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DANA PARSONS / ORANGE COUNTY

Making a statement with new City Hall

October 14, 2008|DANA PARSONS

When an ice cream cone can set you back $4.55 at nearby Fashion Island, why balk at spending upward of $60 million for a new City Hall in Newport Beach? Especially one that'll be hailing distance from the Pacific Ocean.

That amounts to a no-brainer in this bejeweled city -- as good a representative as any of Orange County's wealth and va va voom.

But before we trot out all the old cliches about runaway opulence in this refuge for the idle rich, let's meet a member of the loyal opposition.

She's Nancy Gardner, a councilwoman wrapping up her second year and one of those who favored rebuilding a new City Hall on the current not-so-glitzy site off Newport Boulevard on the Balboa Peninsula.

That fight was lost in February, when residents voted roughly 53% to 47% to build on what is part of a largely overgrown stretch of undeveloped land near the Central Library. The city had previously decided to turn the site into Newport Center Park and leave it otherwise untouched, but as discussions proceeded on where to put the new City Hall, voila!

Five design plans are on the menu now. Some have what might be called exotic elements, such as a sail-shaped roof and wine bar. Nothing has been decided yet, however, prompting me to ask Gardner if anything is too lavish for Newport Beach.

In a word, she says, yes.

"The interesting thing about Newport Beach," Gardner says, "is that while we have a lot of money, we also have a lot of fiscal conservatives. There were a lot of people from the beginning who said not only do we not need a new City Hall, we need fewer employees."

Although she didn't support the park site, Gardner helped make the decision unanimous after the Febru- ary vote. Those who didn't favor the park site decided the issue had been so rancorous that it would be better to put up a united 7-0 City Council front.

But just because Gardner wanted the complex built elsewhere doesn't mean she wants it looking like a strip mall outlet store.

After all, the thing is going to occupy prime real estate in one of Orange County's most scenic venues.

How do you keep from going nutty on accessories?

"We don't need marble necessarily, or granite," Gardner says, "but it should have that presence, and I also think it should reflect on us as a community; because we are on the water, we really are environmentally conscious."

And for those who wonder: Why can't every City Hall just be a functional building where the town's business is handled? Why should taxpayers pay a bundle for a fancy complex instead of an austere one? Does anyone really go to City Hall for aesthetics?

"I don't know that austerity and presence are two distinct issues," Gardner says. Her father was a judge, and she remembers going as a girl to the old Orange County Courthouse. Though not ornate, "I remember it being a magical building," she says, hoping that Newport Beach residents get that same feeling about whatever the city builds on the park site.

The council hopes to choose the design next month.

Is it possible the costs could get out of hand?

"I'm very concerned about that," Gardner says. "I'm concerned because I didn't feel I was getting a real clear answer on what the real price is going to be."

Knowing that people naturally have differing tastes, she says the unifying force will be that "everybody's going to be very much looking at the bottom line."

Does that sound like Newport Beach?

I'm curious to find out, because the new complex will be walking distance from my apartment. I can already imagine the philosophical and financial debates among the council on how much to dress up its 21st century headquarters.

"I don't know if we have to have Renzo Piano design City Hall," Gardner says jokingly, "but I would also say I don't think we have a lot of remarkable architecture in Newport Beach. It would be nice if someone saw it and said, 'Yes, that's Newport Beach.' "

Since she brought it up, let me ask: What kind of a statement should Newport Beach City Hall make?

Gardner answers immediately: "I don't want it to be something that goes bling, bling, bling."

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Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

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