$700 million invested; businesses, city see exciting possibilities

NAPA – In the past decade as $700 million was poured in the city of Napa, it has been transformed into the home of some of the largest and most prestigious of the famed valley's retail and hospitality developments.

In an effort to ensure the emerging tourist center still in the relative beginning stages of growth doesn't become over-saturated or miss future investments, city officials launched an initiative this spring to write a downtown specific plan.

The Business Journal hosted an "Impact Napa" event last week featuring leaders in the planning process who discussed the purpose of the document, possible challenges and why it's needed now more than ever.

"I would say that it's happening anywhere from one to 30 years too late," said event speaker and Napa Downtown Association Executive Director Craig Smith.

"We want a plan that isn't overly restrictive but at the same time doesn't just let development run wild - something that can serve as a sort of guide along the way."

The city appointed Mr. Smith and 15 business, community and environmental leaders to a steering committee that will lead the planning debate wrapping up December 2010.

The group will host a total of seven meetings before submitting a draft plan to City Council members with possible changes to land-use, transportation, infrastructure and urban design. At the same time, the city hosted a public workshop on the topic in June, and an online survey has already received 900 responses.

Napa Mayor Jill Techel moderated a panel on the topic during the Aug. 27 Impact Napa event, explaining what led city leaders to launch the planning effort.

"With everything that has happened in the last 10 years, we are finally in a place where we can step back, look at what we've accomplished, see what has gone well and prepare ourselves for a vibrant future," she said.

Development, according to Ms. Techel, really kicked off with the beginning of the flood restoration project in 1998, which, once completed, will open up low-lying areas of the town to development. Subsequent to flood project launch, private investors started to invest millions in downtown, including the $72 million mixed-use Riverfront project, the 141-room boutique hotel Avia, a Westin Veresa hotel and hopes of a future Ritz-Carlton.

"It is important especially in an area with such rapidly growing retail and hospitality that some kind of roadmap exists to ensure development is not haphazard," said panel speaker and Napa Economic and Redevelopment Director Cassandra Walker.

She said in order for the plan to be successful, the city must ensure it has community support and that it stimulates economic growth. Survey responses show residents want a balance between meeting the needs of locals and tourists and would like to see more retail and nightlife. Ms. Walker pointed out that one of the city's biggest challenges will be finding more space for development, which is currently limited by the size and configuration of parcels.

The plan will break the city into three specific areas, including the cinedome district, the Copia region and the town center.

During the first steering committee meeting in June, members set an initial vision for the city, including hopes that the river be the heart of the community, commercial activities be diverse and an art and entertainment district be identified. Members also expressed the need for more downtown housing in mixed-use buildings and that historic attributes be protected.

Other objectives included promoting sustainable building and car-free transportation and the creation of functional and attractive public spaces.

For more information, visit the city's Web site for the specific plan, www.downtownnapaspecificplan.org.