the company that operates the city of Napa's downtown dock — mentioned the depth of the river as a potential barrier to big ships.
"There's not enough water, unfortunately," he said.
At any rate, the Maxwell Bridge is hardly the biggest bridge around. The Butler Bridge that takes Highway 29 over the Napa River south of the city of Napa is about 100 feet tall.
But that's another story ...
You can reach Barry Eberling at 707-256-2253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.