A community group called the Coalition to Preserve Copia wants to freeze modifications of the Copia building until there is a city-approved reuse master plan for the entire 12-acre site.
Coalition president Harry Price and vice president John Salmon, local developers, have written a letter asking the city to block plans to carve up the main Copia gallery into offices while a more comprehensive plan for the First Street property is developed.
This is a “serial attempt” to convert the former cultural and educational project into another use “without the required environmental studies,” they wrote in a March 14 letter to Rick Tooker, the city’s community development director.
This “attempt at an end-run conversion” is a “blatant attempt” to avoid environmental requirements to study the entire proposed project at one time, said the coalition letter.
In December 2011, Keith Rogal of Rogal and Associates was chosen by the parcel’s controlling entities, the Copia Liquidating Trust and ACA Financial Guaranty Corporation, to come up with a reuse plan for the former center for food, wine and the arts.
After years of declining attendance and facing overwhelming debt, Copia closed abruptly in November 2008 and later filed for bankruptcy.
In December, the owners floated a concept plan before the Planning Commission for the 12-acre complex, include possible housing, a hotel, as well as commercial, restaurant and retail sites.
In March, the owners asked the city to carve up a former permanent gallery space into three commercial offices ranging from 1,220 to 5,864 square feet, and add exterior windows on the second floor facing First Street. The city is reviewing that request.
The letter states that conversion of Copia to other uses such as office space for financial institutions or other commercial uses is “totally inconsistent” with the original Copia project, its objectives and purposes, and was not studied by the original environmental impact report from when Copia first opened.
“A commercial office use fails to achieve any of the objectives of the Copia project,” wrote the Coalition to Preserve Copia.
The conversion is a “serial attempt” to convert Copia piece by piece, the coalition asserts. Any changes should be reviewed through the entitlement process, include an environmental assessment, and be reviewed by Planning Commission and City Council, the letter stated.
“The community needs to know what’s planned for the reuse of the existing building and the adjoining property,” said Salmon in a phone interview. “Are they converting this cultural building to offices so they can put up a new office building next to it?”
“Changes could be made to the building in a piecemeal fashion, which somehow make other uses more difficult,” said Salmon. “Or they become baby steps toward approval of something that if we knew what the whole plan was, we might not start down that road.”
“I personally don’t think any changes should be made to the building until the plan is approved for the reuse of the building and the entire site,” Salmon said.
Harry Price declined comment.
In response to the coalition’s letter, Rogal issued a statement. “Everything we will propose for the former Copia property will be consistent with the Downtown Specific Plan and its current zoning for the property.
For now, Rogal said he wants to make the facade of the Copia building warmer by adding wood and glass in place of metal panels, making interior alterations to allow multiple tenants, creating a new driveway and opening up access to the north garden area, restaurant and retail spaces, Rogal said.
The goal is to attract tenants and to transform what were private gardens in front of the Copia building into an “inviting new public park,” Rogal said. These improvements would be consistent with the existing use restrictions and the planning and building code, he wrote.
“We are committed to moving as briskly as possible to bring vitality back to this vacant building and surrounding parcels,” Rogal said.
“In the longer term, based on input gathered from the community to date, we will bring forward a proposal for development on the surrounding lands. This will be a mixed-use plan, with various components, and will of course receive extensive input from the public, the planning staff, the Planning Commission, and the City Council,” Rogal said.
In a letter Wednesday to Tooker, an attorney for the Copia Liquidating Trust said the owners expect that the city will determine the appropriate environmental review.
According to Tooker, an application for a plan for 500 First Street, as the property is now known, has been submitted by the Copia Liquidating Trust to the city, but the plan itself has not yet been submitted.
“The application itself contains very little information at this early stage to even begin to have the necessary discussions to process Copia Liquidating Trust’s proposal and begin the stakeholder review process,” Tooker said in an email.
“However, simultaneous to the master planning effort, Copia Liquidating Trust also proposes to lease existing space within the former Copia building, which has been largely vacant for several years now,” he wrote.
“Where these uses are consistent with the zoning for the property as in the Downtown Specific Plan, and they do not advance the future master planning efforts, which have not begun to be processed, Copia Liquidating Trust can advance the tenanting plans,” Tooker said.
Salmon was part of a group that presented an offer to ACA to buy the building in 2009, but its offer was not accepted. His criticism of the Rogal remodeling proposal isn’t sour grapes, Salmon said.
“It’s motivated by an effort for the good of all,” Salmon said. “Our interest in good things happening to the property has not waned at all.”
“It’s possible that when a plan is brought forward that covers the building and property, that it might be totally acceptable to the community,” Salmon said. “Let’s get the facts on the table and we’ll go from there.”
Tooker urged a spirit of cooperation. “It will serve the community well if those interested in the former Copia property work together to create a common vision for the site,” he said.