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Napa’s First Street has undergone a dramatic $200 million transformation in the past seven years with the redevelopment of an aging, largely vacant shopping center into an anchor for downtown upscale lodging, dining and commerce.

At the helm of the 325,000-square-foot First Street Napa project is Todd Zapolski, who has to become a significant force in North Bay real estate in the past two decades. He brought in Trademark Property Company as a partner in the project and lined up Lodgeworks to oversee the 183-room Archer Hotel portion, which opened Nov. 27. The project also has 45 shops and 30,000 square feet of office space, most of which is occupied or spoken for.

But beyond that project, Zapolski’s local projects have included the Anton Napa apartments, Carnera Corporate Center in south Napa and the Walmart-anchored Napa Junction shopping center in American Canyon. Throughout his nearly four decades in real estate development, investment and management, Zapolski has learned a key tenet that has proved valuable for the First Street Napa project: Be patient.

“You have to understand the area,” Zapolski said, while sitting in the lobby of the Archer. “We try to understand what makes an area work, rather than force it.”

Law, rather than real estate, was Zapolski’s planned career path. He graduated from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, with an undergraduate degree in political science.

“Political science is good for going on to law school, but what I didn’t realize was that it also makes sense for real estate,” Zapolski said. “Because much of the built environment involves understanding social and political issue, governance. It’s actually pretty good training for getting into the business.”

Zapolski grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, the youngest of three boys and the son of an industrial-designer father and a mother who wrote feature articles. They probably were the source of his early interest in aesthetics, he said.

“She would take me along when she would do interviews,” Zapolski said. “I met lots of folks and saw lots of things, and that probably made me realize you could create a hotel and redo things, get outside the box. There are a lot of options out there.”

Rather than attending Princeton University close to home, he went to Duke at a time when the New South’s transformation of the economy was picking up momentum. After graduating, he decided to work for a year or two before going on to law school. With a friend who was getting an MBA at Duke, he started an economic-development consulting firm in Durham.

One economic-development firm he contacted didn’t have such work, but a partner of it said they had a real estate side venture that needed someone to run it. The portfolio started with a couple of houses in construction then expanded to an office building and financing a private airplane for the partners.

While planning an office-condominium project in 1981, interest rates shot above 20 percent, and the main business was challenged. Zapolski offered to take on the side venture as his own business, and the partners agreed.

In 1989 amid another soured economy, Zapolski met a Dutch hotel developer and merged with his company. That firm then merged into a firm led by Andrew Widmark, specializing in acquiring distressed properties. Zapolski was a partner in that venture.

“To this day, I have never worked for anyone a day in my life,” Zapolski said. “It gives you a real sense for the risk and that you have to make things work.”

Zapolski’s career shift to span both coasts of the U.S. came when he met Leslie Rudd, who was considering a North Carolina business opportunity that didn’t materialize at the time. They had become friends, and Rudd had purchased the original Girard Winery — now called Rudd Estate — near Calistoga in 1996.

Three years later, they started the Zapolski Rudd investment company, first concentrating on North Carolina. Rudd then suggested Zapolski consider projects in the Bay Area.

“San Francisco and Napa at that point were not what they have become in the past 20 years,” Zapolski said.

The first California project was an industrial building for Prolab in Napa Valley Gateway Business Park south of Napa. What followed were office and retail investment projects in San Francisco, Sonoma, Healdsburg and Napa.

Then came the economic downturn of 2001.

“It allowed us to invest in San Francisco and out here (in Napa Valley) in ways you only get in certain cycles,” Zapolski said. Some of them were empty warehouse-turned-office buildings in San Francisco that held defunct dot-coms. That led to a larger investment portfolio on the West Coast than the East, but the firm maintains offices in Napa and Durham.

Rudd and Zapolski divided their real estate business in 2007, as the economy soured. Rudd had the stabilized properties, and Zapolski went with the properties needing sweat equity. Rudd died on May 3 at age 76.

Zapolski’s East Coast portfolio continues to grow. Zapolski Real Estate bought a Whole Foods Market-anchored shopping center in Ashville, North Carolina, two months ago.

“Ashville is a great market,” Zapolski said. “It has some similarities to Napa and Sonoma, in that it has a pretty good visitor base. There, beer is king.”

Contact Jeff Quackenbush at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

Update, May 22, 2018: Trademark Property Group was omitted as a development partner with Zapolski Real Estate in the original story.