Developer submits plans for Mariner's Mile project

NEWPORT BEACH — Drivers who pass West Coast Highway and Dover Drive may notice tall wooden posts with strings attached.

For the property's neighbors, they might bring noise and oversized buildings, but for the developer and many motorists, they signal the turnaround of a long-neglected strip.

Mariner's Pointe, a proposed luxury shopping and dining center with a three-story parking garage, is the pet project of former Mayor and retail developer Tod Ridgeway. He recently submitted plans to the city and is now working through the approvals process.

Ridgeway is using his political skills as he tries to sooth upset homeowners who believe the parking structure's lights and sounds will be a nuisance. At the same time, he's looking forward to concluding the land's saga and opening another upscale mini-shopping center.

"It's going to be a vibrant rejuvenation for the whole area," Ridgeway said. "It's the entrance to Mariner's Mile and it makes a significant architectural statement."

With a cupola and finial that extend 44 feet high, the project's circular eastern building would front Dover and Coast Highway. The two-story proposed building connects to the parking garage by a walkway arching over the garage's entrance.

Ridgeway, who has built luxury centers nearby, hopes to land a jewelry store, a fancy clothier, spa, florist and gift store. He is also talking with two high-end restaurateurs who could complement celebrity chef Mario Batali's upcoming pizzeria, which is being built nearby on Coast Highway.

For years, the stretch has been an eyesore after a larger proposed development fell through and the property owner didn't keep up the buildings.

A Mediterranean-themed shopping center originally proposed in 2006 was nearly twice as large as the current plan. It included properties west of the current site that are now occupied by retail shops and a small auto dealership.

That project would have been anchored by a Rite Aid and about 25 shops and restaurants. But the project didn't get approval from the California Department of Transportation, and Rite Aid sued the developer, Mariners Mile Gateway LLC.

Another roadblock for that project was public opposition to a traffic light near the sometimes-congested Coast Highway and Dover intersection.

Some residents who live on the bluff above the site have complained to the city about Ridgeway's project. According to a petition passed among neighbors on Kings Road, they are most upset with the parking structure plans. At 40 feet, it would exceed the 31-foot limit for the area and will require a special approval by the city.

"It is way overbuilt for the size of the property!" the petition says about the whole Mariner's Pointe project.

Jack Geerlings, who lives in the neighborhood, said he's also concerned about traffic on Coast Highway.

Ridgeway is confident that his traffic and other environmental studies are sound. The city recently issued a notice that it planned to approve the environmental documents and that the Planning Commission will hear the proposal June 9.

In 2006, the developer had all city approvals and construction was slated to begin but never did, and the property sat vacant.

News reports said that vandals broke windows and sprayed graffiti on the buildings, and weeds spread around the site. Two homeless people ignited a fire there that had to be suppressed.

The city in 2009 pressured the developer to clean up the buildings, and it painted them battleship grey and erected a fence. By then, a judge had lifted an injunction preventing development on the site — a remnant from the Rite Aid lawsuit. But city leaders, fielding complaints from residents, weren't satisfied with progress and sued the developer to clean up the buildings in early 2010.

Not long after that, the owner divided the properties and found two buyers to take over. Businessman Russell Fluter bought 11 lots starting at McDonald's and stretching east. Real estate investor Eva Watson bought the six lots that Ridgeway is now developing on contract.

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