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Where's Newport putting its new City Hall? Off

Meetings, searches and many ideas later, the city still can't decide where to locate its home base.

March 07, 2007|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

Think fighting City Hall is impossible? Try moving it.

Newport Beach's humble hub on the Balboa Peninsula, which resembles an overcrowded elementary school campus, has long stood in stark contrast to the town's seaside estates. There's wimpy air conditioning, sparse parking and trailers that serve as offices -- a far cry from the elegance and excess that have drawn glitterati including John Wayne and Kobe Bryant to this town.

After decades of deliberating over what to do with their funky City Hall, the City Council decided in recent years either to raze the place and rebuild it in the same cramped spot or relocate the entire operation. But although Newport has a soft spot for old things -- the Balboa Island Ferry, the Balboa Theater, an old floating restaurant known as the Reuben E. Lee -- City Hall couldn't seem to muster the same nostalgia.

Newport officials have looked at almost two dozen sites around town for the estimated $50-million project, in the process riling a large Southern California home developer and racquet-wielding country-clubbers when the searchers examined property near them. The saga has reached a point where city officials have spent about $1 million in planning costs and a few residents have jokingly suggested putting City Hall in neighboring Costa Mesa.

Debate over the last spot the city eyed -- a 3-acre parcel of designated parkland near Fashion Island -- turned a recent City Council meeting into a five-hour marathon. At its end, Councilman Michael F. Henn deadpanned: "I'm hoping we can solve this tonight and move on to how to end the Iraq war."

The City Hall conundrum features many only-in-Newport qualities. Though some city parcels haven't been earmarked for conservation or construction, large, empty lots are rare -- and pricey. If Newport Beach were to sell the five or so acres on which City Hall now sits, for example, it could command up to $15 million, city officials said.

More hurdles loom. Development battles are a city hallmark, with voters in 2000 passing the stringent Greenlight Initiative, which requires that certain projects win voter approval.

The 80,000-resident city, its coastline immortalized on television and in song and its median income twice the national average, is packed with residents so invested in their town's look that they sometimes bristle at change.

But Newport Beach's tale also seems to fit some stereotypes about development in Orange County, said Richard Weinstein, an architecture and urban design professor at UCLA.

"Insular, weak sense of community, strong sense of individual territory, a sort of anti-urban image in which you make the most of private things and the least of public things. But people there might say, 'That's exactly the way we want it.' "

Its main complex built in the 1940s, Newport Beach City Hall became grist for debate just two decades later, when the police station relocated to Newport Center. The town hall was to tag along, but voters quashed a bond initiative in the 1970s, and the city settled for cobbling additions onto the older buildings on Newport Boulevard.

Since the 1980s, City Hall has barely changed -- and each year, the fervor seems to grow for revamping a place without adequate access for people in wheelchairs; too little space for employees; a perplexing layout; and a shaky foundation that an earthquake could wipe out.

The mere idea that a replacement was needed, however, incensed some folks in the fiscally conservative town -- even sparking the creation of Newporters for Responsible Government, which questioned the proposal's cost and financing in recent years.

"There are a number of arrogant people who seemed to have a vested interest in pushing this forward," said the group's founder, John Buttolph, an attorney and a former City Council candidate. "They want more room for their files? Why are they even storing paper files anymore?"

In 2006, the city charged a committee with scrutinizing almost two dozen sites for a two-story building, large parking garage and fire station. The top two finalists were City Hall's current location and a building in Newport Center whose owner, the Irvine Co., wouldn't sell.

For a time, the council considered sending the issue to voters but decided not to.

Some officials in December talked about taking tennis courts at the Balboa Bay Club Racquet Club through eminent domain. But that idea was dropped after protests by the tennis courts' owners and the neighboring Newport Beach Country Club

The end? Hardly.

In recent weeks, Newport Beach Mayor Steven Rosansky drummed up interest in locating City Hall on a site poised to become Newport Center Park. Because the city already owns the 12 acres, building costs were estimated at $27 million -- a considerable savings over other plans.

Retired architect and former America's Cup champion Bill Ficker had pitched the proposal last year. Known as the Ficker Plan, it didn't forge peace.

Last week, at least 100 people squeezed into chambers to hear the council discuss whether to push ahead with the park's design or table it until a City Hall location was chosen.

The room was evenly split between folks with "Park +" buttons and buttons that said "Save the Park."

Rubbing their eyes and slouching as midnight neared, council members voted 4 to 3 to go ahead with designing the park.

But where to build City Hall? Ah, they didn't even come close.

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ashley.powers@latimes.com

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