The ongoing saga involving the insurance company that reclaimed the bankrupt Copia site and is trying to develop it against the wishes of residents who do not own the property, continued at Thursday’s Napa Planning Commission meeting.
In the latest chapter, a proposed rezone that was meant to provide more clarity about what uses are allowed at the landmark First Street building wound up causing further confusion, and ultimately led the commission to postpone taking any action on the matter.
“This feels like a big deal, because it is a big deal,” said Commissioner Gordon Huether during the meeting. “And I’m not comfortable being hasty when it comes to a big deal.”
After site owner Copia Liquidation Trust attempted in March to sign leases with financial offices in the top floor of the building that once housed the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, local dissenters complained that such uses were not appropriate for the prestigious space.
While offices are an allowed use for the property under the city’s 2012 Downtown Specific Plan for development, a second city planning document that governs the Oxbow Commercial District, known as the PD-2, states different overarching goals that more closely reflect Copia’s original intended use as a wine and cultural museum.
After both the Planning Commission and the City Council sided with those who wanted to see more innovative development at Copia, the City Council expressed concern over the lack of clarity for allowed and desired uses at the site. Ultimately, the council asked city staff to explore requiring the Copia Liquidation Trust and site developer Keith Rogal to implement a site master plan, explicitly outlining future planned development.
Staff presented their initial proposal during Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting, which included requiring the site to be master planned before any new development takes place, as well as repealing the PD-2 zoning that seemed to differ from the city’s more recently defined goals listed in the Downtown Specific Plan.
But just hours before the commission was set to meet, the city received a request from Napa developer Harry Price, who would like to purchase the building from Copia Liquidation Trust and develop it with other residents.
In his last-minute request, Price asked the city to allow certain uses that are a part of the PD-2 zoning to continue at Copia, despite staff’s effort to remove such uses. Price contended that the uses he wanted approved for Copia were closer to the original intended use of the building.
He also argued that city staff misinterpreted the City Council’s earlier direction, which Price said was to look at what uses would be appropriate for Copia — not to simply make everything easier for developers and staff.
“The PD-2 has been a thorn in everyone’s side, but it’s the only thing that has kept this building from becoming an office space,” an aggravated Price said during the meeting. “This whole (proposal) was written with a fear of losing control. It reeks of back-room dealings”
The uses that Price wanted allowed in Copia included museum and library exhibits, education and training, conference and special event rentals, restaurants, retail and wine, beer and liquor tasting. Staff contended that if these uses were permitted across the board in the building, the developer could fill the facility with wine tasting businesses – something the city has expressly said it doesn’t want to see.
But Price argued that allowing these uses on a conditional basis would require the city to first approve any such development.
Staff and commissioners went back and forth for more than an hour on the subject, trying to imagine every possible scenario in which a developer or owner could bend the rules to create an environment the city doesn’t want to see at the private property.
In the end, the discussion further confused commissioners, who have been struggling with how to preserve the spirit of the original vision Robert Mondavi had when he built the center in 2006.
“This is all really new information and I’d like to know more about it,” said Commissioner Paul Kelley, who pointed out that he first saw Price’s request in writing only about 20 minutes before Thursday’s meeting. “I’m not prepared to make a decision on this tonight.”
The rest of the commission agreed, and instructed city staff to postpone the matter until staff had created a list of uses that mirrored the actual use of the Center for Food, Wine and the Arts when it was open. The date for a future hearing is unknown.
Copia Liquidation Trust has estimated the Copia site to be $80 million in debt. Though local Copia aficionados like Price have spoken about preserving the project’s noble intent, none have stepped forward with enough money to purchase the property.