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San Clemente Closes Book With Finger-Pointing

November 29, 1987|MARIANN HANSEN | Times Staff Writer

In San Clemente, the finger-pointing continues over who is responsible for the four-year delay that caused Richard M. Nixon to switch the presidential library site to his birthplace of Yorba Linda.

San Clemente residents, Nixon aides and even Nixon himself in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper have blamed the San Clemente City Council for losing the library project.

But others now say it was Nixon's own people, the Richard Nixon Presidential Archives Foundation, who made a tactical error early in planning that caused the delays.

In April, 1983, Nixon chose a 16.7-acre site for the library along an ocean bluff with a view of his former Western White House, Casa Pacifica. A year later, the San Clemente council approved the plans.

At that point, the foundation could have begun building the library had it not been for an agreement made with the developer, the Lusk Co. of Irvine.

Under the agreement, Lusk said it would pay for $4 million in site improvements to the library property but only after the council approved an accompanying development of homes, hotels and businesses.

"That agreement certainly was a key (to the delay)," San Clemente City Manager James B. Hendrickson said during a recent interview.

"The Nixon foundation wanted someone to pay (for) the site improvements. Then Lusk tied that to their conditions of approving the whole (253-acre) development before they'd make the site improvements."

Foundation executive director John C. Whitaker last week agreed that the relationship with the developer delayed approval for the library, but he said the relationship was necessary.

"We could never go uncoupled (without Lusk)," Whitaker said. "We weren't going to pay that ($4 million). We said we needed free, improved land, ready to build on."

Whitaker said the foundation realized it would take longer to get the council's approval on the larger project but became frustrated because the council and Lusk could not reach an agreement.

"We expected it to take some time but never that long," Whitaker said.

Hendrickson said city officials would have been remiss if they had simply given a nod to the entire Marblehead Coastal Plan without a stringent review. Initially, Lusk's proposal did not meet the city's 30% open-space requirement.

'Good Negotiators'

"They (Lusk) are good businessmen and good negotiators, but they thought the Nixon library would give them leverage to get something out of the city they wouldn't otherwise get," Hendrickson said. "Lusk was looking for the city to concede or compromise some of its clearly articulated General Plan laws for the site."

Donald Steffensen, executive vice president of the Lusk Co., did not return telephone calls.

By May, Nixon and his aides were becoming anxious to see the project completed.

Some speculated that after his brother died earlier this year, the 74-year-old Nixon began to fear that he might not live to see the library built in San Clemente.

"With the recent death of his brother bringing to light the realization of his own mortality, he wanted the library built in his own lifetime," Hendrickson said.

Whitaker agreed that as negotiations dragged on, Nixon "started to get restive like the rest of us."

"You know, we're all getting older," Whitaker said. "Four years, that's a long time to wait just to get a little permission to build a library."

Ultimatum Delivered

So the foundation handed the San Clemente council an ultimatum: Approve Lusk's project by July 1 or the foundation would start looking at alternate library sites.

"I told them 'Come on, guys, hurry up and get this deal done.' I don't think they quite ever believed we'd do it," Whitaker said.

Hendrickson told Whitaker that the July 1 deadline was impossible because the project still had to go through the public hearing process.

"We (the city) never thought they would seriously look at moving the library site, but we started the hearings at that time and moved as expeditiously as we could," Hendrickson said.

It apparently wasn't fast enough.

Instead, Nixon chose the site that he wanted to begin with.

Nixon's personal assistant, John Taylor, said Nixon originally wanted the library on the land next to his birthplace, but the Yorba Linda School District property was not available in 1983.

School to Be Demolished

The Richard Nixon Elementary School, which will be demolished to make way for the library, closed in 1980 because of declining enrollment. It is on six acres of land declared surplus property by the school district in 1984.

"The district really wanted to sell the property because it needed the money," District Supt. Mary Ellen Blanton said. But in 1985, a deal fell through with a developer after the City Council rejected a request to change the zoning to permit condominiums.

Then, after Nixon foundation officials approached Yorba Linda city officials in August, City Manager Arthur C. Simonian said he convinced the school district to sell the property to the city.

Both Simonian and Blanton said it took some tough negotiating.

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