The old Howard Hospital building in Willits has been torn down, and the site is now being cleared. The three-acre property, which is currently zoned for public facilities, is likely to go on the market at a fortuitous time for rezoning, as the City of Willits works on the land use element of its general plan.
The old hospital was built almost a century ago, with an almost 30,000-square-foot main building and a half-dozen smaller ones. These facilities sat empty for seven years. Arnie Mello, CEO of the Frank R. Howard Foundation in Willits, said that demolition began at the first of the year, after crews remediated the asbestos in the wall and flooring, so as not to contaminate the neighborhood with particulate matter. Mello didn’t provide a figure for the cost of the demolition but said that Les Giacomini, of L.D. Giacomini Enterprises in Ukiah came in with the lowest bid and won the contract. There is limited local capacity to handle the amount of debris, but Mello was satisfied with the pace of the work.
In 2016, after the new Howard Hospital was built on Marcela Drive, the Foundation tried to sell the old property, thinking that it would be an ideal location for a mental health facility. “It stayed on the market for a couple of years,” Mello recalled. But “what we found, over the two to three years that we had that property listed, was that every plan started with demolition.” The building is over a hundred years old, and the cost of retrofitting it to meet modern requirements would be more prohibitive than tearing it down. Mello also noted that it was expensive to maintain the building and pay property taxes on the site, which was drawing vandals. “Our preference, of course, would have been to repurpose the existing building for something related to healthcare,” Mello reflected. “But we couldn’t find someone who was interested in the existing facility…we just felt as though this was the most logical next step for us. And I think that the property will be much more marketable, now that it’s a bare lot.”
Dusty Duley, the Community Development Director for the City of Willits, said the new lot is an opportunity to consider rezoning the property, which is now zoned for public facilities. The city has modified its zoning to allow dwellings upstairs from businesses, in an effort to increase housing stock. But with the land use element of the general plan getting its first update since 1992, he said the city is working to create a more traditional commercial and residential mixed-use district.
The city has gotten three state grants for the project, which includes opportunities for members of the public to present ideas for rezoning. Property owners can apply to local government bodies to rezone their parcels at any time, but city councils and boards of supervisors can always turn them down, which, Duley said, “can be a very expensive no,” after hiring environmental consultants to make their case for them. Since the city is presenting the update to the land use element, rezoning ideas can be included in the environmental review for the project as a whole. Rezoning applications are not available to the public yet, but Duley said interested parties can contact him at the Willits planning department for more information.
Mello expects the old Howard site to be cleared sometime next month, “barring any unforeseen circumstances.” He said there’s been some interest in the property, and the Foundation’s focus is turning to the newer campus, with the existing Adventist hospital. “While we’re sad to see the old hospital go, we are excited about the future development of the campus out on Marcela Drive,” he said, including patient housing on the lot south of the new hospital. There are also plans for a wellness center and an auditorium, which could be used for educational purposes as entertainment purposes.
The demolition is the end of an iconic building, but Mello maintains that “Some good stuff has already happened. We replaced that old hospital which served us so well for so many years, with a state-of-the-art facility which is the envy of most any other small community.”