Going Door-to-Door for Measure A : Irvine Co. Takes Campaign to the Streets

Times Staff Writer

And you thought Election Day came and went on Nov. 4.

Not so in Newport Beach, where the Irvine Co.'s. controversial expansion of Newport Center will be decided by city voters in a special election Nov. 25.

The expansion, known as Measure A on the one-issue ballot, calls for three office towers, houses and apartments, shops, restaurants and cultural facilities and $47 million in road improvements. Company officials refer to the $300-million expansion as putting the "finishing touches" on a financial and commercial center that was started 20 years ago.

Critics of Measure A argue, however, that the centerpiece of the expansion plan--the three office towers--would add 40,000 car trips a day to the already congested roads that straddle Newport Center. They also say that the company's offer to expand the city's library and museum and donate land for a teen-agers' center are just "sugar coating" to make the office towers and traffic easier for residents to swallow.

Gearing Up for Push

With only nine days to go before the special election, both sides are gearing up for a last push to woo voters. The Irvine Co., especially, is leaving nothing to chance. As of Friday, it had spent $460,000--the most money ever spent on a ballot measure campaign in Newport Beach.

The company was forced to scale down the plan three times after it was first proposed a decade ago. In 1981, for example, after the City Council approved the plan, opponents qualified a citywide referendum for the ballot. The Irvine Co. withdrew the proposal because surveys showed immense voter hostility toward the company on an unrelated issue, and company officials feared the expansion plan would lose.

Last spring, a similar scenario occurred. The Newport Beach City Council, by a vote of 5 to 2, approved the Irvine's Co.'s revised expansion plan for Newport Center. In response, a grass-roots group calling itself Gridlock successfully circulated a petition calling for a referendum, which became Measure A. A vote against Measure A is is a vote against the expansion.

This weekend, about 100 Irvine Co. employees and members of Citizens for a Better Newport, a residents' support group, are walking door-to-door, handing out campaign brochures and praising the Newport Center expansion, according to Pam Engebretson, who is acting as the Irvine Co.'s volunteer coordinator for the election.

With much of the sophistication of a congressional campaign, precinct walkers were armed with a script, coaching them what to say to supporters and opponents.

For example, if the person favors the development, the volunteer says: "That's great! Did you know that you can vote by mail through the absentee process. . . . I'd like to leave this stamped, addressed application for an absentee ballot with you, which I would hope you could fill out and mail to the registrar today."

If a person appears to oppose the development, the volunteer should simply leave a brochure. "Don't linger at the door of an opponent," the script says. Tim Newman, 32, a lieutenant with the Newport Beach Police Department, was walking door-to-door Saturday because, he said, the Newport Center expansion would be "a chance to get a lot of road improvements with no cost to taxpayers."

When he rang the doorbell at 464 Santa Ana Avenue in Newport Heights, he greeted Ann Herberts, a 30-year-old homemaker, with a smile.

"Hi," he said. "I'm your neighbor from Broad Street, and I'm walking precincts to allow the Irvine Co. to complete its build-out of Fashion Island. Are you familiar with Measure A?"

Voting Against It

Herberts said she was and proceeded to tell a disappointed Newman that she was voting against it because she feared it would create more traffic in and around her neighborhood. "But," she added, "my husband's for it. He's in real estate."

In another tactic, the Irvine Co. has paid $23,000 for a 13-minute videotape in which residents, business people and civic leaders speak in glowing terms about the benefits of the plan. They include Newport Beach City Manager Robert L. Wynn, who calls it "a good deal" because it "will generate in excess of $1 million per year" in tax revenues for the city.

While Newport Beach City Attorney Robert Burnham said Wynn, a city employee, did not violate any laws by appearing on behalf of the Irvine Co., Wynn said he regretted it.

"But how do you say no when they (Irvine Co.) hound you and hound you? You can't."

While the Irvine Co. and members of Citizens for a Better Newport canvass neighborhoods, opponents of Measure A, led by Gridlock, said they are spending the weekend polishing two citywide mailers. By the time the campaign is over, Gridlock, which expects to spend about $10,000, will be outspent by its opponents by about 50 to 1.

Despite the lopsided financial picture, Gridlock spokesman Allan Beek said he is confident of victory.

"No one is going to vote other than the people who know something about this," he said. "That is in our favor."

Competing Visions

At the heart of the debate over Measure A are competing visions of Newport Beach as a bedroom or board room community. Some want to retain what is left of the sleepy, beach resort atmosphere, while others favor new businesses and cultural amenities.

In addition to the three proposed office towers, another piece of the expansion plan that could significantly affect the future of development in Orange County is the construction of Pelican Hill Road.

Just a ridge line now, the proposed seven-mile road would meander from Coast Highway near Crystal Cove north through coastal hills dotted with scrub brush. It would then curve west, supplanting the existing Bonita Canyon Drive and end at MacArthur Boulevard.

Traffic engineers for Newport Beach and the Irvine Co. argue that the proposed road--which is also the key to the Irvine Co.'s plan to develop its land between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach--will divert 30% of the vehicles passing through Newport Center. Traffic from John Wayne Airport and surrounding office complexes could bypass the traffic-logged neighborhood of Corona del Mar and Newport Center entirely, engineers say.

Gridlock members argue that Pelican Hill Road would represent a longer, more circuitous trip for most people, so there would be little incentive for them to avoid traveling directly up Coast Highway to MacArthur Boulevard.

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