In a key test case that could set the tone for future growth in the city, Newport Beach voters will decide later this year whether a 10-story office tower should be erected near John Wayne Airport.
The Koll Center expansion is the first project to come before voters since they approved the so-called Greenlight Initiative, which calls for a special election for all major developments in the city.
Newport Beach is the only city in Orange County and one of a handful across Southern California to require this type of public vote, so the outcome of the first referendum is being watched closely by developers and slow-growth advocates across the state.
Experts said Newport Beach makes for an intriguing test case: The affluent town of 70,000 is home to many big businesses and is solidly Republican, but it has a long history of restricting growth.
Though city officials are hopeful that the Koll project will be examined based on its merits, others believe a "no" vote could stall growth in the city. Some in the building industry, which fought hard against Greenlight, predict a chilling effect on new development should the Koll project be rejected. Already, the family that owns the Newport Dunes resort has put that property up for sale, blaming Greenlight for hindering expansion plans.
"I would think [developers would be] thinking twice about whether they want to open up a new office in Newport, especially if it's going to trigger a Greenlight election," said Lynne Fishel, acting chief executive officer of Orange County's Building Industry Assn.
But others who track commercial development disagree, saying Newport Beach's prime location will always make it attractive to developers, even with the referendum.
"The development community is pretty sophisticated, especially in Orange County," said Paul Shigley, the managing editor of the California Planning & Development Report, a monthly newsletter for city and county planners. "It's unimaginable for them to just walk away from Newport Beach."
Slow-growth initiatives are becoming popular nationwide as voters seek to limit sprawl and wrest control of planning decisions from government bodies. But Greenlight goes further than most by requiring votes on all projects that add more than 40,000 square feet, 100 peak-hour car trips or 100 residential units above what is allowed by the city's general plan.
A sharply divided City Council approved the Koll project last week, setting the stage for a Nov. 20 special election.
"If people don't want it, people don't want it," said Mayor Gary Adams, who voted in favor of the plan. "I'm not going to be an advocate or opponent. Let the process go forward and we'll see what happens."
Though it's not the corporate powerhouse that neighboring Irvine is, Newport Beach is home to some major names including the Irvine Co., semiconductor maker Conexant Systems and Pacific Life Insurance. Despite these business ties, the city has a long history of limiting growth that dates to the 1960s, when residents successfully fought plans to build a freeway paralleling Pacific Coast Highway.
The proposed Koll tower has been talked about since 1972, when the company began developing commercial properties near the airport. The plan was unveiled in 1997 and was one of several proposals that prompted the Greenlight movement.
According to the design, 250,000 square feet of office space would be stacked in 10 stories next to a pair of existing towers at the intersection of Jamboree Road and MacArthur Boulevard. A two-story parking garage now at the site would be demolished and replaced with a six-story garage. An adjacent surface parking lot would be ripped up and replaced after a lower level is placed under it.
If the $50-million project is approved, the developers hope to lure between 20 and 45 firms, and an estimated 800 workers, to the new building. They have agreed to pay the city $3 million for traffic improvements to nearby streets.
Timothy L. Strader Sr., president of Starpointe Ventures and a co-partner of the project, said he believes voters will approve the tower because the project is far from residential areas and independent studies have predicted minimal effects on traffic.
Starpointe, which has already spent about $250,000 studying environmental, traffic and other issues, must pay the $75,000 it will cost to hold the special election. The company also plans to spend another $50,000 in direct mail advertising and other campaigns as the vote draws near.
Critics say the project is too big and will worsen traffic. But instead of coming out swinging against it, some Greenlight advocates say they plan to "educate" voters about the pros and cons of the project.
"It's important for them to analyze exactly where they want to see the city go," said Evelyn Hart, a slow-growth leader.
Should the project be rejected, Strader said, the developers will look to other areas, including Irvine.
That's exactly what worries growth advocates, who spent about $600,000 fighting the initiative. If the Koll project is voted down, they fear that builders will abandon a variety of other plans for new office buildings and hotels they say the city needs to remain vibrant.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Decision on Development
Newport Beach will hold its first "Greenlight" election in November, when voters go to the polls to decide whether a new 10-story office tower should be built near John Wayne Airport.
Source: Langdon Wilson Architecture Planning Interiors