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A City Hall fight in Newport Beach

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Nearly everyone in Newport Beach thinks they need a new City Hall. Getting them to agree on where to put it is another story.

On Tuesday, voters will decide whether to locate a new civic center on a 12-acre site in Newport Center that was slated to become a park. The fiercely contested ballot initiative has led to more than $800,000 in campaign spending, an amount almost unheard of for a local issue in a city of its size, including donations of more than $600,000 alone from one restaurateur.

The debate has focused on whether the new building would block ocean views, how it would keep the cost to taxpayers down and whether it would worsen traffic congestion.

A "yes" vote on Measure B would end more than five years of debate over where to locate a new City Hall, putting it in a more central area on higher ground. A "no" vote would probably mean the city would build a taller, more compact building a few blocks away on a parking lot owned by the Irvine Co, which has agreed to sell it to the city for about $7 million. The city could also choose a third alternative and build a new civic center on the site of the existing one on the Balboa Peninsula.

The idea to put City Hall in the park was conceived by Bill Ficker, an architect who has proposed a two-story design that he says would not block residents' views.

But after the council voted against reviewing his proposal, he and other activists collected signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

The city of 86,000 has outgrown its civic center, a cramped complex built in 1948 that draws comparisons to an elementary school campus. There is so little room that boxes of files and rolled building plans are stacked to the ceilings and some city workers share desks at cramped cubicles.

City officials say a new facility is long overdue.

Parking is scarce, and a growing number of portable buildings crowd the property. The mayor recently gave up his office there for lack of space.

"It's embarrassing," said City Manager Homer Bludau. "It's not a welcoming impression."

Ron Hendrickson, another architect working in favor of Measure B, said he was eager to put the issue to rest after five years of bickering.

"Let's get this underway. Let's not waste any more time and money," he said.

The initiative would amend the city's charter to require that the building be placed next to the public library. The rest of the site could be preserved as a smaller park.

Activists opposing the measure argue that it would force the city to go back on a promise to develop all of the area as a park.

Anne Balderston, a No on B activist who was picking up trash and collecting flowers at the site Thursday afternoon called the property an "irreplaceable gem."

"What else do we have that is natural like this?" she asked. "Everything else is being developed."

The campaign has been marked by heavy spending on signs, mailers and polling, with two wealthy donors on opposite sides of the issue.

The group pushing the ballot initiative has been bankrolled by Jack Croul, a retired executive and part owner of the Santa Ana paint company Behr. He also owns the Cannery, a seafood restaurant near the current City Hall. He has contributed more than $600,000 of the $650,000 raised.

That has led some residents, such as No on B activist Karen Tringali, to speculate that Croul has designs on land that might be vacated if City Hall moves.

Croul shrugged it off.

"Each person is contributing according to their means," Croul said. "I've just been able to contribute more than others."

Those favoring keeping the land as a park have spent more than $140,000, $125,000 of that from Audrey Steele Burnand, a member of a Newport Beach family of electrical company investors that for many years operated a charitable foundation.

Also in dispute is the cost of developing the competing sites. The building alone is expected to cost at least $27 million regardless of where it lands.

Proponents of the initiative say building on land the city already owns will save $13 million.

Opponents say the cost of removing dirt to flatten the rugged, hilly site enough to build on would more than cancel out the savings. They say that the smaller property nearby, already a flat parking lot, is in ready-to-build condition and would cost $8.7 million less.

Both sides expect the vote to be close, and in the final days are holding rallies and sending flurries of mailers to make their case.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Backus contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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