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Will Neighbors Feel the Noise Again?

The revamped Pacific Amphitheatre is set to reopen in Costa Mesa July 11 after almost 8 years of silence. Residents are wary.

June 22, 2003|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

The Pacific Amphitheatre used to boom. And when bands such as Guns N' Roses led guitar-driven shout-alongs of 19,000 people, the noise would spill from the bowl-shaped theater and wash into the surrounding neighborhoods. After years of complaints and lawsuits, the Costa Mesa amphitheater -- once a regular stop for top-flight performers -- was unplugged.

Now, nearly eight years after being hushed, the venue will rock again, though its July 11 reopening may not be a full resurrection. The 21-concert series during this summer's Orange County Fair is more of an experiment to determine whether the theater -- with new technology and the passage of time -- can become a good suburban neighbor.

Like the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, the Pacific is close enough to homes that its success depends on it being neighborly. Since it opened in 1983, it's been a lightning rod for backyard activism. There was a lawsuit over the noise. Then a settlement. Then an ownership switch. More litigation followed until a judge effectively dismissed it five years ago.

The long battle over concert noise has left some long-time residents wary of the reopening.

"I don't know," said Laurie Lusk, 52, who moved from the Mesa del Mar neighborhood after years of fighting concert noise. "It's kind of like childbirth: You forget about the pain until the second time around. Then it comes back real quick."

The Pacific Amphitheatre is nestled in the heart of Costa Mesa, just down the road from City Hall and the local high school. Its arc shape was built to seat 18,765 people, with about 10,000 of them sprawled on a lawn. Madonna played there, in her "Like a Virgin" days, as did New Kids on the Block and Billy Idol in 1990.

Bruce Warkentine, 56, who lives in College Park off Fairview Road across from the amphitheater, remembers guiding his four children to the top of Princeton Drive to better hear the concerts. "When we moved in, we thought, 'This will be great. When we don't go, we can just sit and listen.' "

Others in the development of ranch-style homes have less tender memories. Kim and Greg Dalton, who've lived on Wellesley Lane for 26 years, recalled the night Barry Manilow's crooning could be heard, note for note, from their kitchen.

Next door, Karen Millar, a 59-year-old second-grade teacher, said on certain nights, "You could put your hand on the wall and feel the bass."

Millar's husband, Russell, an international relations instructor at nearby Orange Coast College who died last year, started a drive to cap the noise. He and other residents banded together as Concerned Citizens of Costa Mesa Inc. and filed a class-action suit against Nederlander Organization, owners of the concert venue.

Nederlander sold the amphitheater in 1993 to the fair for $12.5 million, a deal that ended up in court when fair officials said they discovered the contract contained noise restrictions that essentially made the venue useless. Caught up in the back-and-forth legal battle, residents repositioned themselves and sided with Nederlander. They figured it was the best way to keep the noise constraints.

"It cost a lot of time and energy in what turned out to be a fruitless battle," said Karen Millar.

Nederlander settled with the state. The neighbors didn't. After another judicial go-round, the noise limits were tossed out by a county judge in 1998, clearing the way for the fair to reopen Pacific Amphitheatre.

Officials moved slowly, though, settling legal loose ends and letting tempers cool. The issue was considered delicate enough that the fair board left the amphitheater matter untouched when it approved its 10-year master plan in 2001. In September, fair officials moved forward with reopening the theater.

Since then, $500,000 has been spent giving the venue a make-over. Seat backs have been replaced and railings repainted. Llamas were herded to the grass and given first dibs on the weeds.

Nearly $5.8 million was spent on booking and production, money that officials expect to recoup from ticket sales for Alanis Morissette, Bob Dylan and the rest of the summer lineup.

Speakers, which once blasted atop four white poles, have been reconfigured so that amplified sound is directed at the audience, said Gary Hardesty, the sound engineer hired by the fair.

Hardesty, who said he successfully used the system during the Pope's speech at World Youth Day in Toronto last year, can monitor decibel levels from neighborhood microphones and adjust the noise accordingly. It is the stem of what fair officials consider their olive branch to their neighbors.

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