Despite lawsuit, concerns and a new $41M price tag, Estancia theater work could soon begin

A rendering of what the Estancia High School theater is proposed to look like.
(Courtesy of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District)

Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s plan for a multimillion-dollar theater at Estancia High School — to create parity between the Costa Mesa campus and other secondary schools in the district — continues to inch forward, despite an ongoing legal challenge and a much higher price tag.

Trustees received a progress report on the proposal in a meeting Tuesday that was interrupted after a man entered the board room and refused to wear a facemask in defiance of a statewide mandate, causing attendees to temporarily relocate.

Originally slated to be paid for by $27 million from Measure F, a bond passed by voters in 2005, the Estancia theater’s cost climbed to $32 million by 2020 as the project’s timeline dragged on.

Ara Zareczny, director of facilities development, said now that the construction work has gone to bid, revised estimates place the total cost just under $41.2 million. She cited inflation, supply chain issues and an expanded project scope as reasons for the hike.

A senior lawn at Estancia High School, photographed on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020.
A senior lawn at Estancia High School, seen here in 2020, would be removed to make way for a new performing arts complex.
(Raul Roa)

Jeff Trader, NMUSD’s chief financial officer, assured trustees the district can use set-aside facility funds to cover the difference.

“There is facility money available to complete this project as we have estimated it as of today,” he said.

Construction is anticipated to begin as soon as April and wrap up sometime in April 2024. NMUSD spokeswoman Annette Franco confirmed board members are scheduled to consider bids at their next regular meeting on March 8.

The plan calls for a 46,000-square-foot performing arts complex with a 350-seat theater, black box theater and lobby to be built on the northeast corner of campus currently home to a nearly 1-acre senior lawn and more than 30 mature sycamore trees.

Several community members have opposed removing the lawn, the only green space available to Estancia students, who mostly attend classes in windowless rooms.

Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Arlis Reynolds — who represents Estancia’s District 5 — urged school board members to reconsider removal of the lawn.

“This outdoor space adjacent to classrooms is critical for fresh air and connection with nature, and [that] is critical to student health and wellness,” Reynolds said. “Please open the door with this huge investment opportunity to consider options for a project that protects the limited natural space Estancia has.”

Renderings of the new $32-million theater complex planned for Costa Mesa’s Estancia High School show it sitting along the campus’s curving Placentia Avenue frontage — an anchor in a scenic area that abuts Fairview Park.

Speaker Olivia Maldonado suggested the district remodel the current theater and keep the lawn, arranging to have the school’s relatively small arts programs share a theater with nearby Costa Mesa High as needed.

“Eighteen years ago, when I was a student there, the senior lawn was a safe place and a safe haven for us, a place where we could sit and enjoy the fresh air and the trees,” she said. “My niece is there now, and it’s her favorite spot in the entire school.”

Aside from concerns about the loss of open space, the Estancia theater project is the subject of a lawsuit between Newport-Mesa and the city of Costa Mesa.

Board members approved the project in October 2019. In December 2020, they declared the project exempt from analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act.

School officials claimed, because the school’s existing theater would remain standing and use of the new facility would not grow Estancia’s population, it would not create enough of an impact to trigger a CEQA review.

City officials seek to overturn approvals for a performing arts complex on the Costa Mesa campus, claiming improper environmental review. Newport-Mesa Unified says the city’s petition is invalid.

Costa Mesa city leaders argued the exemption overrode public discussion of the project’s potential impacts. In a lawsuit filed Jan. 15, 2021, they maintained the project would significantly impact aesthetics, open space, air quality, traffic and vehicle circulation.

NMUSD countered, saying that the city had missed an important window — 180 days from the project’s 2019 approval — to submit a complaint under CEQA. A judge sided with the school district in a ruling in November.

Costa Mesa City Atty. Kimberly Hall Barlow confirmed Wednesday the city had filed an appeal.

“The board’s October 2019 action was the first time that there was any description of a project for environmental analysis,” she wrote in an email. “Treating it as a final approval completely deprived the community and the students of any opportunity to weigh in on the project or seek changes.”

NMUSD Supt. Wes Smith did not comment on the lawsuit Tuesday but promised officials would engage more with the community on plans moving forward.

“While we might have followed the letter of the law, we can always do better,” he said.

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11:19 a.m. Feb. 10, 2022: This story was update to include information from the district indicating NMUSD trustees are scheduled to consider construction bids at their next regular meeting.