'Vision' sought for city land use

NEWPORT BEACH — Residents have griped to their City Council members recently about rehab homes popping up in their neighborhoods. Now it might be the council members' turn to complain about an undesirable land use on property they control: parking.

Trying to balance the city's financial needs with civic considerations and their surrounding landowners' goals, public officials are planning the reuse of the current City Hall complex on Newport Boulevard, which is slated to close when the new one opens on Avocado Avenue.

They're collaborating with owners of nearby commercial properties along the Peninsula to create a "vision" for the area. While this process has produced some creative ideas, like a new waterway along the site, it has also dwelled on parking — an uninspiring but perhaps necessary use of the land.

"It's a classic case of opportunities that are constrained by parking," said Tim Collins, a real estate development consultant hired to manage the project.

The 17-acre area includes Lido Marina Village, the Via Lido Plaza retail center with the Pavilions market, the City Hall site and other buildings.

Today, it's lacking 180 parking spaces to accommodate the current uses, Collins said.

His study found that the area would be well-suited for more retail shops, housing and other uses that would bring more cars.

To fit the additional cars, the study developed two proposals, both of which would park hundreds of cars in a parking structure on the City Hall site.

The structure would service the surrounding buildings, boats, as well as whatever is on the city's site. In Lido Village, for instance, large charter boat operators are required to have enough parking for their passengers.

Whether charter boat parking is the best use of the City Hall land was a touchy subject at last Tuesday's City Council study session. A parking structure could generate cash for the city — either from drivers or from the companies that would rely on the spaces — but it wasn't clear if the council members thought that was the best use.

"If it's such a good deal," asked Councilwoman Nancy Gardner, "then why isn't the private owner building the structure so we would have more room to do what we want on our property?"

Also on the City Hall site, Collins and his team members proposed some combination of 80 apartments or condominiums for seniors, some retail and office space, a public fitness center and an adult education campus.

They listened to representatives from city departments like the Parks and Recreation Department and Senior Services, he said.

"Senior housing has a civic benefit," said Councilman Steve Rosansky, adding that it could make Newport more affordable for older people.

The demand for certain types of development, and their economic benefits, are informing the planning process, said Richard Gollis from the Concord Group, another consultant on the project.

High-end housing, of course, made the top of the list. Also, a boutique hotel and a specialty grocer would do well in that area, Gollis said.

Based on the value of the 4-acre City Hall site, Gollis estimated the city could generate $1 million to $2.5 million a year by leasing it to long-term operators — of senior housing, for example.

The land itself is worth between $8 million and $15 million, depending on what is approved and planned there, he said.

The city is constrained by state and other laws that govern how it can use excess public land. Luxury housing may not be permitted, for example. Also, the city may need to fulfill its state affordable and senor housing requirements.

"Maximum revenue potential is not the only factor to consider," said Rosansky.

He said that the city may not have the chance to develop this size of property again, and that it should think creatively about the best public benefit, even if its finances are constrained today.

"We can't just plan for the next year or two," he said. "Sooner or later the economy is going to recover."

One idea that Rosansky and others liked was a canal that would lead from the bayfront, cross Newport Boulevard and connect to the canals to the west of Newport. It would help circulate water in that part of the bay, he said, and would be a great incentive for landowners to agree with the new plans.

There are 14 owners in the area being studied, and nine are working in this planning process.

Collins said the canal would be too expensive to build and that it would require all of the affected landowners, who may have conflicting timelines, to sign off at once. His team dropped the canal from consideration.

Nearby resident Jim Miller liked the canal idea.

"We need to improve this area for all of Newport," he said at Tuesday's meeting.

The study team contacted nearby community associations, civic groups, commercial tenants and landowners, and about 40 to 50 people attended public forums, said Todd Larner from William Hezmalhalch Architects.

Now, the consultants will study more closely the economic feasibility of the various proposals, and will come back to the City Council on Jan. 11 with more specific proposals for the City Hall site. The goal is to have a final plan done by Jan. 25.

"It has to be economically feasible," said Larner. "We don't want to put anything into the area that doesn't work."

One idea that they'll be examining more is a boutique, luxury hotel, an idea popular among some residents at last week's study session.

"We need a hook, something exciting for people to come to see," said Mary Fryer, a West Newport resident.

Councilwoman Gardner said she was disappointed that the plan didn't have much open space with walking paths and other such public uses.

"I don't see a lot of green stuff, which would make this a lot more walkable, livable and enjoyable," she said.

Collins said this was a function of the parking, which made it harder to fit these types of uses. But Rosansky said that perhaps the other property owners should make way for a parking structure.

"I don't know why the city should be the low man on the totem pole," he said.

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