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Reinvention: Todd Zapolski

Author: Bonnie Durrance
July, 2013 Issue

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A couple of years ago, a visitor, wandering into the Napa Town Center, looked around in bewilderment and asked Todd Zapolski, “What’s going on here? Why is this, this way?”
 
The visitor’s facial expression, remembers Zapolski, a real estate developer from the East Coast, who had been working on projects in the Bay Area since 1999, suggested that of someone caught in a time warp who found himself in, maybe, an outskirt of Lincoln, Neb., instead of iconic Napa Valley, the national treasure and destination for world-famous wine, food and lifestyle. At the time, Zapolski had no answer.
 
“Maybe it was the timing,” he says now, reflecting on how things have since changed, “or maybe nobody was willing to put in the effort.” Now he's putting in the effort and, if all goes as planned, The Shops at Napa Center will be a key part of the overall renaissance that’s transforming the city of Napa.
 

Napa’s awakening

Back in the 1980s, Zapolski recalls, when the Town Center was built, Napa was a sleepy little town. A working town. And the town shopping center had the homey look typical of middle America in that era. But by the 1990s, the city of Napa had started to yawn and stretch. A group of visionary community leaders came together and tackled the seemingly insurmountable problem of a river whose periodic flooding cost heavily in downtown property damage and even lives. They worked against politics and the expediency of simple-seeming answers with a long-range vision for Napa in mind.
 
The resulting, multiple award-winning Napa Valley Flood Project, designed to control flood waters according to “living river” principles—letting the river take what it needs, leaving the waterfront safe for a thriving city life—has become a local triumph and a model for the nation. Instead of a defensive bulwark and monument to anxiety—as traditional flood walls tend to be—the Napa Valley Flood Project is a living example of how comprehensive thinking can create an inclusive plan that serves the betterment of all.
 

It’s all about momentum

The success of the flood plan opened up volumes of possibility and visionary energy. Soon after, perched near a bend in the river, came Robert Mondavi’s Copia, the daring, if Quixotic, “center for wine, food and the arts.” People may have wondered how all that ambition would play out, but nobody could have missed the fact that, with Copia, Napa was announcing to the world that it was ready for a big vision.
 
The fact that Copia’s specific manifestation didn’t succeed doesn’t, according to Zapolski, an experienced developer, mean it was wrong to have tried. “There are a lot of projects that don’t make it,” he says, “but they create interest and energy that others can come along and benefit from.”
 
After the flood plan was completed and Copia appeared, the energy started to move in Napa. The upscale riverfront development, with its attractive residential areas combined with fine restaurants, shops, hotels and a beautiful riverside walk, had ignited excitement and even glamour. Suddenly, over the space of 20 or so years, Napa was happening. But the Town Center still snoozed. Zapolski had been watching and waiting for his moment.
 
“We looked at this property when it went on the market in 2001,” he says, “but we passed on it. Then it was in play again in 2006, and we looked at it again, but another group tied it up. In my mind, it was still too early.” By 2010, the economy was still in the doldrums, but Zapolski was looking at changes in the market and reminding himself that the Bay Area, with all its advantages, wasn’t likely to remain stagnant for long. He could see the Town Center becoming a key part of the revitalization of the city of Napa—if it was done right. When the time was right in 2012, he made his move.
 
He first acquired the Dunne Building, on First Street, to anchor the parcel. “It was a nice little piece, and the timing was right and the people who owned it were tired—so we were in the right place at the right time.” The Dunne Building was the cornerstone for his project. “It was a key piece to saying, ‘OK, maybe we can assemble this in an organized and positive way to bring this together and get enough real estate to create the momentum to make this work!’”
 

Critical mass is critical

To make his vision work and create a sustainable project, Zapolski allows that there needs to be a critical mass of focused energy. “We’ll have wine and restaurants, but our focus and interest is retail. It must be retail-driven.” The marketplace thrives on synergy. Shops and restaurants, like people, thrive when they’re in good company. “For the retail to come in, you just can’t do one over here, one over there. They need to see enough co-tenancy to say, ‘This is a destination.’ And we believe this could be a destination—not only for the valley or the region, but hopefully, for the country and the world. A place that makes you say, ‘Look, you gotta see this! You gotta be part of this!’”
 
Zapolski, a managing member at Zapolski Real Estate, LLC, a North Carolina company, who splits his time between Durham and the Bay Area, acquired the old Napa Town Center, along with three other parcels, the Cal Fed Building, Merrills Drug and a separate retail parcel on First Street. “So now the five parcels are all being put together into a master plan we’re calling The Shops at Napa Center.” As he describes it, the key to the success of the new project is the Napa Downtown Specific Plan.
 
“I think we were fortunate to put this together in a whole that makes it viable,” he says. “Our timing is good, we have a background in doing this, and we have great, great associates who’ve been part of the project from design, construction, leasing and hotel planning—top-in-class folks who are excited about it.”
 
He’s also had full support of the town. “The mayor’s been great,” he says. “And the council has really stepped up. The city manager, too. Generally, they really believe in this. They have our back and will make sure we do this well.”
 

City support

“I was thrilled last year when Todd Zapolski made the purchase of the property,” says Napa’s Mayor Jill Techel, “and have been excited as he’s shared his vision.” For her, the scale is right and the plan nicely fits into the whole revitalization that’s going on in Napa. “What I like about The Shops at Napa Center is that it will bridge Main Street and the West End,” she says. The proposed hotel, in particular, will enhance the area. “Hotels, we find, bring in people who stay downtown, shop downtown, eat downtown and go to the Opera House and Uptown and shop at the stores. So we’re really excited. I think the locals are excited to see it get going, too.”
 
Dorothy Salmon, a long-time community and business leader and enthusiastic shopper, who was a driving force behind the flood project as well as part of the early concept for Copia, says she’s dreamed for 20 years of Napa being a place full of liveliness, with 20- and 30-somethings out on the town, having fun. “Everybody laughed at me,” she says, laughing. But her dream could well materialize. “Todd is bringing the downtown center of retail back to life. He’s a very cautious visionary, taking enormous risks, and he’s bringing everything full circle to help downtown Napa become the hip, cool place, known for fabulous food, fabulous shopping, fabulous music, fabulous beauty—a great, electric city full of wonderful, friendly people.”
 
Zapolski, too, sees the biggest draw to the new Napa as being the young. “The under-35-year-olds, who are just getting to know why Napa is a fun place for them to come to, are going to learn about wine and about how Napa can be for them, too. Historically, they came up here, and everything went to bed at night. Not anymore. “When I was young, Napa was old,” laughs Zapolski. “Now I’m old and Napa’s young!”
 

Aiming for the right blend 

Zapolski doesn’t pretend that The Shops at Napa Center will carry the new vision on its own. The whole idea is to have a synergistic revival in which all of downtown Napa’s key areas—the riverfront, Oxbow, Copia, the West End—enjoy an active, dynamic flow that pulses with the energy and excitement of a great, sustainable city. To make this happen requires all the pieces fall into place according to the overall vision. “That’s why it’s so important that we work together and articulate a very sustainable vision for the rest of the renaissance of downtown Napa,” says Salmon. “It has to be very carefully thought out. We had visionaries who very carefully thought out the renaissance to this point. Now, we need to continue that great vision with careful planning.”
 
Each area depends on the success of the others. “We’re not huge,” Zapolski reminds us. “But we will have a four-star hotel, which will be at the east corner of the site, along First Street and Coombs at the old Merrills location. We’ll create a new building there, with a certain amount of retail on the first floor and the hotel will go up according to the plan. So it’ll be fully integrated into the project. So from the streetscape and experience, you wouldn’t necessarily know there’s a hotel there. The exterior will be live and energized by retail, a restaurant and a nice lobby.
 
Because of the size of the project, Zapolski says the vision is for a good blend of shops and shoppers. He likes the example of Oxbow, where people can be really comfortable, at all levels, from locals who come in to discuss business over coffee to the high-end tourist who wants to experience the many tastes of Napa Valley. He says The Shops at Napa Center should have something for everybody. “We want to have a range that will appeal to those of very discriminate taste to those who are looking for something simple to get and who are on a budget. Quality doesn’t have to be expensive. Sometimes stores that have more of an international reach can drive product at a more affordable level.”
 
While there are proponents pushing for one or the other, he sees the benefit of offering both local and national brands. “We very much want a blend of local and regional shopping with some of the national brands. But this is a “from the ground up, organic” project. It’s not going to be dropped in from some developer from New York. We live in this community, we understand it, and we’re trying to provide something that ups the gain but doesn’t go over everyone’s head.”
 
The site will be renovated to have more fluid walkability and a greater feeling of light and comfort. “It’s going to look different,” affirms Zapolski. “We’re trying to bring it up to a current look and feel, particularly one that looks to the aesthetic of Wine Country.” They’ll remove the rotunda, which will open up the space. “I think you’ll be able to breathe better. You’ll go, ‘Ahh!’”
 
 

So, what’s the schedule?

From day one, we’ve had to explain to people to have patience. The best things take time," says developer Todd Zapolski. "We’re trying to achieve a very carefully curated project. We’re gearing now toward some renovations starting probably early summer, early July, start doing the work to improve the site.
 
"Our hotel piece, if that moves through as it should, is part of the specific plan, but it needs a design review. We’re hopeful. If that’s signed off by the end of the year, we start construction in early 2014 and we’re open by 2015. We’d like to see the shops opening in mid to late 2014."
 
 

Anticipation and stage fright

This project isn’t just about building a single building or a store, it’s about creating an entire experience that connects with, enhances, is fed by and feeds into the whole of the downtown Napa renaissance. It will offer residents, visitors, retailers and the city of Napa something that adds to the creativity that’s already putting a new face on old Napa. As the project isn’t yet completed, it’s crucial that all the players to adhere to the vision of what Napa can be to ensure the success of The Shops at Napa Center.
 
“It’s a bit daunting, because we need to do this right,” says Todd Zapolski. “We’re not going to please everyone all the time. But I think, in general, the community’s going to say, ‘Wow, we like this and we want to support it and we want to be there. We want to shop there. We want it to be successful.’ Sure, we need the tourists and the visitors to make it fully go, but it starts locally.”
 
 

Napa’s Evolution

All over the world, the name Napa is synonymous with glorious vineyards and world-class wines, but the city of Napa had no such cache—until now. Now, residents and visitors who venture into downtown Napa for an evening find a thriving, active area with more than 70 restaurants, 21 tasting rooms, upscale lodgings, entertainment and art. Here are some milestones that mark the city’s continuing renaissance.
 
1965     U.S. Congress approves a flood project for the City of Napa but provides no funding.
1985     A major flood sees 7,000 people evacuated, 250 homes destroyed, three deaths and damages totaling $100 million. Smaller floods occur in 1995, 1997 and 2005, creating uncertainty in the downtown business community.
1998     Measure A passes locally, providing tax revenue to fund a visionary flood protection plan while also providing for a healthy, lively riverfront by adhering to “living river principles.” Work begins (the flood project is due to be complete in 2015).
1999     Phase One of the Hatt Building and Napa Mill renovation starts .
2000     Napa River Inn welcomes its first guest, leading the way for other shops and attractions in the Napa Mill waterfront area.
2001     Copia heralds Robert Mondavi’s dream for a center for wine, food and the arts.  2002     The General Store opens in the Hatt building on the waterfront as a lively place for patio dining, “gourmet to go” and attractive items for visitors. Celadon and Angele move in.
2007-2008     The Riverfront Promenade opens. A memorial to 9/11 victims, with beams from the original towers, will be unveiled this year.
2008     Oxbow Public Market, opens.
2010     Napa Valley and the city of Napa create the Tourism Improvement District and the previous Conference and Visitors’ Bureau gives way to the Napa Destination Council. This becomes Visit Napa Valley as a dedicated marketing resource to brand Napa Valley.
2010     Napa Valley Film Festival launches to critical and popular raves
2011     The city of Napa Tourism Improvement District passes. With this comes the awareness, seeds of which had been planted early in 2000s, that a brand campaign would be necessary to help create and promote the story of Napa and why people should visit.
2012     Todd Zapolski  purchases the town mall and plans for The Shops at Napa Center get underway.
2013     BottleRockdraws more than 100,000 people to Napa.
Onward     Craig Smith sums up the revitalization of the City of Napa this way:  “…people come here and say, ‘Wow!’ We say, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!’”

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