NEWPORT BEACH — A retail project near John Wayne Airport proposed by a former mayor, which the Planning Commission had opposed, won City Council approval this week.
Council members decided to ignore the advice of city planners and allow developer Tod Ridgeway to build the center on a long-struggling commercial property along MacArthur Boulevard near Von Karman Avenue.
The council cited overriding economic concerns in reversing the commission's decision — the second time they've done so in recent months.
"This is a long-standing, non-performing area of the city that has greater potential," Councilman Rush Hill said.
The most controversial aspect of the plan is a proposed driveway on MacArthur along a stretch without such breaks in traffic. Ridgeway argued that MacArthur was designed for more vehicles that never materialized and that he needed better access to the center.
"Over the years, this project has suffered by the way it was originally designed," said Todd Stoutenborough, the developer's architect.
Most recently, the property at 4221 Dolphin-Striker Way housed Code Restaurant and Lounge, which closed last year. Before that, other restaurants and bars failed. The proposal calls for a roughly 12,300-square-foot center with a sandwich shop, sit-down restaurant, bank and retail stores.
Some residents have questioned whether Ridgeway received special treatment because he once served in public office. Typically, a developer would appeal the commission's decision and pay a roughly $4,000 fee, but if a council member appeals the planners' ruling, the fee is waived.
Jack Geerlings, whose home is above Ridgeway's Mariner's Pointe project, and Laura Curran, a regular council watchdog, objected to the appeals process.
Ridgeway said he has no problems relying on his connections to the council members.
"Yes, I made a phone call, and I'd do it again," he said.
Mayor Mike Henn called for a review of such fee waivers. Councilwoman Leslie Daigle said she thought developers, not taxpayers, should be paying for appeals.
Hill defended his move earlier in the week, saying he considered the development's "merits, and for the ability to help a commercial area perform financially."
"It's a coincidence that he's a [former] council member," Hill said.
Another project by Ridgeway, at Bayside Drive and West Coast Highway, includes plans to replace an abandoned center with luxury shops and restaurants.