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The future home of Napa’s city government may be in the same neighborhood as the old one. Or it could be moved across downtown to a spot by the river – if it can be armored against floods.

On Tuesday, the City Council drew closer to choosing a place for Napa’s new City Hall, police station and main fire station. From a slate of 26 potential sites that had been whittled to four finalists, councilmembers agreed to focus on two – the Second Street block that currently hosts city offices and Napa Police, or the neighborhood on Pearl Street where the Cinedome theater once stood.

Each location had its strengths and drawbacks for councilmembers, who had to balance the familiarity and higher elevation of the current City Hall neighborhood – the base of Napa government since 1951 – against the cost of finding temporary office space during two years of demolition and construction on the same site.

Meanwhile, the Cinedome area held promise for supporters who predicted an easier building job on a property largely taken up by a parking lot and the vacant site of the Cinedome, torn down in 2015 – as well as the backing of police officers looking for easy access to four-lane Soscol Avenue to respond to emergencies more rapidly.

But any construction in the theater’s old environs would face the challenge of keeping a public safety hub dry and functioning so close to a stretch of the Napa River that lacks the flood-control improvements built elsewhere on the waterway over the past two decades.

Faced with such pros and cons, four council members voted not to make an immediate decision but to let Napa staff decide whether the Pearl Street site can be made fit for construction at reasonable cost.

“We have flood control, but we need to expand on that,” said Liz Alessio, emphasizing the importance of public safety services that can do their work in the face of natural disaster – like the Napa flood of 2005, the 2014 earthquake or the North Bay wildfires in 2017.

Since March, a team combining city staff and consultants pored through more than two dozen building sites before deciding only four – including the existing City Hall area and the Cinedome neighborhood—were spacious enough to accommodate both city and law enforcement offices, either next to or near each other.

A report by the team, published last week, recommended against two of the four options. The Jefferson Street property where a Safeway supermarket operated before the 2014 earthquake was rejected due to the cost of removing soil contaminated by past dry-cleaning businesses. To the east, a swap with Napa County to acquire its Third Street headquarters and the nearby Sullivan block was considered unlikely after past discussions between the governments petered out.

Before the vote, Supervisor Ryan Gregory confirmed the county has no immediate plans to part with its existing offices.

Instead, the report’s authors supported sticking with the current location, the focus of a building effort the Napa council approved in 2017, based on its central location, minimal need for private land purchases and its safe distance from flood-risk zones surrounding the river and Napa Creek.

That argument was enough to satisfy Councilmember Scott Sedgley, who cast the only dissenting vote against also keeping the Cinedome location in play. At the city’s present-day site, “we control the land, we know it’s not contaminated, and we know what we have,” he told colleagues, saying any delay in decision-making would set back the project further.

After the selection of a site, city staff and consultants are scheduled to develop project alternatives and financial estimates by the early fall, with a council decision expected later in the fall.

Despite flood-risk concerns, Aaron Medina of the Napa Police Officers Association came out in favor of a police base – separate from other city offices – in the Cinedome area, saying the nearness of Soscol Avenue just east would lead to speedier officer response than on the narrow two-lane streets in the heart of downtown.

Yet to be seen is what effect a Cinedome-area city headquarters would have on existing plans for the district, where a master plan envisions a mix of new housing and retail construction with a parking structure for more than 300 vehicles. That strategy involves a mix of eight properties controlled by the city, the Napa Sanitation District and SyWest Development, owner of the former theater parcel.

A change of locale could become the sharpest turnabout in Napa’s quest for a new city headquarters, which began two years ago with the approval of a downtown civic center combining administrative offices with a police station, pulling together departments that have sprawled over the years from an undersized City hall to seven other locations.

Envisioned as a four-story building replacing the Community Service Building on First Street, the civic center originally was to have been a modern replacement for both the aged City Hall on School Street and an outmoded police station damaged by the 2014 quake. But mounting opposition from employees and residents, combined with rising cost estimates and complaints about a lack of community input, have led Napa leaders to rethink not only the project’s design and scope but also its potential location.

The council in March approved a re-evaluation of the project, dropping the “civic center” title and rechristening it as Napa Public Safety and City Hall Facilities Project, focusing on city offices, police and fire stations, and new parking construction. Outreach since the spring has included talks with city employees, an online survey and an idea-sharing workshop held in May.

Also Tuesday, the council extended its exclusive negotiation agreement with The Plenary Group, Napa’s partner in the city hall development, by nine months to Oct. 27, 2020. The pact empowers Plenary to bargain on a contract to design, build and maintain the project.

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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.