Copia’s empty shell is ready to be filled.
The Culinary Institute of America has received Napa’s go-ahead to transform the defunct food-and-wine center into a satellite of the cooking academy’s Greystone campus in St. Helena.
A transformation that will include demonstration kitchens, revived restaurant and a remodeled outdoor amphitheater won the city Planning Commission’s approval on Thursday, nine months after the institute purchased the dormant site at 500 First St. for $12.5 million.
The revived building, to be billed the CIA at Copia, will become a venue for cooking demonstrations and food and wine events led by a rotation of guest chefs. The school also has shared plans to host weddings and business events and operate a shop with cooking equipment, books and specialty foods.
The culinary academy’s mission for the building partly overlaps the goals promoted by its creator Copia, which opened in 2001 with great publicity as a showcase for Napa Valley wine, cuisine and fine arts but closed seven years later under a $78 million debt burden.
CIA’s renewal involves only relatively minor changes to the Copia building’s metal-and-stone skin and a minor increase to its 80,000-square-foot capacity. Rather, the academy seeks to reshape the interior and entrance for its teaching and outreach activities in Napa.
A key to the redesign will be to create easier and more welcoming passage into and through Copia’s main building, according to Naomi Miroglio, a San Francisco architect working with the culinary institute.
A restaurant that will occupy the former Julia’s Kitchen will receive its own doorway, allowing diners to enter it directly from outside without using the main entrance first. To make room, CIA will remove an inner staircase, which Miroglio called barrier-like and redundant with other stairways available.
“It makes the gardens more accessible, it makes the building more accessible, and we think it’ll be a more enjoyable place to be,” she said of changes she described as breaking down Copia’s “ticketed fortress” that placed most activities behind an admissions area.
Elsewhere, viewing kitchens will take up a former gallery on the upper floor, and the downstairs area will host a Vintner’s Hall of Fame stocked with artworks and other exhibits. A museum will display a collection of tableware and cookware in tribute to the late Chuck Williams, who created the Williams-Sonoma kitchenware company.
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Behind the building and facing the Napa River, an amphitheater bowl will be terraced to create more comfortable seating at concerts and public gatherings, and a shade overhang will cover the venue. CIA also will build a 1,500-square-foot greenhouse for indoor activities that will replace Copia’s hothouse, which was taken down after its 2008 shutdown.
Twenty-six new parking spaces will line the property’s east driveway and turnaround area, adding to a parking supply Copia shared with the Oxbow Public Market directly west. Finally, a new art installation from the Napa artist Gordon Huether will adorn the entrance – an 18-foot-tall fork composed of thousands of metal table forks. (Huether, a planning commissioner, recused himself from the vote and missed Thursday’s meeting, and Tom Trzesniewski was also absent.)
City planners were eager to reopen the old Copia center after eight years of inactivity, but showed some concern for the culinary school’s future parking supply. CIA’s purchase included only the parking lot north of First Street, and a separate sale of the south lot would leave the school 15 slots short of the Copia building’s expected peak parking demand, staff members said.
ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., which owns the south lot, put the property on the block in June for an undisclosed price.
Though planning officials expect parking demand to fluctuate between about 20 and 180 at different times of the day and week, Commissioner Michael Murray asked CIA leaders to work closely with neighbors and nearby businesses to ensure no conflicts over parking.
“The parking, I hope you can manage that animal,” he said. “Students will probably be there longer than a couple hours, so it’ll be more like permanent parking.”
For events likely to draw the largest audiences, CIA plans to use the Napa Valley Expo and Elks Lodge No. 832 on Soscol Avenue to the north, whenever those lots are available. City planners required the institute to review the off-site parking supply annually, and Paul Kelley suggesting regularly sharing event calendars with the Expo – host to the BottleRock music festival and the Town & Country Fair – in order to minimize conflicts.
Whatever the future of parking in the area, planners appeared gratified to receive for Copia’s old home a new occupant whose mission closely models the original owner’s – an important find for a unique building they considered especially tricky to refashion into offices, hotels or any other use.
“I couldn’t think of anyone other than the CIA who would be as viable a tenant to do honor and justice to this space,” said Kelley, who approved the plan along with Murray and Beth Painter. “This is the softest and lightest touch to the building that’s possible.”
The CIA plans to open the restaurant in the second half of September, with the store and demonstration theaters also part of the first phase. Construction should be complete by the end of 2017, said CIA spokesperson Stephan Hengst.