By Jill Cowan
9:45 PM PST, December 12, 2012
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."
"We don't want to be tearing this down in 50 years," he said.
Of course, the Civic Center was a divisive topic even among council members. More specifically, Badum said, where to put the thing was what generated the most debate.
Selich said he initially was against the idea of building a city hall in the area along Avocado just north of the city's Central Library, because that area had been slated to be a park.
Building there also required that the city spend $7.5 million to excavate about 300,000 cubic yards of dirt from the site and build a retaining wall.
Selich said that he had advocated for building a less elaborate city hall in Newport Center in a space rented from the Irvine Co. Local activists, meanwhile, wanted to preserve the planned park land.
On the other side, Councilwoman Leslie Daigle wrote in an email, the library expansion and parks were "additional components to the project of public value," which she supported. She said she was also in favor of having a more "centrally located" city hall.
The issue came to a head with 2008's Measure B, which put the move to the Avocado site before voters.
The measure passed with 53% but was challenged in court. Ultimately it was upheld, and plans for the Civic Center moved forward.
Badum said the measure's passage sent a strong message.
"People said we want something better," he said.
Selich and others said that once the measure passed, council members who had disagreed fell in line behind the project.
Tuesday night, council members' friends and family, along with other well-wishing residents, filled much of City Hall as newly elected Councilman Tony Petros was sworn in to replace Rosansky, who was termed out.
Rosansky, who has been one of the project's most outspoken proponents, said in an emotional farewell speech that it had been his long-standing goal to sit on the new dais at least once before he left office.
"At times, I didn't think it would happen," he said.
After the meeting, guests filtered into the new community room, which looked like a cross between a particularly spotless airplane hangar and a brightly lit classic car showroom.
They grabbed cookies and coffee and admired the new buildings.
Kelly Hacker, a lifelong Newport resident, brought her service dog, a Maltese-Yorkie mix named Winnie, to check out the new chambers.
Hacker, 53, said she's most excited to let Winnie run around at the new dog park when it's finished, but the city was "long overdue" for a new city hall.
"I'm so impressed," she said.
By The Numbers
Here's a breakdown of project costs, according to Assistant City Manager Steve Badum:
Construction costs totaled about $105 million
$7.5 million for grading and retaining walls
$7.5 million for the parking structure
$2 million for a pedestrian bridge over San Miguel Drive
$13 million for the Civic Center park
$63 million for the City Hall complex
$500,000 for project signage
$11.2 million for the library expansion
The total $131.4-million figure also includes furniture, project management, inspection fees and design costs.