Musings on the Coast


Where Newport Got It Right

Michael Ray
Michael Ray

If you have not yet seen the new Newport Beach Civic Center, go.  It is a delight.  More, it is a statement: this is the new Newport Beach, a place where giant international companies like Pimco call home. It is sophisticated and modern.

The center contains more than the new City Hall. It links brilliantly to the popular Newport Beach Library and then gracefully melds into entertainment venues, a sculpture park, a nature preserve, a lookout tower, a dog park, and much more.

It was not easy to create and there is a backstory.  Newport Beach is home to many don’t-spend-anything conservatives.  To them, the whole thing was a waste of good money.

In an early City Council vote, the project was disapproved.  This prompted pro-civic center activists to bring the matter to a public ballot proposition, which barely passed 52 percent to 48.

Here is where Newport got it right.  After the measure passed, most City Council members who had opposed it bowed to public opinion and supported it.  Further, they made an incredibly great decision: if they were going to build a new civic center, it would be world class. This required sheltering the project from political maneuverings, energetic naysayers, and a host of connected gadflies. Without going into boring details, the city created a governance structure that dealt with all those problems, it worked perfectly and now they have a masterpiece.

Finally, because the masterpiece was built at the bottom of the economic cycle, the city got an incredible bargain for its money. It got world class for a local class price.

I am a builder and know what world class costs. Think a minimum of $2,000 per square feet of building area. By comparison, the cost of Newport Beach’s new civic center, renovated library, entertainment venues and new associated parks, counting everything, came in at about 40 percent of that cost.  Beyond wonderful. Magnificent.

Many people can claim credit for the new civic center.  One is Keith Curry, a former mayor whose statement on the new civic center’s conservative critics, is:   “Mediocre architecture is not a conservative value.” Great turn of phrase there, and true.


Another big contributor was Larry Tucker, chair of the building committee.  Every time someone or group wanted to dumb down the civic center or compromise the design, Larry fought them off.

This brings me to Laguna Beach and the fight over the artist live-work project. I cannot fathom the problem. Laguna is known for its art.   People are fighting a live-work project because at a mere 30 units, it is too big?  That is crazy. For the project to get built, it must work financially. Thirty units barely works.

Why fight it in the first place?   To tell the world Laguna no longer is committed to its artists or its art scene?  Huh?  We already know Laguna is becoming too expensive for artists.  We have to provide for them.  It is our identity. Or are we trying to drive them away to other, cheaper cities?

Come on, Laguna.  On its new civic center, Newport did it right. On our artists project, let’s copy them (if only for this one alone).

Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar and now lives in Laguna Beach.  He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits.

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