The lecture and performance hall planned for Newport Beach’s main library cleared a major hurdle this week with strong public support — mostly.
The City Council awarded a $638,000 design contract Tuesday to Newport Beach architectural firm Robert R. Coffee Architect + Associates for the standalone, 325-seat hall adjacent to the Central Library at 1000 Avocado Ave.
It’s an early step to get the hall built at the edge of the library parking lot and provide an upgrade from the relatively small Friends Room inside the building.
When Elizabeth Stahr led fundraising for the main library in the 1990s with her husband, John, she wrote thank-you letters for every one of the 5,000 donations the building drew.
“Our policy was, it was public support by private donations,” she said.
An even mix of publicly and privately raised dollars also will fund the lecture hall project, which is estimated to cost $8 million total. Construction could begin in 2021, with completion by 2023.
Fellow longtime library champion Lizanne Witte said the new hall would be booked solid.
During the past year, more than 72,000 people attended assorted programming in the Friends Room.
“The public is hungry for more and continually suggests speakers and topics,” Witte said. “They want more lectures, culture, panel discussions, documentary films.”
Tickets to a $65-a-seat January talk by Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin sold out in three hours, Stahr said.
Peter Keller, president of Santa Ana’s Bowers Museum and a Newport resident, said the library is a city symbol but the Friends Room is almost embarrassing as a venue for high-profile guests.
“You could go to surrounding cities like Irvine with the Irvine Barclay or book the Segerstrom Center [in Costa Mesa] — come to the Bowers in Santa Ana — but you shouldn’t have to,” he said.
Plans for the 7,000-square-foot, single-story lecture hall include fixed auditorium-style seating for 275 people and room for 50 portable overflow seats. The venue also is expected to have a ticket booth, lobby, kitchen, “green room,” audio-visual control room and restrooms, plus a sloped floor for improved sight lines and advanced audio-visual equipment.
None of that is available in the 2,600-square-foot Friends Room, which opened with the main library.
Paul Watkins, vice chairman of the board of library trustees, said the hall will be a home for programming.
“A home that completes the library campus,” he said. “A home that is nearby the stacks, nearby the books, nearby the now-replaced Dewey decimal system card catalogs that I used as a kid.”
Resident Bob McCaffrey, the hall’s chief critic, said it isn’t fiscally responsible, but his suggested alternatives — City Hall’s council chamber and Community Room, the Oasis Senior Center’s multipurpose room, high school theaters or the Lido Theater — have been rejected.
McCaffrey tried to turn his back to the council when he spoke Tuesday because “I see what the vote is, so I see no reason to speak to the City Council. I think I should speak to the library board” in the audience.
“I know we’re rich, but I don’t think we’re stupid,” he said, facing the council after admonishment from the mayor and city attorney. “As our harbor silts up, employee pension costs grow and new fire stations are built, we can use the money on things we need. This is not a need, this is a want.”
Jill Johnson-Tucker, who heads the lecture hall design committee, said it would be fiscally irresponsible not to take the half-and-half deal the library foundation is offering.
Donors have already informally pledged $1.35 million, Johnson-Tucker said.
“We’re ready to go,” she said.
Councilman Kevin Muldoon said he’s known for saying no to projects not related to public safety. He said he nonetheless leaned toward approving the hall but heard from enough people who didn’t approve of the spending that “my default is probably best in this case, even when times are good.”
Councilman Marshall “Duffy” Duffield said his door-to-door queries in his neighborhood found low support even for spending $4 million.
But Councilwoman Joy Brenner said it would be a wise business decision that the city should take.
“We have a great opportunity here, we can afford it, it’s financially sound and it’s going to greatly benefit our organization,” she said.
The council approved the hall designer on a 5-2 vote, with Muldoon and Duffield dissenting.