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Going Public? : * Lifestyle: The Balboa Bay Club, a longtime playground of the rich and famous, faces an uncertain future as plans for a commercial resort hit opposition.

July 17, 1991|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — The kill zone, that swatch of Balboa Bay Club sand prowled by Joseph Wambaugh's "hot mamas" in his recent book "The Golden Orange," will become part of what city planners call a view corridor.

The main ballroom--where Billy Martin, baseball's bad boy, signed autographs for kids at the annual Christmas bash a few weeks before his death in 1989--will be replaced with meeting rooms.

The bar frequented by Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner before they sailed to Catalina will be raised a story or two so patrons will have a decent view of Newport Bay instead of boat hulls and bowsprits.

And the Six O'Clockers, that aging fraternity of early rising he-men who munch doughnuts and sweat them off in the steam room, will get a another whirlpool to soak in because the men's spa will become an underground parking lot.

Members and officials of the 42-year-old club say a face lift is long overdue. After all, the venerable establishment on Lido Channel, where many of the state's rich and famous have sought refuge for decades, is getting a little shabby around the scuppers.

In the works is a proposal to completely renovate the Bay Club, a bastion of the good life on public land. But the ambitious $60-million overhaul has steered the bay-front enclave into a squall of competing concerns.

The renovation would create a commercial resort and alter the original establishment's character. Pressured by state and local land-use laws, the club, if redeveloped, would have to grant the public unprecedented access to what was once the exclusive domain of its 4,200 members.

If redeveloped, the club would no longer be recognizable except for its burgee, or identifying pennant. The grounds would be a far cry from the debris-filled mud flat that was once dotted with Army Air Corps shacks and docks for Navy patrol boats.

From the start, the club has attracted prominent people from throughout the nation and helped set style and social standards for the city. The guest and membership rosters have included Greta Garbo, William Holden, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, New York Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle, John Wayne, Chuck Yeager, Ronald Reagan, Spiro Agnew and Frank Sinatra. Richard M. Nixon has repeatedly visited the club and took refuge there after resigning as President.

Since the club's 1948 founding, the site has been improved dramatically and today includes a huge swimming pool, clubhouse, guest rooms and apartments.

But if Bay Club management gets its way, the site that was donated to the city in 1928 by rancher James Irvine will contain a 300-room hotel and 77% more space than the present facility.

The grounds will include a restaurant, a coffee shop, two cocktail lounges, 12 meeting rooms, a ballroom big enough for 450 and a parking structure. Club members will get a new athletic center, meeting places and reserved restaurant spots.

The club's Terrace Apartments will remain as residences until 1998, when they must be removed to comply with state tideland restrictions. Hotel uses for the site could be allowed, but nothing has been formally decided.

City officials and club president Thomas G. Deemer say the city will gain an attractive site and more income from the property if the project is approved. The city now receives between $500,000 and $1 million a year.

Although the redevelopment plan has been criticized by two neighborhood associations and some longtime members, more foreboding for the club is the possibility that it might not survive at all if its lease with the city is not renewed. It expires in 2011.

Balboa Bay officials have asked for a new 50-year lease to replace the first one signed in 1948--a contract the council extended once by 12 years. Club chairman William D. Ray says he needs a new rental agreement to get the financing earmarked for the proposed renovation.

But a number of Newport Beach residents say the city has no business leasing prime public bay-front property to a private commercial interest like International Bay Clubs Inc.

Some residents and two council members say a new lease probably should be decided in a citywide referendum, something club officials would like to avoid. Legal opinions obtained by the club and the city are split on whether the public or the council should vote on the lease. Some say the issue may end up in court.

"They are using public property for the benefit of a few," said Al Beaudette, president of Cliff Haven Community Assn., which represents homeowners on the bluffs above the club. "I am sure they have been gracious letting the public use its conference facilities, but shouldn't the public have a say in how the land is used? I believe they should."

Twenty years ago, a proposal to extend the club's lease by five years was resoundingly defeated at the polls by a 2-to-1 margin. Some council members say that kind of animosity toward the club still exists, but Balboa Bay officials say that 1970 was a different time and that the proposal did not benefit the city very much.

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