What can bring the kiss of life back to Copia, four years after its failure?
A developer unveiled a revival strategy to Napa’s Planning Commission on Thursday night calling for an active street seeded by street-level retail, a hotel, multi-story housing and better access to the river.
Keith Rogal proposed surrounding the onetime culinary showcase with a hotel to the west, shops along First Street, and housing south of the street. Together with a mix of tenants inside the former museum building, a variety of uses in its midst would draw a stream of locals and visitors to the neighborhood in the way Copia failed to do, he said.
Despite the museum’s closure, Rogal emphasized the site’s potential for revival, noting the barely decade-old building, strong business at the neighboring Oxbow Public Market, and the Napa River vistas on three sides.
But using those advantages will require refashioning an area deadened by too much surface parking and a layout that largely faces away from the water, he said.
“There’s simply no energy in what’s otherwise a tremendously dynamic area, no enlivening activity,” he told planners at City Hall. “Besides the Public Market, there’s very little movement there. That corridor should be lined with retail of some kind, (and) we need to make the waterfront useful and interesting.”
Rogal’s presentation to the Planning Commission offered the first details of a possible new look for the Copia center, which opened on First Street in November 2001 to great fanfare, only to shut its doors and declare bankruptcy after seven years amid sliding attendance and $78 million in debt.
The compound is now under the control of the Copia Liquidation Trust and ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., and the companies assigned Rogal and Associates of Napa to devise a reuse plan. A draft city staff report, citing the Downtown Specific Plan, called for “flexibility for a variety of uses” at the 12-acre site.
A beginning rather than an end, the Copia proposal focused on where to place various land uses rather than the details of architecture or the number of parking slots.
But Rogal’s plan recommended placing a future hotel between the Oxbow Market and Copia; adding cafés, restaurants and storefronts along First Street to prop up sidewalk activity, and opening the area south of First for rental and condominium housing, possibly including three- or four-story residences.
Because the additions would occupy parts of the current parking areas, below-ground parking would be created at the hotel and housing areas, and possibly a multistory parking garage with more storefronts at ground level, according to Rogal.
The Copia building would become home to a mix of retail, restaurant and office spaces under the plan. The museum’s theater would retain its function and be made available to local groups, Rogal said.
The outline of a new Copia development received a mostly polite response from planners and audience members. But some were concerned that the scale of the additions — especially multistory homes — would be at cross purposes with the stated hope of improving access.
“This is the Napa Valley, and people come here to enjoy the nature, the openness of the valley,” said Dennis Bertolucci. “To box it all up with housing, it defeats the whole purpose of opening this area up.”
Planning commissioners appeared receptive to some of Rogal’s ideas, but also were cautious about adding to downtown’s stock of retail space with vacancies continuing to linger farther down First Street.
“It’s a very aggressive plan, not unlike the original plans for Napa Pipe or Carneros Inn,” said Tom Trzesniewski. “Fifty thousand more square feet of retail space is quite a lot. I would like to see this site not suck the wind out of downtown.”
“This seems like a creative and thoughtful beginning,” said Commissioner Gordon Huether, who has an art gallery at the west end of downtown. “But I want to make sure it also has a positive effect on the other businesses that are reinventing themselves in Napa.”
Another Napa resident urged city planners, whatever the final details of Copia’s revival, to create something as useful to Napa residents as to visitors.
“That’s what Steve Carlin has done so well with the Oxbow Market, and we should focus on local-serving things to keep the community involved with it,” said Chuck Shinnamon. “That’s what Copia failed to realize: to succeed, you need a strong local following.”