From a distance, Newport Beach's new City Council Chambers off Avocado Avenue glowed like a cruise ship, its metal hull rising over a sea of dark construction barriers.
Getting closer Tuesday night, tall walls of windows revealed a crowd gathering to celebrate the City Council's first meeting there, capping off nearly a decade of fierce debate — though officials have emphasized that the completed Civic Center won't officially be unveiled until next year.
An open house is scheduled for May 4.
Inside the chambers, the soaring terraced ceilings, angular-yet-ergonomic furnishings and high-tech accouterments made the 150-seat hall feel like a space-age cathedral.
But critics have said the gods of local government are unworthy of that kind of tribute, dubbing the $131.4-million project Newport's "Taj Mahal."
At a special meeting earlier that day, a few hundred residents crowded into the city's old Council Chambers on Newport Boulevard for the last time to tackle one final piece of major business for 2012: a contentious residential dock fee increase, which the council ultimately approved.
Several speakers took the opportunity to skewer the Civic Center as an example of government spending run amok.
"Politicians everywhere are trying to get into my wallet," resident Roger MacGregor told the council. "The dock tax thing and the Taj Mahal will be your two legacies. You've angered some of the most wealthy and influential people in the harbor."
Kristine Thagard, who spoke on behalf of the Newport Beach Dock Owners' Assn., questioned whether the proposed increases would require the city to bulk up its bureaucracy. In doing so, she got in a dig about the new civic center.
"Just because you have the space at the new City Hall, please don't feel the need to use it," she said.
City officials, though, say the Civic Center will be used for much more than government operations.
"People see value where they want to see value," former Councilman Steve Rosansky said Monday. "It's not just a city hall, it's a civic center, which we really did not have in the city of Newport Beach, no central location where the city's civic identity has been focused."
Councilman Ed Selich added that as a tangible city expenditure, the new City Hall is "a real convenient whipping boy," for people who are being affected financially.
Additionally, he said, the down economy was a good time to act.
"We built it at the right time, when construction costs were down," he said. "Building it in the normal economy probably would've cost twice as much."
And in any case, Selich said, paraphrasing a Rolls Royce ad, "long after the price is forgotten the quality remains."
The completed Civic Center will include the Council Chambers, a 98,000-square-foot office building for city staff, a 17,000-square-foot library extension, a 450-car parking garage, and a 16-acre park with a civic green, 1.23 miles of walking trails and a dog park, among other amenities.
Architecture firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, which was chosen to design the center in 2008, has said the buildings will receive Silver, and possibly Gold, LEED certification for environmental friendliness.
In other words, said Assistant City Manager and project leader Steve Badum, derisively calling the center "the Taj Mahal" is "a crappy thing to say."
The price tag, he said, came in part from the fact that once residents accepted that the city was outgrowing its aging Newport Boulevard headquarters in the early 2000s, they expressed a desire for something more than a low-cost "tilt-up design."