Napa--The City's Downtown enters a new era .

.. By Joe Hilbers

In just a few decades Napa Valley, thanks to its extradordinary wines, has come to enjoy world wide fame. And as the result has attracted tourists from just about everywhere.

For the City of Napa, which historically has always been the business and financial hub for the Valley, this huge influx of tourists was not the boom it should have been. Few of these visitors even saw much of the City as they moved up the valley to the wineries.

So the City elders, business people and civic minded decided they must reinvent the historic downtown district. Since its early beginnings the Napa River has been both a plus and a minus for the City. In earlier eras it offered the best transportation to San Francisco and other bay area communities. The problem was that about once a decade the river flooded leaving the downtown area under a few feet of water.

In 1997 the City set about designing a flood control plan to solve the problem permanently. To do this they brought in both state and federal agencies to examine solutions including environmental protections. Also an effective plan to solve flooding could include ways to reinvent the historic downtown area of the City. It would attract new developers and entrepreneurs as well as encourage those already there to renovate and expand their businesses.

It worked to a remarkable degree so that today Napa's downtown district offers a rich mix of hotels, restaurants, wine tasting rooms and an exciting art district. The dramatic turnaround downtown Napa has experienced since the flood plan was launched in 1997 was outlined for us by Mayor Jill Techel. This took place at a breakfast meeting held at Downtown Joe's Restaurant which offers views of the adjacent Napa River and some of the new bridges that span it.

The Mayor explained the strict limits placed on the plan which she called a living river project. This meant keeping the river in its original bed and course with no levees and environmentally friendly to wildlife. The project reclaimed a huge new wetland where the River empties into San Francisco Bay. For recreation there are nine miles of trails including the walks on two levels of the Promenade that now line the banks of the river downtown. Mayor Techel also told of the dramatic effects the project has made with a total of $898 million dollars in new investments, all in downtown Napa. The whole project was done with voter approval and funded with both local and federal funds.

The Napa River in downtown Napa wanders in a large oxbow requiring many bridges, now newly built with grace as well as utility. This oxbow has been named as a particular district in the City much of it industrial and the project has included the revitalization of this area as well. The River's oxbow course was the principal reason for the flooding that occurred 23 times in one hundred years. Now a bypass has been made that relieves this condition but with banks and foliage that are environmentally friendly. The site of the breakfast meeting at Downtown Joe's was well chosen since we had a view of the River, the bridges and work still in progress of the Oxbow bypass.

The Napa River has its own walkway for leisurely strolls with many businesses now offering access from this River Walk. Many of the old historical buildings have been retained and brought up to most modern standards. Gordon Huether is a renown artist and also chairman of the Napa Planning Commission. With the eye of an artist Gordon had much to do with the way new development in downtown would match the historic theme. His idea was that new buildings downtown should have a presence that matched what was already in place.

Gordon personally conducted our group on a walking tour of the City's Art Walk Sculptures now in place as well as the art galleries that cluster downtown. We also visited his own Gordon Heuther Gallery on First Street located in a new plaza, one of several, now to be seen along Main Street and typical of the charm and ambiance most display. His own works are on exhibit world wide. The works of the galleries we saw show a remarkable variety of modern art and great versatility.

One of the joys of exploring downtown Napa was leaving the automobile parked for everything we wanted to see was in walking distance. To learn about the history of Napa we joined an historic walking tour lead by local historian George Webber. George was elegantly attired in top hat, vest, and waist coat and cane and showing a full beard and mutton chops. He looked like a banker who had just left his elegant mansion to start another successful day in the 1880s.

George had much to tell us about how the gold rush of 1849 fueled Napa's beginnings with countless saloons and the activity of ships docking along the Napa river's shore. Following the miners were settlers who learned of the wonderful farming possibilities the Valley presented while the City of Napa became and still is the financial hub of commercial activity. Napa soon showed its financial success with elegant mansions that can still be seen today. One we visited is Churchill Manor which shows with its columns and wide porches the classic mansion of the old South.

Today Churchill Manor is a bed and breakfast restored to its full stateliness by Innkeepers Brian Jensen and Joanna Guidotti. Inside the parlor rooms show the original old growth redwood columns and paneling that would be unattainable today. The grand manor was originally built in 1889 by Edward S. Churchill, a successful Napa banker. Since his wife May Wilder Churchill was originally from the South he created much of it in a classic Southern style. Today Churchill Manor is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The place to start is the Napa Welcome Center located at 600 Main Street and entitled "The Napa Valley 'Legendary'. Here you can find out anything you wish to know both about th City of Napa and the Valley. We found most interesting a table size relief map of the Valley showing all the towns as well as the geography displaying how mountains rim th valley on three sides. It also reveals how the geography has shaped the climate and the reason for the Valley's wine appellations, many of these based on climate variations. For instance why the climate of theCarneros appellation close to the bay and outlet of the Napa River is so different from that of Calistoga at the other end of the Valley.

In upcoming issues of Vittles there will be more to tell of Napa's downtown new beginnings including its dazzling array of new restaurants and our afternoon aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train.

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Last Update:3/30/12

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