Costa Mesa City Council approves apartment complex near John Wayne Airport

After nearly three and a half hours of discussion and debate late Tuesday night, the Costa Mesa City Council approved a large luxury apartment complex a half mile from John Wayne Airport.

The $75-million, 240-unit project at 125 E. Baker St., will be the first residential development east of the 55 Freeway in the airport-adjacent city limits, though with that change came considerable discussion about the appropriateness and potential impacts of new housing within an area dominated by business parks and light industry.

Four council members signed off on a host of approvals, among them a zoning change from commercial to high-density residential on the 4.2-acre parcel that contains a 66,000-square-foot office building.

The nondescript 1970s building, known as the West Airport Center, has several vacancies and will be demolished next year.

Councilwoman Wendy Leece dissented on nearly all the approvals.

A majority of the council and project supporters contended that the apartments are widely supported by nearby businesses, meet rental market demands and will not adversely affect traffic.

"It is a significant part of the housing market that is needed in the community to keep it healthy," said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, who praised the planned complex's amenities: a pool, basketball court, dog park, communal garden, outdoor barbecues, "oasis" courtyard and fitness center.

The units will also have their own washers and dryers, as well as stainless steel appliances, decks, balconies and hardwood floors.

"It looks like a cruise ship as you go through it," Mensinger said.

Mayor Jim Righeimer said Costa Mesa is considered a "cool" place by millennials, who the developers will seek to attract with the complex's proximity to The Camp and The Lab Antimall.

"We're very eclectic," Righeimer said of the city. "We're very different."

The complex's designers said they are taking cues from the popular Bristol Street shopping and dining centers for the apartment project.

Alex Wong — a principal for the developer, Irvine-based Red Oak Investments — said the target demographic is childless, single professionals in the 25- to 35-year age range.

Leece and others expressed concerns about the high-density project's effect on the surrounding community.

"It's unrealistic to think that the impact from the residents of the 240 units is not going to impact our parks and our streets," she said.

The development's environmental impact report contends that the apartments will not negatively affect traffic, noise, air quality and water. Red Oak is also paying for a new traffic light at Baker and Pullman streets.

Red Oak consultant and former Costa Mesa traffic administrator Peter Naghavi said that intersection has long been considered dangerous.

With the new traffic light, Red Oak is fixing a "current, common problem," he said.

He added that most of the apartments' traffic will be heading away from the area each morning — an opposite flow from much of the morning commute.

"There is hardly any traffic impact as a result of this development," Naghavi said.

The complex's entrance will be off Pullman.

Red Oak will give the city an extra $250,000, which will be used toward a future public infrastructure project.

Righeimer negotiated the amount, saying that developer fees were needed to compensate the city for future improvements.

"I did not make his day," Righeimer said of the negotiations.

Leece argued $250,000 was too little.

"Well, I probably would have negotiated for more because I think it would merit that," Leece said.

Leece, a former Newport-Mesa Unified school board member, was also critical that Red Oak was paying fees to the Santa Ana Unified School District rather than Newport-Mesa.

Righeimer said the new apartments will better utilize the West Airport Center property, where office rents haven't gone up in 20 years. He and Mensinger also praised the development's job-creation potential, both in the short-term construction and the long-term with service to the residents.

"We have to do whatever we can do to get jobs," Righeimer said.

Garry Lukas, who co-owns AZ Mfg Inc. across the street from 125 E. Baker, for several months has organized against the apartments. He has contended that they will be incompatible next to his sheet metal manufacturing business.

He said the project is part of an effort to marginalize the industrial buildings nearby on Briggs Avenue.

Several businesses along Briggs have opposed the apartments on similar grounds, though Red Oak says the project has far more business supporters than dissenters. More than 10 letters were written to city officials in the last few months supporting the idea, calling it a revitalization effort for the airport area.

Some Costa Mesa residents, however, sided with the dissenting businesses.

"It's a great project in the wrong city," said Richard Huffman.

Costa Mesa is not Irvine, Huntington Beach or Los Angeles, he said. Residents here want low-rise buildings for a suburban, small-town feel, Huffman said, not "urban canyons lined by massive buildings."

The Baker Street apartments will have a six-story, 62-foot-high parking structure, which needed an exception to the city's four-story height limit for that area.

Red Oak principal Joseph Flanagan said his firm expects to demolish the West Airport Center in spring 2015, with a 24-month construction period to begin for the apartments that June.

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