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Builders Fret After Vote in Newport

Land use: The defeat of a Koll project will send development to other cities, some say.


A day after Newport Beach voters soundly rejected a 10-story office tower proposal, business leaders and some urban planners expressed concern that the referendum signals a major shift away from development in the city.

"I think this sends a clear message that Newport Beach is not open to further development," said Richard Luehrs, president of the Greater Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce.

"Over time is when the impact will be felt, because we will have limited opportunities to renew ourselves" with developments.

Newport Beach is the only city in Orange County and one of only a few in the state to require special elections on major development projects that exceed General Plan guidelines.

Urban planners and developers alike were awaiting the fate of the Koll Center project--the first to come before the voters under the Greenlight Initiative, which was approved last year.

Voters rejected the project by a wide margin, roughly 60% against and 40% in favor. But there was strong disagreement Wednesday about exactly what the result means.

Randy Jackson, director of the Planning Center, a Costa Mesa-based urban design firm, suggested that Koll's demise will at least for now mean that only "small or insignificant" projects will be built in Newport.

He also pointed out that the city will have to compete with communities that are more open to new development.

"I can't imagine many developers taking two or three years out of their lives to . . . do this again," he said. "The other 33 cities [in Orange County] will look at it and say, 'We should be open to development. We ought to provide a system that allows for a quick approval of projects.' "

Slow-growth advocates, however, said it's wrong to read too much into the vote, which they said reflects problems with the Koll project more than any hard-line feelings by voters.

They believe voters will continue to look at each project objectively and sensibly, including the only project in the pipeline now: a proposed expansion of Hoag Medical Center.

"If it's an honest reflection of what the people in town want, it will get approved," said Tom Hyans, a Greenlight supporter.

The Tuesday referendum focused on a proposed $50-million expansion of the Koll Center, which included a 10-story office tower at Jamboree Road and MacArthur Boulevard and the replacement of a two-story garage with one that is six stories.

Supporters argued that the project would boost the city's economy without harming residents' quality of life. Critics said the office tower would worsen traffic at one of the city's busiest intersections.

Timothy Strader Jr., executive vice president of Starpointe Ventures and a co-partner on the project, said Wednesday that he and his associates were not ready to abandon their project or Newport Beach.

Starpointe has already spent about $250,000 studying environmental, traffic and other issues, $75,000 for the special election and thousands more on advertisements as the vote approached.

Without elaborating, Strader said the partners were considering other options, including scaling down the original design. Strader would not comment on whether his group was exploring legal action.

"We're disappointed in the outcome, but at this point no decision has been made on what the next step will be," he said. "We're exploring various things. . . . We don't have a strategy beyond this election. We need to meet with our partners and review all the alternatives."

For some, the vote punctuated fears that prospective developers will take their business elsewhere rather than mount a challenge they might not win.

The family that owns the Newport Dunes resort put the property up for sale this year, blaming the Greenlight Initiative for complicating their expansion plans.

Scott Bollen, a professor of urban planning at UC Irvine, said the rejection of the Koll Center expansion will stimulate the updating of the city's General Plan, which he hopes will meet citizens' needs and accommodate developers.

He said the measure failed because of the voters' "belief that developers control the city's decision-making process regarding growth in ways that are inconsistent with the residents' values."

On Tuesday, he said, voters had a chance to regain control by saying, "We want a voice when developers exceed the vision of the General Plan."

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