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  • Writer's pictureCRAIKER

Murray Plaza & The Clock Tower Revisited

Who remembers the Downtown Clock Tower? The Clock Tower Plaza, as it was known locally, was the center of Napa. There wasn’t much else there at that time. People would say, “Meet me at the clock tower!” Named after Dr. Dwight Murray, a colorful Napa surgeon, it featured a depressed mini-amphitheater, a stone fountain and the infamous nonworking clock tower, accurate twice a day. The plaza has remained frozen in 70’s ill-advised design.

In 2001, the city tore down the clock tower and removed the fountain, claiming it was old fashion, and out of touch. The monolith represented the worst of the 1970’s redevelopment era when stately Victorian buildings were destroyed in the name of progress, leaving us with a boring strip mall and an impractical plaza with a dangerous depression.

Nineteen years after the tower’s demise nothing has happened to the plaza. In 2016, Napa staff and consultants presented multiple plaza design concepts that filled the hole, added trees and fixed seating. The stylish renderings attempted to sell us a new vision, anticipated to cost $1.5 million although bids came in at well above that.

In 2017, A floating ring-shaped canopy design was approved as the Plaza centerpiece. The “Veil of Water,” composed of thousands of suspended aluminum tiles that would sparkle in the breeze like pond ripples. Complaints of cramping the plaza were heard but the design was approved and to be paid out of Napa’s developer art contributions. To date, nothing has happened. In fact, in late 2019 the City Council pushed the renovation into 2020. With present budget woes, good luck on that!

But here’s where it gets interesting. A preliminary plan by Zapolski Real Estate for the 2 acre+ Kohl site will repurpose (redevelopment is a bad word) it as 120 units of housing, a hotel and a boutique grocery store. Kohl’s needs to find a new home before the city will review this new project applications.

Zapolski’s ambitious $250 million proposal will be making a sizable contribution to the Public Art Fund. He also has the option to pay or build into his project 1% of the construction costs, or $2,500,000 which will exceed the original budget. And I bet if he builds it as a private developer, the city will get more bang for the buck.

While the plaza isn’t big, size isn’t everything, it’s how you use it that counts. Above all, it should reflect Napa’s unique personality, history and tradition in a new and exciting vision. Why not allow it to soar with excitement and color. While it needs trees and greenery, it doesn’t have to be a grid-like orchard. And with good luck, no palm trees.

Murray Plaza deserves more than the run-of-the-mill planning approach using anonymous trees, vandal-proof trashcans and gum-resistant pavers. This Plaza should be an inspiration to all residents and visitors that the Napa Renaissance is here to stay.

And maybe we’ll get a clock tower back that celebrates Napa Valley!

Chris d. Craiker AIA/NCARB

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