2 Newport Center condo projects could be in a race to avoid a public vote

Two housing projects proposed for Newport Center are raising the question of whether the developments should trigger a vote of the people in Newport Beach.

The proposals are Museum House, which would consist of 100 condominiums in a 25-story tower on the current site of the Orange County Museum of Art, and 150 Newport Center, which would include 49 units in a seven-story complex in the area surrounding Fashion Island.

According to the city's interpretation, neither project is large enough on its own to trigger a public vote under the city's Greenlight Initiative. The growth-control measure, passed by voters in 2000, requires a special election for projects that, individually or in combination with previously approved proposals, would add more than 40,000 square feet of building space, 100 peak-hour car trips or 100 homes above what is allowed in a particular area by the city's general plan in a 10-year period.

Newport Center has 100 units left for development before a Greenlight vote is necessary, according to city calculations. With two projects vying for those remaining units, it could come down to which one receives City Council approval first.

If 150 Newport Center, with its 49 units, is approved, only 51 units would be left for Museum House. If Museum House continued to pursue 100 units, it would have to be placed on the ballot for a vote of the people, according to the Greenlight rules.

In another scenario, if Museum House is granted 100 units, the 150 Newport Center project could be up for a Greenlight vote.

Newport Beach Community Development Director Kim Brandt told residents Thursday at a packed Planning Commission meeting about the Museum House project that it would be speculative at this point to make any conclusions about Greenlight.

"We're not ready to make definitive statements," Brandt said. "There are a lot of variables in play."

However, activist Susan Skinner believes that both projects require a Greenlight vote, based on her calculation that only 21 residential units are left for development in Newport Center.

The city agreed years ago to convert entitlements for 79 unbuilt hotel rooms into dwelling units that are now being developed by the Irvine Co. as part of its Villas Fashion Island apartment project. Skinner argues that those 79 units should count against the 10-year Greenlight quota for Newport Center.

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Museum House

The 295-foot Museum House is proposed to replace the Orange County Museum of Art on a 2-acre site at 850 San Clemente Drive.

The plan by Related California Urban Housing LLC, which includes a two-level subterranean garage along with its 100 luxury condos, has drawn criticism from nearby residents over the project's size and questions about its compatibility with Newport Center.

City staff has cautioned residents against jumping to conclusions about specific projects before they have been vetted through environmental impact reports and traffic studies.

"I don't need to wait for an [environmental impact report] to understand the general impact of a project of this size," resident Sherry Bower said at Thursday's Planning Commission study session. "It's pretty straightforward. The project is too big, it's too tall.

"What do we want Newport Beach to look like in the future? Do we want it to look like Long Beach or do we want it to look like Carmel or Santa Barbara?"

Project advocates Thursday donned stickers that read "Museum House supporter." Many who spoke during the public comment period were board members of the art museum, whose Newport Center building would be demolished to make way for Museum House.

OCMA has called the San Clemente Drive property home since 1977. But recently OCMA announced that it plans to move to a new building in Costa Mesa near the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

"You're going to allow the museum to move to a place where it can grow," said Darrel Anderson, a Big Canyon resident and former OCMA board member. "We just can't do it [in Newport Center] anymore."

To approve Museum House, the City Council would have to OK a general plan amendment to change the land-use category from private institutional to multi-unit residential, with a maximum development of 100 units, according to city documents.

City staff anticipates that Museum House could go before the Planning Commission for official consideration by late summer or early fall, with City Council review by the fall. But staff emphasized Thursday that those estimates are tentative.

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150 Newport Center

The 150 Newport Center development, which in its early days was referred to as Newport Center Villas, is proposed to replace the Beacon Bay Auto Wash and adjacent gas station on Newport Center Drive near Anacapa Drive.

The proposal by Newport Center Anacapa Associates would include 10 townhomes on the first two levels, 35 condominiums on Levels 3 through 6 and four penthouses on Level 7. All the townhomes are designed to be three bedrooms; the condos would be two or three bedrooms, said Tod Ridgeway, a developer and former Newport Beach mayor.

Ron Soderling, who also is working on the project, said the company hopes to attract "empty nesters" whose current single-family homes in Newport are too large for them without children in the house.

"We have designed what will be the highest-quality building of its type from Century City to the Mexico border," Soderling said. "Newport Center is the heart of Newport Beach. There are plenty of people who want to be there in the best location."

City documents state that 150 Newport Center could go before the Planning Commission by July, followed by the City Council in late July or August.

Soderling said that since his project is further along in the city's process than Museum House, he's optimistic it will be heard by the council first.

"They're proposing a very difficult project," he said of Museum House. "I don't spend too much time thinking about it because it'll never be built."

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Building a walkable Newport Center

The Newport Center area is bustling with upscale restaurants and the high-end Fashion Island shopping mall at its heart. Office towers and, more recently, various residential projects have made a home along Newport Center Drive, which circles around Fashion Island.

The Irvine Co.'s The Colony, at 5100 Colony Plaza, offers upscale apartment living. The developer also is building Villas Fashion Island, which will consist of 524 luxury apartments and resort-style amenities such as an indoor-outdoor yoga studio, housekeeping service and a fitness center with an adjacent cafe on a 16-acre parcel directly behind the proposed Museum House.

Irvine Co. spokesman Bill Lobdell said that with no draft environmental impact report or staff analysis completed for Museum House, it's too early for the company to give a substantive opinion of the project.

"Having said that, we are completing a residential project adjacent to the proposed Museum House that respects the general plan's 65-foot height limit for that area," he said. "We would expect the Museum House to do the same."

The general plan, which provides a blueprint for development in specific zones of the city, provides for additional retail opportunities at Fashion Island and hotel rooms and housing units in Newport Center, with emphasis on improving the area's walkability while concentrating buildings along Newport Center Drive.

The document provides opportunities for residential buildings that would enhance the area's "pedestrian character."

Throughout Orange County as well as in Newport Beach, communities are looking to create hubs of mixed-use development where people can live, dine, shop and work, Ridgeway said.

"It's a suburban setting, but the walkability from these units to all the services in Newport Center is really a benefit," he said.

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