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Is There a Chance for New Life in Downtown Napa?

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB


I read with much interest two articles in the Napa Valley Register this last weekend about the First Street County Services building, locally known as the Carithers Building, and Kevin Courtney’s take on the now defunct Clocktower in Murray Plaza. They might be considered two separate topics, but they are linked indelibly as a major part of Napa‘s past, present and future.


As I noted in Architex Angle November 14, 2022 the Carithers Building is barely functioning and is in need of a $6 million replacement HVAC system. The sad thing is, this two-story mess replaced a stately Victorian stone clad building demolished in the 60’s Redevelopment stampede. The appraised value of the building a few years ago was $8 million and with the stagnation of the office real estate market, it’s doubtful its value has appreciated and with today’s high office vacancy rate, it might even be lower. It’s hard to image any building worth close to or less than its proposed HVAC replacement.


The County Supervisors have floated the idea of building a new facility on the Third and Coombs Street parking lot with a budget between $100million and $165million. By the time this complex gets designed the price tag will be $200mill and by the time it gets built…well, let’s just say, it will be a lot of money. In the meantime, the County continues to put band-aids on the Carithers when the inevitable replacement is necessary.


Ultimately the solution could be simple: move the occupants and facilities to the HHSA South Campus off Industrial Way at 2751 Napa Valley Corporate Drive. The County took over the Mylan Campus, often referred to as Day Labs, in 2013 and has yet to use more than 150,000 square feet of its 350,000 square feet capacity. I again raise my recommendation that the existing Carithers building be put on the market for development as a mixed-use project with retail at the ground floor and residential at the upper floors. The views will be spectacular.


Kevin Courtney in his Napa journal revisited the clock tower that was removed in 2001 to make way for a new Murray Plaza. That vision for a new energized community focus has not happened. The biggest pot hole in Napa still exists in Murrays Plaza.


Murray Plaza and the Carithers building are interlocked. They are a part of the central north/south spine from the Napa Creek to the Third Street bridge, paralleling Main Street and is among our most important pedestrian Paseos. The plaza itself is barely an acre and a half and has four to five restaurants/food services facing the plaza.  It has an intimate feeling, reminiscent of European village squares, with enough room for art shows, evening entertainment, and public activities to attract both visitors and locals.


Above all, the Plaza and the Paseo could reflect Napa‘s unique personality.  A new clocktower could be a part of its renovation, although it doesn’t necessarily have to reflect our obsession with the wine industry. At the same time, the desire to “slow down Napa” could get an extra boost here by creating a wide, lite-up pedestrian crossing across First Street connecting Murray Plaza with a new Paseo to Third Street.


The Murray Plaza deserves to be resuscitated with a serious effort to create a continuous garden of art and exhibits from the Napa River and the 911 Memorial to Third Street. It merits more than a run-of-the-mill planning approach using anonymous trees, vandal-proof trashcans and gum-resistant pavers. I’m not a landscape architect but I know there is sufficient talent in Napa that can, and should, aspire to do better. This Plaza should be an inspiration to all residents and visitors that the Napa Renaissance is real and lasting.


Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB loves Murray Plaza as the real center of Napa


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