Recently, Napa had its first community meeting to view a new Downtown Murray Plaza design. Many Napans remember the so-called Clock Tower, removed in 2001, with its crazy wooden arms that kept time twice a day. The monolith represented the worst of the 1970s Redevelopment movement that destroyed stately old Victorian buildings, leaving us with a boring strip mall of commercial shopping in the heart of the city. After almost 15 years, the city of Napa presented concepts to rethink the Plaza. The renderings were chic attempts to sell us on a new vision. However, the presentation was missing one thing: an inspirational heart.
As I wrote in 2003, Murray Plaza deserves more. Napa deserves more. It should be more than a wide spot in the road: it should be the diamond in the tiara. A town plaza should metaphorically capture its history and future aspirations at the same time.
Murray Plaza is not large -- 300 feet by 200 feet -- making it closer to a pocket park. Currently, there are five restaurants facing the plaza. While the intimate feeling is reminiscent of a European village square, there is barely enough room for art shows, entertainment, and public activities to attract both visitors and locals. However, size isn’t everything; it’s how you use it that counts.
And above all, it should reflect Napa’s unique personality, perhaps not literally, but symbolically. Rather than making it traditional, bland and boring, why not allow it to soar with excitement and color. Yes, it needs trees and greenery but it doesn’t have to be a grid-like orchard. Let’s give thanks that palm trees aren’t destined to darken the Plaza skies.
Some obvious artistic allegories would be grapes and vines, but like Napa life, they should be woven into the fabric rather than displayed as parodies of our valley.
Let’s take a step back and reflect on Napa’s history. It was and still is a river city and a water feature should be considered, however a wimpy fountain would be an embarrassment. Why not consider an abstract water wheel, or a flowing water way, shallow enough to step or play in and not get “suds-ed” by the locals? A water feature can be more than an attractive nuisance: Water is life, so let the imagination work unrestricted.
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Rather than a heavy tree cover that will take years to mature, why not consider a structural cover? Functioning either permanently or provisionally, this could give shade and still provide intimacy. Such a structure could be fabric or steel, delicate and inspirational.
If we must have any structure, why can’t it be a work of art? Perhaps abstract in shape, and incorporating local materials such as redwood, grape stakes or stone, instead of the proposed oven roaster-grill shown on First Street.
The plan did get one thing right: The North-South pedestrian access refurbishing will connect the 9/11 Memorial, First Street and Second Street, as well as Veterans Park as an extension of the Plaza. Pedestrian links don’t need to be wide as demonstrated by the Hyatt Building Westerly walk, with its abundance of landscaping and colorful overhead structures.
Murray Plaza deserves more than the run-of-the-mill planning approach using anonymous trees, vandal-proof trashcans and gum-resistant pavers. I’m not a landscape architect but I know there is sufficient talent on the design team and within this city that can, and should, aspire to do better. This plaza should be an inspiration to all residents and visitors that the Napa Renaissance is real and lasting.
Chris d. Craiker