Letter to the Editor: Health and Human Services Building!

Big thanks to NCL Board Member Marie Dolcini for writing this fantastic letter to the editors! Say YES to historic preservation!

Infill Housing on Historic Sites?

Preservationists Say ‘Yes in Our Backyards!’

Dear Editor-

Increasing affordable housing stock and saving historic structures from the wrecking ball is not an either-or proposition. Unfortunately, in the case of the old Health and Human Services campus along Old Sonoma Road, there are those who would have you believe it is.

Make no mistake. As residents, neighbors, parents, seniors, employees and employers, we absolutely support infill development and workforce housing on the site. The question of density remains and should be determined in partnership with all stakeholders. But as preservationists, we believe that neighborhoods that retain and celebrate their unique and historic attributes aren’t just more aesthetically pleasing, environmentally responsible, and more enjoyable for residents and visitors – they are better long term community investments.

What makes neighborhoods, towns and city districts livable and attractive? Thoughtful design that’s sensitive to local context and that enhances our experience of the built environment. Adaptive reuse – or repurposing old buildings for new use – is a common strategy for preserving historic structures and can:

  • Preserve local history
  • Define/retain/improve neighborhood character
  • Conserve resources and reduce waste
  • Serve as catalysts for neighborhood revitalization efforts
  • Offer developers a range of state and federal tax credits

The old Napa Infirmary buildings on the site of the former Health and Human Services campus are another distinct part of our town fabric with a history dating back to 1910. These three Spanish Colonial structures and crescent drive are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and a great candidate for adaptive reuse, but the option has yet to be honestly explored.

Consultants MIG were hired by the county to offer conceptual sketches at a second public workshop back in February and showed only one possibility for retaining the century-old buildings and crescent: Flanking the complex with 5-story apartments to achieve desired density. Clearly, MIG’s preservation option was designed with only perfunctory effort and was a non-starter to anyone who saw the rendering; unfortunately, they did the County and citizens a disservice with their polarizing presentation.

The good news is that since then, County leaders have acknowledged citizen disapproval with their demolition plans in order to maximize density on the site and have postponed the project indefinitely.  Instead of rushing ahead without a clear mandate, they should commit to vetting developer partners experienced in infill projects that involve historic resources.

Some local examples of citizens rallying to save threatened structures with the help of visionary developers in the past include:

  • Blue Oak School
  • Napa Mill
  • Opera House
  • Jarvis Conservatory
  • Hall of Records
  • First Bank Building (now Allegria)
  • Franklin Station Post Office

What would Napa be without these iconic landmarks? Once neighborhood eyesores/detractors, all are now cherished architectural icons adding distinction to neighborhood and town character and to our shared sense of place. With effort and creative thinking, we can do it again.

According to a 2015 California Office of Historic Preservation case study on infill development, “Local government planners and preservation advocates should work with project proponents through the local preservation review process, and/or the CEQA process to incorporate historic resources into infill development design.”

A cursory search online of the terms “adaptive reuse” and “infill development” reveals a wide range of award-winning projects across the country reflecting just such a collaborative approach. Most, if not all, took advantage of a variety of federal and state tax credits and local grants to make their projects reality – including low income housing tax credits, state and federal historic preservation and new markets tax credits, grants/offsets from municipalities and foundation and private support.

Citizens in Martinsville, IN, repurposed their old infirmary to affordable housing project for seniors 55-years old and older. In Boston, MA, the housing authority rehabilitated five historic former hospital buildings into 94 units of affordable and market-rate rental housing. And in Cleveland, OH, residents partnered with community development organizations to renovate a former hospital listed on the National Register of Historic Places into 137 affordable apartments for seniors.

While preserving the historic resources at the old HHS campus will admittedly add another layer of complexity to what promises to be a complex process, it needn’t necessarily be more expensive given potential tax credit offsets and the fact that the buildings are not extraordinarily elaborate. And the quality of construction of these century-old structures should also factor in any cost/benefit analysis: affordable housing simply cannot be built to the same standard.

Napa County Landmarks recently submitted an application to have the historic complex officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places to draw greater attention to it as a threatened resource. At the same time, we stand ready and willing to work with the City and County to ensure that any future development of the site is an unqualified success.

Our “mini Presidio” is a perfect candidate for creative repurposing and could accommodate low-moderate income, senior or veterans housing, commercial development and/or serve as communal areas for future residents. The distinct crescent drive and lawn could continue to serve as a street buffer and public green/open space. 

We wholeheartedly embrace infill, but urge a more creative, thoughtful approach to addressing our collective need for housing that also recognizes the site’s merits. Instead of seeing historic attributes as an obstacle to adding as many units as possible, let’s view them as development opportunities for accommodating growth, revitalizing communities and preserving our shared past.

– Board of Directors, Napa County Landmarks 
– Preservation Action Committee, Napa County Landmarks 

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