Getting to know the neighbors

For four decades, the idea of a concert hall with state-of-the-art acoustics in Costa Mesa remained just that — a concept, plagued by timing and funding problems, that never quite materialized. On Friday, the Orange County Performing Arts Center will set the past aside as it unveils the $200-million, 2,000-seat Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

The opening is a full-weekend affair, with Friday night's gala pairing the resident Pacific Symphony and guest Plácido Domingo for a world premiere of a William Bolcom song cycle; Saturday night's world premiere of a Philip Glass work and, in the evening's second half, a performance by violinist Midori; and Sunday night's Mozart celebration. Just more than a week after the gala opening, with its tickets of up to $3,000 a seat, the concert hall will hold a free day of concerts and tours. And then there is an October's worth of still more performances, with the Kirov Opera, Ballet and Orchestra.

But the new hall is far from the only landmark in Costa Mesa, a city in the heart of Orange County where art and commerce, culture and counterculture are deeply intertwined.

Drive north on Bristol Street, just past the 405 Freeway, and to your left is sprawling South Coast Plaza — a temple of upscale consumerism where shoppers duck into Chanel and Chloé boutiques, nosh in style and spend about $1.5 billion a year.

To your right is downtown's cultural cluster, composed of the acclaimed South Coast Repertory theater complex, Isamu Noguchi's serene California Scenario sculpture garden and the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Though OCPAC's new limestone, steel and glass concert hall is getting most of the attention, the development also includes the 500-seat Samueli Theater (where Sheryl Crow is slated to play Oct. 14 in a very exclusive show) and a 46,000-square-foot arts plaza outside its entrance.

Two Sundays ago, workers were still bustling about the plaza, whose centerpiece is a Richard Serra sculpture called "Connector." The reflection of Serra's 66-foot-tall torqued plates of steel — bunched together like the petals of a giant rosebud — beams from the undulating 300-foot-long glass façade of the hall, designed by Argentine architect Cesar Pelli.

Inside the venue, music lovers will be able to experience concerts in a space that can be acoustically fine-tuned, like a musical instrument, via echo chambers, retractable wood paneling and a lowering canopy. Pre- or post-performance, they have only to traverse the lobby — outfitted with a silver-leafed ceiling and chandelier composed of 300 pendants tipped with Baccarat crystal globes — to repair to Leatherby's Café Rouge. The restaurant is run by the same company behind Joachim Splichal's Patina in Walt Disney Concert Hall and is joining a host of posh nearby eateries such as Turner New Zealand and Mastro's Steakhouse.

This all sounded exciting to Jim and Barbara Dixon, a couple from neighboring Newport Beach who had driven up to snap pictures of the site. "We went up to see the Disney Concert Hall in L.A. two weeks ago, and I was very impressed," says Barbara, a hospital worker who's come to see theater performances at South Coast Repertory for the last 20 years. "Then I thought, you know, I've got to take a closer look at this new thing in our own backyard."

Drawing Orange County concertgoers who would have otherwise journeyed to L.A.'s Disney Hall is exactly one of the things that OCPAC President Terrence Dwyer hopes to accomplish. He's convinced that the new annexes will "help make Costa Mesa into more of a destination city for cultural tourists."

"Orange County used to be a pretty flat cultural experience," says Laurie Hassold, a Costa Mesa artist and longtime resident who also teaches art and design at Cal State Fullerton. "Nowadays I see fine arts and design and fashion and music merging to produce a richer culture."

Indeed, the idea behind the new concert hall's plaza is to sculpt a space where people can take in public art communally, perhaps after a prolonged indoor shopping spree. It might be seen as a busier cousin to the California Scenario sculpture garden, a snug spot just to the south that invites meditation amid office buildings. Strewn about Noguchi's early-'80s creation are abstract renderings of natural and man-made landscapes — a slab of granite jutting toward the sky; a stack of blond boulders shaped like giant lima beans; water that murmurs down the conic surface of a tall fountain and cuts a zigzag pattern through slabs embedded in the pavement.

Drive a few blocks south on Bristol Street, past the 405, and you'll feel an entirely different vibe. If South Coast Plaza is the stamping ground of the Gucci-clad, Hummer-driving shopper, the so-called anti-malls — the Camp and the Lab — cater to a consumer who's into vegan eats and surfing and most likely drives a Prius.

"Orange County is becoming more international, and it's certainly multicultural, but we still don't have that West Village or a Third Street [Promenade] or a La Brea Avenue," says Shaheen Sadeghi, a developer who 13 years ago coined the term "anti-mall" for the Lab, an outdoor retail hub clustered around a converted military goggle factory.

Among the Lab's tenants are sneaker boutique Blends, nuevo Cuban restaurant Habana and an outpost of Urban Outfitters. Visitors amble through the recycled landscape, which includes a fountain cobbled together out of oil drums fitted with spigots, and settees upholstered in Skittles colors. They can peck at their laptops (there's free wireless) or idle over lunch at the Gypsy Den, a cafe where Iggy Pop pours out of the P.A. and the walls are decorated with rugs and corny oil portraits.

Sadeghi also developed the Camp, a mirror outdoors anti-mall across the street from the Lab where the focus is on an active lifestyle and environmentally conscious consumption. Besides a couple of stores where surfers, bikers and skaters can get hooked up with all the accouterments, there's Humanitaire, a boutique that stocks only animal cruelty-free clothing; a scuba school, a Bikram yoga parlor and a vegan diner called Native Foods. Each parking spot at the Camp comes with its own inspirational advice stenciled on the pavement: "Eat tofu," "Show up for life," "Follow new trails."

Sadeghi's next planned venture is an arts colony called SoBeCa — for South on Bristol Entertainment, Culture and Arts. The enterprise is still in its early stages, but Sadeghi hopes it will include solar-paneled artists' lofts outfitted with surfboard lockers. Like other entrepreneurs in the area, Sadeghi applauds the arrival of the new OCPAC annexes and sees synergy, not competition, in what's going along the different parts of Bristol Street. "We're like the Chelsea art market, and OCPAC is like the Lincoln Center," he says, in distinctly New York terms.

Afew blocks west of the Camp is a neighborhood of divey bars and restaurants — a far cry from the classical ethos of the concert hall just a three-minute drive away.

Here, for the last five years, Jack Flynn has operated the Kitsch Bar, a hipster lounge in a mini-mall. The bar has a listed phone number, but he warns, "Don't bother calling because we never answer the phone." His clientele comes via word-of-mouth — thanks to employees at the South Coast Plaza boutiques who steal away there after hours. "My DJ on Wednesday nights also works at Jimmy Choo boutique," he says.

Inspired by grungy-hip Hollywood watering holes, Flynn set out to create a similar establishment in Costa Mesa — a risky enterprise in a place not exactly known for its hip cachet. But, he believed at the time, "If you build it, they will find it. Besides, why would I want to be a guppy in the ocean over there, when I can be a fish in the pond over here?" In the same spirit, he pounced on a bike-repair warehouse on industrial Randolph Avenue earlier this year, remodeled it and opened an art gallery there in July. The J Flynn Gallery shows such up-and-coming Orange County artists as Jeff Gillette, who paints apocalyptic visions of O.C. doom on skateboard decks.

Nearby, where Randolph Avenue meets Bristol, there's Memphis — a mustard-painted shack gussied up to look like a '60s diner. During the day, it's a soul food joint; at night it turns into a modish bar. The entrepreneurs behind it also own Costa Mesa's Detroit Bar, a club where indie luminaries such as Elliott Smith and Stereolab have performed.

Five minutes down the road, within the Triangle Square shopping center, there's Sutra Lounge — currently the county's highest-profile velvet rope-type attraction, frequented by professional athletes, blond beauties and the occasional Hollywood celeb. Nearby are a boarded-up Barnes & Noble bookstore and ghostly retail spaces, until recently occupied by Niketown and a Virgin Megastore. It's a sign that despite the disposable income and the pull of South Coast Plaza, businesses sometimes flounder here too.

One rule that seems to hold true is that the arts and culture scene here draws support from business and commerce. "For us, the glue is the arts," Sadeghi says. "The artists keep moving around, and wherever they go it creates passion and community — we follow them and try to create environments where they can flourish."

It's a scenario that has played out locally since the '50s, when the Segerstrom family began turning the expansive lima bean fields they owned in the area into real-estate developments, which now include South Coast Plaza. The clan donated funds to erect the original OCPAC and the SCR buildings, and more recently, provided $40 million in seed money for the new concert hall and commissioned the Serra sculpture.

Over the years, this emphasis on nurturing local art, of the grass-roots and high kinds, has molded Costa Mesa's suburban landscape. "Costa Mesa has always been kind of the stepchild to Newport Beach, and it's more colorful, I think, because of that," artist Hassold says.

Flynn too thinks that Costa Mesa has more personality than some of its neighbors.

"I'm hedging my bets on this area and this city," Flynn says, "because I feel that Costa Mesa is the epicenter of culture of Orange County."

"On that side of the freeway," he says, pointing OCPAC-wise, "you've got the very elite, the very established. And half a mile down Bristol Street, you've got the next generation of merchants and art patrons and performers — all of that. This side of the freeway is the incubator for what will be on the other side."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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