NEWPORT BEACH — Although the soon-to-open OASIS Senior Center on top of a man-made hill with an ocean view came in $4 million under budget, one council member said a cloud will continue to hang over the building for the near future.
That is because there has been a grassroots push to rename the center after a beloved community matriarch — Evelyn Hart, a former mayor who spearheaded the effort to raise funds for the center. And there has been some pushback, as city policy forbids naming such public buildings after individuals, and some officials want that tradition upheld.
"We have this fabulous new building that the whole community really got behind," Councilwoman Nancy Gardner said. "And in a way, it's tarnished now."
The City Council will vote Tuesday on the recommendation made by the city Parks, Beaches and Recreation Committee to honor Hart by naming a building within the facility — either the events center or one of two rooms — after her.
The commission recommendation falls short of a proposal brought forward by Newport resident Tim Stoaks earlier in the month to rename the entire facility the Evelyn Hart OASIS Senior Center.
"Why people would oppose something as beautiful as honoring an individual, who really is such a jewel to the city, is just beyond me," Stoaks said.
Councilman Steve Rosanski said that he would support the recommendation by the parks commissioners.
"If anyone deserves having something named after them, Evelyn would be at the top of the list," Rosanski said, "but we do have a policy that's in place for a good reason."
Garner, whose district includes the center, wouldn't say which way she leaned on the issue, preferring to "go in with an open mind."
Hart had raised $4.4 million as chairwoman of the senior center building campaign and contributed consistently to the center over the years, including serving as Friends of OASIS president.
However, under city policy, parks and other public facilities cannot be named after an individual.
The concern is that this would create a demand Newport Beach could never satisfy, as that there are not enough naming opportunities to properly honor all deserving residents, according to the City Council staff report.
Hart turned down a request to be photographed Monday, saying she felt the controversy did not deserve more media attention. She added that already too much has been diverted away from the beautiful new center and onto her name.
"I'm very honored to even be considered, and whatever comes down in the City Council's wisdom, I'm sure that it's the right thing," Hart said. "I certainly appreciate everyone's confidence in me."
Dozens of letters have poured into the city and flooded the e-mail accounts of council members on both sides of the issue.
"I respect everyone who has testified to leave OASIS how it is, and I understand why they feel that way," Hart said. "What's important to me is, how can we best serve the residents of Newport Beach?"
The answer to that for many would be to leave OASIS as is, according to the letters from the opposition.
"The spirit of OASIS cannot and should not be attributed to the contributions of one person, or even a few persons," wrote Ed Romeo, board member for Friends of OASIS. "…the OASIS spirit is not only the result of all their efforts, but mainly is the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers and participants…"
Stoaks said that he agrees that the essence of OASIS is bigger than one person, "but, it's for the body of (Hart's) work, which has affected countless people, that we want to honor."
Citing the many charities and people whose lives have been affected by Hart, Stoaks said that her "résumé reads like Mother Teresa's."
While having an entire facility — or even just a building or room — named after her may be one of the greatest honors of her life, Hart said she is already beyond happy with the completion of the new facility.
"I feel a little thrill when I walk over there and I see it," Hart said. "It's so beautiful. I have to pause and think, 'Whoa, we did this.'"
Reminiscing on the building of the center, which will officially open Oct. 9 but will have a "soft" opening Sept. 20, Hart said that she had been approached before about garnering press for the new facility.
"However, I don't think this is what they had in mind," Hart said.
If You Go
What: Newport Beach City Council meeting
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: City Council Chambers at City Hall, 3300 Newport Blvd.