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Home > News > News Articles > 2015 > February > California City Solutions: Napa Transforms Economic Development Through Flood Protection Project
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California City Solutions: Napa Transforms Economic Development Through Flood Protection Project

February 20, 2015
This story is part of an ongoing series featuring Helen Putnam Award entries.
Napa-Flood-Photo-2006.jpgThe 2014 entries are available on the League’s website as a resource for cities in a searchable database called California City Solutions. Napa’s Downtown Riverfront Improvement Integrated with Flood Protection project was submitted in 2014 for the Community Services and Economic Development award category.
The Napa River is a significant estuary system, delivering fresh water from Mt. St. Helena down to the San Pablo Bay and eventually on to the San Francisco Bay. Six miles of the lower river meander through the city of Napa, flowing right through the edge of its downtown district and many residential areas. After experiencing many devastating floods and attempts at flood control, the voters approved a local flood tax. With this funding, and more than a decade of planning, the Napa River-Napa Creek Flood Protection Project took root and began transitioning a floodplain while increasing economic development for the city.
Since 1862, Napa has suffered through more than 21 major floods that brought extensive damage to commercial and residential areas within miles of the river’s natural flow, with the most costly impacts seen in its downtown area. The perpetual flood risk left the city with a health-and-safety issue and property damage concerns. Flood damage negatively impacted the economy, environment and overall quality of life for Napa County residents.
Since 1998, the city of Napa has been engaged in a comprehensive, ongoing program to enhance community services and economic development by integrating riverfront improvements into the Napa River-Napa Creek Flood Protection Project. These efforts have resulted in vast enhancements to public space and river access and a spectacular downtown renaissance that continues to gather momentum.Napa-Riverfront-Before-and-After.jpg
One of the most memorable floods for current residents took place in 1986. That flood came unexpectedly one February night after a week of rain that dumped 12 inches, took three lives, and destroyed more than 250 homes, resulting in an estimated $100 million in damages. After storms dumped 12 inches of rain on the community, the river jumped its banks to devastating effect. Three people died, 250 homes were destroyed and the damage totaled about $100 million.  Many thought it was the flood of the century, however floods equivalent to the one in ’86 were statistically expected to occur about three times every 100 years. 
While having an attainable river running through the center of the city could be seen as a benefit, many riverfront properties remained neglected or underused due to the constant flood hazard. The city’s riverfront had become an assortment of businesses that could stay afloat financially in the flood-threatened area and that didn’t require vast improvements if a flood impeded their properties.
Makeshift efforts to contain floodwaters by raising the bankNapa-First-and-Main-before-and-after.jpgs with fill material had done nothing to stop serious floods but degraded the riparian and riverine habitats. Many native plant and animal species had been diminished by changes made to the floodplain and marsh areas over many decades. Environmentally degraded zones along the river included a large area contaminated with petroleum products.
The river was being viewed as a liability instead of a community asset. It had few community access points, which were difficult to use. Public space adjacent to the river was minimal, with no trails, only one park area and a city dock that floods often washed away.
After two failed attempts to get voter approval for a flood control measure in the 1970s, the severe flood of ’86 motivated officials to find a solution. The city joined ad hoc Community Coalition formed in the 1990s to re-work a flood control plan. The coalition comprises 400 individuals representing more than 25 diverse groups and interests, among them Friends of the Napa River, Napa Valley Economic Development Corporation, Napa-Mckinstry-Before-and-After.jpgNapa County Resource Conservation District, Napa Chamber of Commerce, California Department of Fish and Game, Sierra Club, Napa Downtown Merchants, and the Flood Plain Business Coalition.
The group returned to the drawing board several times to edit flood plans before voters approved a half-cent flood sales tax in March 1998. It provided funding for local property acquisition, the construction of new bridges and the relocation of utilities. 
A “living river” concept was adopted developing three fundamental goals:
  • Protection from flooding on the Napa River and Napa Creek;
  • Environmental restoration of the river and its adjacent lands; and
  • Appropriate development along the river that would increase community access and enjoyment of the river while fostering economic development. 
Napa-New-Public-Dock.jpgConstruction began in 2000 in the undeveloped areas south of the city. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used new techniques to create flood protection, reconnect the river to its natural floodplain while restoring or recreating more than 900 acres of historic wetlands. As work moved upstream, toward the downtown area, the city took the lead. It managed the design and construction of four major bridge replacements, provided necessary environmental cleanup and positioned riverside properties for future development.
Napa-People-Riverfront-Park.jpgThe project preserved historic and low-income housing on the west side of the river, while cleaning up contamination and expanding the floodplain to the east. The city advocated for riverside trails to be incorporated into the project design ensuring that areas such as Veterans Memorial Park and the Oxbow Bypass were designed and funded as usable public space amenities rather than simply water conveyance or detention areas. Napa-Aerial-Downtown-Area-After.gifThe city contributed funding for projects that were not covered by federal components and private sector developments.
After six years of construction, the city started seeing results. The damage from a New Year’s Day Flood in 2006 was far less than it would have been if a number of project components had not been completed. Dozens of species of fish, birds and mammals began to repopulate areas where they had not been seen in decades. Contemporary hotels, offices, retail and housing replaced blighted and underused properties along the river's edge, increasing economic development for the city.
The Great Recession hindered the pace of the project, but the city used the slowdown to develop a Downtown Specific Plan. It specified public improvements, a public art ordinance, creating a permanent funding source for public art, and a Tourism Improvement District, establishing a dependable funding source for destination marketing. Investors have renewed private development efforts, new businesses are filling once-vacant spaces, and businesses that weathered the recession are now prospering.
Napa-Downtown-at-night.jpgAs of mid-2014, the city was experiencing a strong economic rebound, which was accelerating the completion of river trails and its third pocket park on the riverfront. The crucial Oxbow Bypass is on the verge of construction – the next major milestone in providing flood protection with space for a public park.
The total public and private investment (real estate transactions and construction) in the riverfront/ downtown area since 1996 now tops $1.16 billion, with just under $1 billion of this amount from private investment.

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