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Writing a new chapter in Napa's rebirth

Empty storefronts and the vacant Copia are reminders that the wine valley's namesake city isn't yet a destination. But city planners are optimistic.

July 08, 2009|Betty Hallock

What's a town gotta do to gain some cachet? The city of Napa has new homes, new hotels, new shops and new restaurants. The once-neglected river that runs through town has been reclaimed, historic buildings have been restored, and developers have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into downtown.

Even though it's not nestled amid vineyards and the main street into downtown is lined with shopping centers and car dealerships, a year ago the valley's namesake city (long considered the poor stepsister to Yountville and St. Helena) was being touted as a destination in its own right. The working-class community at the southern end of the region was catching up to its fancier "up valley" counterparts, each new development promising a rebirth of downtown.

Now, its decade-long renaissance in the making -- which seems perpetually just shy of reaching critical mass -- is again hanging in the balance.

A cornerstone of the revitalization is the downtown-adjacent Oxbow District, which features an upscale market complex to rival San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace and two luxury hotel projects. But in the center of that is a real estate crater -- the bankrupt Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, the late vintner Robert Mondavi's 80,000-square-foot stone and concrete monolith, now empty and plastered with "no trespassing" signs.


A city in flux

As summer's high tourist season gets underway along Highway 29 -- the main artery to Napa Valley's wine country -- there is a palpable sense of a town with high hopes, still struggling toward a vision. Not only is Copia closed, but as the economy waivers, brand-new riverfront condos sit empty and hotels and restaurants expect to see fewer visitors.

"Copia played a major role in the growth of downtown and was instrumental in creating a destination," says Steve Carlin, founder and chief executive of the Oxbow Public Market, which opened next to Copia in December 2007. "It drew a lot of attention to Napa.

"I located the market in the Oxbow District not specifically because of Copia but because I thought the whole area was going to be the Soho of downtown Napa."

There certainly is promise. There are efforts to revive Copia in some form. And the city has been promised $99 million in stimulus money to help complete its extensive flood control project, of which the Oxbow District is a significant part.

Already the area includes the Oxbow market, the upscale Westin Verasa hotel, the Oxbow Commons (which will be an open public space after it is excavated to accommodate the flood project's bypass channel), and the Oxbow Preserve, a 13-acre nature and wildlife refuge. Directly across the Napa River, ground is expected to be broken this year for a more-than-$200-million Ritz-Carlton.

"We studied the valley and believe in this location," says Brad Weiser of Continental Cos. of Miami, the hotel's developer. "Obviously we're disappointed in what has happened, but I've been in touch with several of the people who have expressed an interest in Copia. Hopefully if they can get through the legal process, it's going to be the asset it can be for the city of Napa."

Downtown, a 1.35-acre retail/residential project called the Riverfront has opened along the river, changing the downtown skyline with ground-floor restaurant and retail space sitting below 50 condominiums.


Copia's key role

Right in the middle of it all stands Copia. A community group called the Coalition to Preserve Copia and others interested in occupying the building, such as the Culinary Institute of America, may yet reinvent it.

Few downplay the importance of the vision that was Copia. Propped against a wall in Mayor Jill Techel's office is a poster-size illustrated map of the Oxbow District, a loop of land created by a U-shaped bend in the Napa River and on which Copia sits. When Mondavi bought land here for Copia more than 10 years ago, it was a dusty 12-acre lot next to a tire store on what was considered "the wrong side of the tracks." (Mondavi died in May 2008.)

"Years ago, I didn't know I had an Oxbow District until the staff said, 'Let's talk about the Oxbow,' " Techel says. "It was, 'Close your eyes and imagine that you'll be at this hotel and across from it will be a park and you'll be able to go by the Oxbow Market and stop in at [wine] tasting rooms.' None of that was there before Copia," which opened at the end of 2001.

Even though most agree it's a key property in Napa's revitalization, Copia is still a community hot-button issue that brings up tensions between locals and tourists, as well as locals and vintners from other parts of the valley (who made up much of its board).

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