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Newport to sell Balboa Theater for $1 million to developer for restoration

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A rendering depicts Lab Holding’s plan to restore the original look of the 1920s-era Balboa Theater building in Newport Beach.
( File illustration )

After a decades-long closure, the curtain is closer to rising again at Newport Beach’s Balboa Theater.

The City Council on Tuesday voted 6-0 to sell the theater, a longtime fixture on the Balboa Peninsula, to a Costa Mesa-based developer for $1 million. Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Muldoon was absent.

Lab Holding LLC, known for developing The Camp and The Lab shopping areas in Costa Mesa, plans to restore the theater’s original architecture, including the marquee, which likely would reflect the 1920s wrought-iron style. The venue is proposed to have a cafe that would open to the street, a small stage for live music and a second stage for private events. The live-music stage would have an indoor pub but no seating. The theater likely would not show films, according to preliminary plans.

The council voted in April to enter a nine-month exclusive negotiating agreement to work with Lab Holding on a proposal to rejuvenate the 88-year-old theater building on Balboa Boulevard. The agreement was intended to give the city and Lab Holding time to finalize a plan and negotiate a sale of the city-owned property to Lab.

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Several other individuals and companies also responded to the city’s offer to sell the theater, with some offering more money than Lab Holding. Several council members said Tuesday that though the city may have profited more by going with another buyer, it is more important to have a high-quality project that will fit with the surrounding Balboa Village neighborhood.

“It may not be the highest amount of money that we get can for the property, but I look at this as being a real investment in Balboa Village to help achieve a lot of the revitalization goals we’ve been trying to do over the years,” Councilman Ed Selich said.

Lab Holding founder Shaheen Sadeghi has made his mark on the Orange County development scene in the past several decades, helping to transform underperforming business districts in cities such as Anaheim and Costa Mesa.

Sadeghi said Tuesday that he prefers restoring aging buildings instead of tearing them down and starting from scratch with modern architectural styles. He plans to incorporate the Balboa Theater’s history into its new design.

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“While many of these buildings are simple representations of our culture ... they really do have tremendous opportunity,” he said. “The history and the story behind these buildings has a lot of value.”

The Balboa Theater, built in the late 1920s when building codes were limited, needs significant work before it is safe to reopen, officials say.

The building is considered “structurally deficient,” according to a city staff report. It also needs new plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems.

The theater’s value in its current condition is $890,000, according to appraisals commissioned by the city. When it is remodeled and updated to comply with building codes, its value is expected to be about $1.6 million.

Lab Holding officials estimate they will spend about $2 million to remodel the theater to meet current requirements.

The venue first opened in 1928 as the Ritz Theater and originally hosted vaudeville shows before operating briefly as a speakeasy during the tail end of the Prohibition era, according to historical accounts.

In 1939, the site became known as the Balboa Theater and began showing films. In the early 1970s, it was an adult theater showing X-rated movies under the name Pussycat Theatres. By the late ‘70s, it had transformed again, showing revivals of popular films.

The theater fell on hard times and was shuttered in 1992. The city bought the property in 1998 for $480,000.

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In the years after its closure, some residents held out hope that the theater would be reborn.

The Balboa Performing Arts Theater Foundation launched a fundraising effort in 2010 to renovate the building with plans to transform it into a 320-seat multi-use venue featuring musical acts, dance and theater performances, films and performing-arts education. But the fundraising did not prove fruitful.

In 2014, the city proposed turning the theater into a city-run fine-arts center offering exhibitions, movies, live performances and workshops in arts, crafts and music. But it was difficult to find widespread support for a city-run theater, council members said.

The revitalization of the Balboa Theater has been identified in city plans as a means to anchor the business district in Balboa Village, Mayor Diane Dixon said.

“This is a long time coming,” she said of the sale. “It just adds to the excitement that is already going on and the investment and revitalization of the entire peninsula.”

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN


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