Place: Homes proposed, opposed at Napa factory

John King
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

As is the case with too many things in today's world, high-quality design tends to gravitate toward wealth.

Renowned architects work their magic on museums, not strip malls. Developers spend more on their buildings when well-established cities like Palo Alto or Walnut Creek demand materials that will last.

That's why it's exciting to see uniquely qualified designers homing in on 152 acres along the Napa River - and why it's distressing that a citizens' initiative seeks to scuttle the potential for a fresh vision of Bay Area life that, in the process, could span the economic and cultural spectrum.

"There hasn't even been the beginning of a formal review, and opponents want to strangle our project in the cradle," says Keith Rogal of Rogal + Walsh + Mol, part of the development team that purchased the defunct Napa Pipe Factory south of the city of Napa for $42 million in 2006.

Tucked behind a corporate office park on a traffic-clogged stretch of Soscol Avenue, the site is an eerie monument to heavy industry: a gaunt 115-foot-tall crane rises above four weedy dry docks, near long metal sheds where as many as 2,500 workers assembled salvage ships during World War II.

There's not a vineyard in sight, and no hint of Napa Valley's rarefied world of fine wine, with its crowded tasting rooms and hillside mansions. But this time of year, the river beyond the dry docks spreads bayou-like in a sinuous blend of water and marsh; in the winter, it serves as a floodplain and can resemble an extension of the bay.

The new vision takes that juxtaposition - industrial relics and natural ease - and adds a self-contained, mixed-income district with 3,200 housing units.

The heart of the enclave would be a riverfront plaza embracing the dry docks and framed with three-story townhouses, some with restaurants or small shops along the plaza. From there, blocks of housing would march back and step up along a grid of streets, some as high as seven stories - tall for Napa, but well below the crane.

Two dry docks would be used for boat launches, a third for a salt-water swimming pool and a fourth for communal events such as outdoor movies. The crane would stay. So would the bones of one assembly line, and a 600-foot-wide procession of paired steel columns that supported the rails for a rolling crane.

"These are remarkable sculptural artifacts, very powerful forms," says Dennis McGlade of Olin Partnership. "Places are more interesting when you can see the traces of the past."

Olin Partnership is mapping out the plan with the architectural firm William Rawn Associates. The latter's from Boston, the former's from Philadelphia. Each brings a creative rigor to their work, rather than the sort of formulaic "smart growth" that wraps density in nostalgia.

They've also worked with Rogal + Walsh + Mol before: on the Carneros Inn, a resort about 5 miles to the west. Off Highway 121, the team took an RV park with an on-site sewage treatment facility and crafted a compact mosaic of small courtyards, prefabricated cottages and a wood-clad "town square" with a serene sophistication that feels absolutely right.

Don't take my word for it: The Inn has received a two national Honor Awards from the American Institute of Architects, one for housing and one for urban design. The Congress for the New Urbanism honored the complex as an example of "urbanism that treads lightly on the land."

The only catch is that most of us can't afford to stay there: Even the "summer getaway" package comes with a $430 room rate. There's a small market on one side of the town square and tasty onion rings at the Boon Fly Cafe, but the inn itself is for the monied class or very special occasions.

The Napa Pipe project, though, cuts across class lines. Twenty percent of the units would be reserved for low-income residents, while many of the smaller condominiums or apartments would be moderately priced by (admittedly outrageous) Bay Area standards. The riverside plaza could be a great local draw.

Still, this is a big project - especially for a county where many residents like to think they've bought into a timeless rural world, $35 tasting rooms aside.

After the county Board of Supervisors voted in August simply to study the proposal - which, if eventually approved, would take at least 10 years to build - opponents gathered signatures and put a measure on next month's ballot. Proposition N would place a 1 percent annual growth cap on new housing units on unincorporated county land unless voters give their blessing.

The spokesman for Prop. N is Jim Marshall, a Napa Valley lawyer who scoffs at the "bogus need for housing" and describes his nemesis as "a huge mega-development just south of Napa."

He says the site should be kept open for "green industry." At the same time, he complains about the traffic on Soscol Avenue, a major route into Napa - "It's a nightmare and it's going to get worse" - brushing aside that, since the Napa Pipe land is surrounded by 25,000 jobs within 3 miles, it might attract young residents who work nearby and otherwise would not be driving in from afar.

I don't pretend to be an expert on Napa politics. But I do know this: As our region grows more complex and interconnected, we need to rethink how we grow. And when inventive designers are put to work on something that could be enduringly distinct - for all classes of society, not just the upper crust - it's foolish to try to chase them away.

Place appears on Tuesdays. E-mail John King at

This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle