Up the Valley: Character-defining Elements

February 5, 2014

Our local leaders make an unusual proposal to protect a local eyesore:  My latest column in the Star….

It is remarkable how one neighbor’s eyesore can be another’s architectural treasure.

In the decorous neighborhood where I grew up, one house on our street featured a lawn display adorned by plastic deer and the associated flora and fauna of an enchanted forest. For years neighbors plotted — and sometimes accomplished — the kidnapping or mutilation of Bambi & Family, but replacement creatures always magically appeared in their places.

Another neighbor’s front yard contained a tranquil Japanese garden complete with bonsai-style trees, cement pagodas and cherry blossoms that, while lovely, were in distinct disharmony with the wagon wheel-adorned ranch house next door. In otherwise restrained neighborhoods, I’ve seen homeowners display a lifetime’s accumulation of hubcaps, beer bottles and faded, burnt-bulb lawn figures re-creating Santa’s Workshop year-round.

Here in St. Helena, where the town’s residents rarely reach a consensus on anything, there is a building located on a busy corner of town that is so incongruous, so dilapidated and so deleterious to the landscape, its pending demolition has inspired a resounding chorus of: “It’s about time.”

Chiming in with dissenting voices, strangely enough, are The People’s representatives at City Hall.

By way of background, let me explain that the blemish in question consists of the unsightly remains of a gas station built in the 1940s. It is a battered white metal box with a small service window, connected via tattered overhang to a platform that once supported gasoline pumps, harkening back to a time when motorists had their gas pumped and windows washed by live humans. In its day, it undoubtedly displayed a distinctly Edward Hopperesque Deco design. But today it is downright shabby, held together by peeling paint, decades of congealed grease, and plastic signs advertising smogging services.

The owners of the local hardware store — a respected and community-spirited family — purchased this old gas station property, which is adjacent to their store. They planned to replace it with a well-designed two-story commercial building, welcomed by many residents as a long-overdue overhaul of the downtown streetscape. Two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, their developmental dreams were dashed when city officials deemed the rickety relic a “character-defining element” of the downtown historic district, triggering further delays and pricey environmental impact studies.

Rather than demolishing this architectural anachronism, City Hall’s planning experts are demanding that the owners relocate it to a public park several blocks away, where it can be shored-up and repurposed as (wait for it) a restroom.

Ah yes, what greater tribute could be paid to the architect’s vision than to have his work permanently enshrined as a public toilet, where transients, escapees from police custody and local canines frequenting the adjacent dog park may forever seek refuge in its historically insignificant embrace.

Ironically, City Hall is itself such a ramshackle teardown that city leaders tried last year to offload it to some unwitting buyer looking to invest millions of dollars to replace it with a hotel, hoping guests would taste enough Napa Valley cabernet to sleep through the eardrum-splitting sirens of the Fire Department downstairs. City officials seemed desperate to dispose of the premises before someone discovered ancient relics buried in the basement or spotted owls nesting in the eves, or before some do-gooder came along and had the thing declared a “character-defining element” of historic downtown.

Still, this irony may present the perfect solution. Since the current occupants of City Hall seem so sentimental about this former service station, I would propose a swap. The hardware store owners should be permitted to build their new commercial building on the current site of City Hall, while city government should be relocated to the old corner gas station.

This would prove extremely convenient for everyone involved. Residents and prospective business owners could utilize this “Drive-thru City Hall” to have their permits denied without the bother of having to get out of their cars. Land-rich-but-cash-strapped locals could drop off sacks of gold, livestock or other tributes to pay their ever-rising water bills. And routine municipal services could be outsourced to overseas workers, at considerable cost savings to the city.

Imagine driving up to the window, but instead of an attendant, you encounter a giant menu and tiny speaker, just like Jack in the Box. You might select No. 1: Business License, No. 2: Building Permit, No. 3: Use Permit, and so on. A courteous Indian-accented voice streams through the speaker, saying: “We will be exceedingly pleased to help you. It is our great happiness to serve your profoundly important needs. If you will kindly give us your most excellent order and your telephone number, we will be contacting you very shortly, or never, as the case may be. Thank you for doing business with the Best Exotic City of St. Helena.”

If only you could order fries with that, it would be perfect.

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3 Responses to “Up the Valley: Character-defining Elements”

  1. Pat Dell Says:

    Laura, You are the best. I laughed so hard I cried. Keep it up. Pat

  2. Grace Kistner Says:

    Laura,

    As a Planning Commissioner I shouldn’t comment. But RIGHT ON!

    Grace

  3. Nancy Haynes Says:

    Fabulous column & brilliant idea — thank you!


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