I applaud the city council for having solicited wider public input to better define the guidelines for a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the development of the Adams Street property. At the same time, I urge it and the public to consider it within the context of a wider urban planning perspective because it presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the town experience and revive its floundering retail infrastructure for decades to come.
This experience has been slowly deteriorating over the past decade and a half and has precipitated in a downward spiral with a steady increase in store closings which will not be reversed by Main Street beautification or by providing 50 more hotel bedrooms on Adams Street as beneficial to city revenues they may be.
As City Council member Mary Koberstein correctly recognizes (St. Helena Star, Aug. 8), for our downtown “businesses to survive, many of them depend on tourists and customers from elsewhere in the Napa Valley.” Correct as this assessment may be, “depending” on visitors lacks specificity on how to attract them or what it involves in terms of urban planning for the town’s future.
Drawing from my own experiences in cities relying on a tourist economy, purchases are rarely the target-reason for a visit. Purchases are incidental, impulsive while visiting in search of a unique town experience, the one St. Helena is lacking.
Is a visit to our town conducive to spending a pleasant afternoon there? I cannot imagine how. Visitors exploring the valley will stop in St. Helena and walk up and down Main Street for half an hour once; no incentive to do it twice? It is wishful thinking that they will make purchases while doing so before getting back in their car on their way to the next town that may well be in Sonoma County.
On the other hand, if they were offered opportunities to linger in town while having a pleasant time, their frame of mind would change, increasing the chances of inducing them to take something with them or even come back before returning home.
Which brings me back to the opportunity offered by the Adams Street property within an urban framework with this goal in mind. Making things slightly more complicated is that such lingering experiences can be accommodated only on Main Street, not on Adams Street. Further, a street experience cannot have commercial gaps of public buildings such as our City Hall or pure parks such as Lyman as it is currently utilized. Such civic functions belong on Adams Street, including a small park with a music venue that is what the 2008 visioning of the site determined. It also envisioned housing, which can be well replaced by - perhaps supplemented with - a 50-room hotel.
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Such plan would free up space on Main Street with a restaurant - café - retail plaza around a unique in the entire valley park setting at Lyman where people – visitors and residents alike – can linger, enjoy human activity, make connections and do ever-popular people watching.
We like to talk about St. Helena being a “real” town, but no town is “real” when it lacks inviting communal indoor/outdoor human interaction venues and experiences. With growing competition all around, St. Helena has become a “pass-through” town. But the sheer anxiety and frustration of traffic congestion just to get there needs to be rewarded with experiences worth the trouble, and this involves reasons to spend time there.
When we are talking about a hotel cost-benefit analysis, unless we define “benefit” in the broad terms I outlined, it will miss the boat.
The opportunity presented by a small hotel on Adams Street must not be squandered in a myopic urban context exclusively centered on that street. It alone will do nothing to revive the town’s attractiveness, its retail infrastructure, its uniqueness in making visiting it a worthwhile endeavor or enhance its quality of life.