Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Place Review: Copia

I recently reviewed the Oxbow Public Market. During my visit, the vacant Copia building on the Public Market’s east flank was a looming presence. It’s an urban walkability issue that calls for resolution.

Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts opened to high expectations in 2001. The wine community of the Napa Valley, led by the Robert and Margrit Mondavi, had been planning and funding the undertaking for over a decade. With the University of California at Davis, Cornell University, and American Institute of Wine & Food as partners, Copia was built to celebrate and to promote the agriculture and art of the Napa Valley and beyond.

But from the day it opened, Copia didn’t resonate with the general public. People failed to grasp the combined elements of museum, restaurant, class rooms, and stores. It was a fine building with interesting things to see and to do, but people were unsure how to interact with it. This confusion combined with an admission charge to stop the turnstiles from spinning. (Confession: I was one of those staying away. I visited about two weeks after Copia opened and found much to enjoy, including the setting along the Napa River. But I was unsure how to make use of what Copia offered, so never visited again.)

After seven years of operating losses, Copia closed in November 2008. The front doors were locked and the surrounding gardens begin a slide into weed-infested dereliction. Some will argue that Copia changed the image of downtown Napa, changing it from the support system for the rest of the Napa Valley to a destination worthy of its own visit. But even if the argument is accurate, the benefit didn’t spill over to Copia itself.

I won’t second guess the Copia development team. I imagine they’re still asking questions of themselves. Instead, I want to talk about what has happened since the 2008 closing. Which, at least to the eyes of passersby, is nothing.

Walkable urban settings are fragile entities, especially at their margins. If a suburban big box goes belly-up, drivers can purse their lips at the vacant storefront and then drive a little further to a new big box that will happily accept their money. But when a business at the urban fringe goes black, pedestrians stop and turn around.

Luckily for Napa, there are few pedestrian destinations to the east of Copia to be hurt by its closing. But a healthy and functioning use on the Copia site would draw pedestrians from downtown. Those pedestrians would benefit the Oxbow Public Market and the other businesses in the Oxbow district.

There is a major write-down to be taken by the Copia lenders. I’m sure that the loss isn’t comfortable but, at least in my view, there should be a community obligation to acknowledge the loss promptly and to return the site back into productive use. To delay re-use of the site hurts the citizens and businesses of Napa.

In his book “The Geography of Nowhere”, James H. Kunstler argues for a variable property tax base. Within the urban core, only land would be taxed. The value of structures wouldn’t affect the property tax. On the suburban fringe, only buildings would be taxed. Development of urban parcels would be incentivized, with development of suburban parcels would be disincentivized.

The concept is fine, but doesn’t go far enough. There should also be a higher property tax rate for buildings within the urban area that are empty. In terms of inhibiting pedestrian travel, I suspect that an empty building, especially one in disrepair or surrounded by weeds, is a bigger negative than a vacant lot. I don’t want to penalize the building owner for a failed use. The market has already done that. But I want to encourage them to accept the loss, to re-price the property to the current market, and to let the urban fabric heal.

There is some good news on the Copia site. A local developer is interested in the site and is seeking public input on a new use, much as I discussed in an earlier post. I haven’t yet provided my comments, but will soon.

On another topic, but staying in the Oxbow district, I had another opportunity to eat at Gott’s Roadside. I was uncomfortable with the previous review of my breakfast there. I felt that Gott’s was capable of better and wanted to give them the chance to prove it. I was correct. Although menu has an adventurous side, I stayed simple with a plain hamburger and fries. It was a fine meal. The fries in particular were worthy of praise. Fresh from the fryer, crispy and hot, but not greasy. They were close to the perfect fries.

The burger had great ingredients, tasty beef that was slightly on the pink side of medium with crispy lettuce and a fresh tomato slice. The only negative was that the bun was slightly soggy on the bottom. The bun appeared to have been cut with the bottom too thin. It was a minor quibble.

The early evening atmosphere in Gott’s was fun to watch. It’s the only diner I know with a corkage fee. A very modest $1 corkage fee. I watched a young couple arrive with a baby carrier and a wine bottle, perhaps straight from the wine dealer in the Public Market. Another couple was sharing a seared ahi burger and a couple of beers. I could spend evenings in Gott’s just watching the Napa scene.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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