Monday, April 2, 2012

Place Review: Downtown Napa

When my wife and I were first married, a little more than a decade ago, we lived in Napa. To this day, I have good feelings about Napa. But when I think back to the early days of our marriage, I remember taking evening drives up valley, to view the vineyards and to eat in St. Helena. Our trips to downtown Napa were more infrequent. We had good meals there, but we weren’t drawn to return regularly.

With those recollections in mind and with another decade of insights into how downtowns work, I crossed the bridge from the Oxbow District to take another look at downtown Napa. It remains a place of promise that’s only partially fulfilled.

Twin Falls, Idaho has a quirky downtown grid. The heart of downtown is twisted 45 degrees from the surrounding east-west, north-south grid. The town founders reportedly thought the rotation would allow sunlight to more uniformly reach their new streets. They were right. Streets that run east-west can be sunlight deprived, particularly in the winter months.

Twin Falls popped into my head as I walked west on First Street, which should be the heart of downtown. More sunlight would certainly help the street appearance. On a late March morning, the street felt perhaps not dark, but under-illuminated.

However, orientation isn’t the only concern with First Street. It’s also the architecture. Much of downtown Napa was built in an era of now dated architecture. Without pulling building permits, I’ll guess it was the 1960s and 1970s. Even worse, the buildings are largely dun colored. And although I’m a fan of street trees, the trees along First Street seem to further subdue the sense of a working downtown.

First Street also suffers from an absence of vista points. Vista points can be dramatic buildings, appealing parks, or other features that motivate pedestrians to keep moving. But the streets must bend occasionally, or meet in odd corners, to create places for vista points. First Street through the downtown core is dead straight. The lone building with interesting architecture can’t be seen from more than a block away.
Overall, First Street does little to draw pedestrians onward. And where pedestrians aren’t motivated, downtowns struggle to work.

Is First Street fixable? Well, the orientation and alignment are set. However, the architecture might offer opportunities. First Street needs a few taller buildings, preferably on the north side of the street, with visually-appealing architectural details and brighter colors. And perhaps also a couple of sidewalk caf├ęs. Something that suggests potential delights to the pedestrian who will walk another block or two.

Although First Street looks dated, new development has been happening in Napa. In previous posts, I visited the Oxbow Public Market and the late Copia in the Oxbow District east of downtown. Even closer is the Riverfront complex a couple of blocks south of downtown.

Riverfront has a great location along the Napa River, fine architecture, and good detailing. It only lacks one element to be a successful place. People. On a beautiful mid-morning at the start of spring, a good place should have more faces than Riverfront.

A bit further downstream, at least one cause of the lack of people becomes evident. There are beautiful condominiums overlooking the river. But what happens to good condominiums in the Napa Valley? They’re bought by people who live elsewhere and visit only on weekends. For places to thrive there must be homes for people who live, work, and shop in the community. Riverfront lacks those homes.

Also, the walking route from downtown to Riverfront is unfortunate. The supposedly preferred route is along the river. It sounds pleasant, but the crossing under Third Street is dark and forbidding. Even with the sounds and smells of cars, I prefer walking on city streets to walking through dank underpasses.

Also, using city streets can offer insights to the community. One such insight on my return to downtown evoked a smile. An old building that looked to been a bar in earlier life was undergoing renovation. The intended new use wasn’t obvious, but reuse of existing buildings can bring more life to downtowns than new architecturally faddish construction.

I need to talk about the downtown Napa parking structures. They work fine and are in convenient locations, but the architecture is woeful. To my civil engineering eye, I’d call it brutalist architecture, modified with rough-cut timbers and coated chain link fencing. It was likely the style when the garages were built, but the garages look badly dated today. It’ll be a blessing to downtown when the garages reach the end of their productive life and can be replaced with structures that says “wine and gourmet food” instead of “architectural fad”. As I was taking my photo, a bystander asked me “You’re taking a picture of that?” I assured him that it was for illustrative purposes only.
Lastly, I should note that Napa is in the process of adopting a downtown specific plan. I applaud the action. As noted at a recent Urban Land Institute program on redevelopment, downtown specific plans may have increasing importance as a new approach to redevelopment evolves. However, I do have a concern with the draft specific plan. The sections that I’ve read may be too general. Specific, clear-cut standards that aren’t subject to re-interpretation by planning staffs and city councils are often needed to induce developers to undertake urban development.

Overall, downtown Napa should be capable of much greater success. I hope it can find that success.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

1 comment:

  1. Amen to the "...clear-cut standards that aren't subject to re-interpretation...". I have no experience with the pitfalls of urban planning, but I am woefully familiar with neighborhood bickering over inadequate and ambiguous CC&Rs. Good suggestions, Mr. Alden.