History of Old Sonoma Road site should be recognized

Napa County Landmarks has been instrumental in helping to save many historic structures since the 1970s, when the infamous redevelopment efforts that gave us the “Clock tower” and Dwight Murray Plaza caused the tragic destruction of so many of the beautiful historic buildings downtown.

Our organization was born out of the concerns for what was happening at that time. Today, the former Health and Human Services site along Old Sonoma Road presents unique challenges as well as opportunities, and NCL is focused on encouraging an outcome which produces needed new housing while preserving the historic resources there.

Last fall, the county was considering selling the now-surplus property and development schemes that involved destroying the historic structures and crescent drive to maximize potential housing units.

NCL continues to believe adaptive reuse is the best approach to adding needed housing at the old HHS site. Over the past few months, we hired a consultant to conduct extensive research on the historic resources, held a workshop with community stakeholders on possibilities for repurposing, and, to counter any assertions to the contrary with regard to their historical significance, we submitted an application on behalf of the site for a National Historic Registry designation. If successful, the historic importance of these assets will be indisputably established as fact and offer a future developer the opportunity to take advantage of substantial tax credits for restoration and reuse of the buildings and landscape.

In an Environmental Impact Report prepared for the county a few years ago when it was considering rehabilitating the site, the buildings and crescent were deemed “Historic Registry Eligible.” NCL has simply taken the next step toward official designation on the National Register – which any organization or local citizen may do for a publicly owned property – and hired local historic consultant Kara Brunzell to prepare and submit an application with the state.

Her research clearly established historic significance dating back to the 1860s, when the central building was constructed, along with the landscaped crescent driveway, which served as ingress and egress for horse and buggy. This original structure operated as the County Infirmary and even had a working farm on site where able residents worked for their stay. In the early 20th century, the facility was remodeled by the notable Napa architect William Corlett, who designed a number of important early public buildings in Napa, including the historic Hall of Records (which NCL helped save from the wrecking ball). It was then that the two flanking Spanish Revival style buildings were added using reinforced concrete – most likely the first use of that technique in Napa.

In January, we invited community stakeholders to a workshop to present these findings and start a dialogue with the aim of crafting a win/win for housing advocates, neighbors and preservationists. Noted Sacramento architect Mike Malinowski, a consultant to NCL in this process, pointed out that the original building and semi-circular driveway were established very near the beginnings of the city, and the state itself.

We are happy to report that this February, the State Historic Resource Commission voted unanimously to grant National Historic Registry status to the buildings and crescent – an emphatic statement in support of the site’s historic bona fides. The process to finalize the designation is nearing completion, which will be acceptance by the Keeper of Records at the national level.

The purpose of this effort was not to present, in any way, a roadblock to the development of housing at the site. Rather, it was to settle the debate over its historic significance as well as to support our advocacy for incorporating the historic elements as part of any future development. NCL continues to maintain that the project will be a better one for future residents, the surrounding neighborhood and the community-at-large, with the buildings and landscape thoughtfully repurposed. Keeping the historic resources also provides for a smoother ride to public acceptance and potential city approval based on satisfying CEQA requirements. While a preservation-minded project will certainly be more challenging up front than scraping the site clean to fit as many units as possible, it will doubtless be a better long term investment for all and give future residents a sense of pride in where they live.

Again, NCL says yes to housing that fits the surrounding neighborhood both in capacity and architectural style and which helps maintain that bridge to our past. We continue to stand willing to collaborate with housing advocates, decision makers and neighbors to achieve an end result we can all be proud of. The ultimate rewards of preservation benefit everyone. As an all-volunteer, non-profit organization, we invite like-minded Napans to join us in our efforts. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the 1970s. We are lucky to still have these historic jewels and should be compelled to be careful with them.

Ernie Schlobohm

President, Napa County Landmarks

Submitted on behalf of the NCL board: Craig Songer, Bill Tuikka, Dan Cutright, Shari Kamimori, Marie Dolcini, Jay Jacobson, Karen Wesson, Susan LePage, Terry Wunderlich. napacountylandmarks.org

This op-ed by Ernie Schlobohm Appeared in the Napa County Register on Apr 6, 2018

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