Club Fed

A brief history of two bad ideas

Photo by Keith MayAnyone who has whizzed through the intersection of 19th Street and Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa over the past 15 years will experience the déjà vu tingles once they check out the recently unveiled artist's rendering for the Balboa Bay Club's upcoming $55 million makeover.

"The only private beach club in Orange County"—and the only private beach club in Orange County on public land—is tearing down its waterfront buildings that have blocked everyone's view of—and access to—Newport Harbor for the past 52 years and replacing them with a new clubhouse and 131-room resort hotel.


The proposed Bay Club But the design by Lee & Sakahara Architects of Irvine looks frighteningly familiar to that of another spectacle just 3.5 miles away: Pacific Federal Plaza, the large Spanish-style palace directly across from Niketown at Triangle Square.

If the nation's savings-and-loan scandal was a nuclear reactor, Pacific Federal Plaza would be one of its spent rods. For those of you too young to remember, in the mid-1980s several savings-and-loan companies across the country went belly-up when several risky, uninsured investments on which they had banked everything went south. The debacle, inspired by Reagan-era deregulation, cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

The poster boy for the S&L shitstorm was Charles Keating, the owner of Irvine-based Lincoln Savings and Loan. Keating was convicted, then acquitted, then convicted again and then acquitted again for squandering the retirements of several Orange County geezers. Also knee-deep in the S&L effluent was Neil Bush, the brother of our presumptive next president, George Dubya Bush.

Neil Bush, who turned into the Invisible Man during his brother's presidential run, was a director at Denver-based Silverado Banking, Savings & Loan from 1985-88. After a string of high-profile failures, federal regulators shut down Silverado in 1988. Although there were allegations that he approved and profited from more than $130 million worth of questionable—and eventually bad—loans to friends and business partners, Neil Bush was never indicted. A Connecticut attorney maintains to this day that Neil Bush received a secret pardon from his father, George Bush, who was elected president just months before Silverado went bust.

Pacific Federal Plaza is an opulent reminder of the S&L crisis. Pacific Savings Bank's $18 million alcazar features three courtyards, six fountains, ceramic tile up the yin-yang, blooming bougainvillea and a perennial "for lease" sign. Pacific's bottom fell out in the mid-'80s when it strayed from its conservative 97-year-old mortgage-lending mission to invest in Texas real estate just in time for the oil bust. After seizing the failed bank, the feds operated the Resolution Trust Corp.—their S&L cleanup crew—out of Pacific Federal Plaza. The building was eventually sold and has been on the block for another buyer ever since. Asking price for the 144,000-square-foot palace: $20 million.

Pacific Federal Plaza represents the third in a trifecta of out-of-place buildings along the 55. The others are in Santa Ana: the similarly Spanish-styled Embassy Suites building, followed closely by the newer, extremely weird, Capitol-American Corp. complex. Of the three, Pacific Federal Plaza is the least offensive, although it seems as if it was stolen in the middle of the night from Santa Barbara.

Indeed, Balboa Bay Club operators could save a lot of time and trouble by simply pulling Pacific Federal Plaza apart like Lincoln Logs and putting it back together at 1221 W. Coast Highway in Newport Beach. There would be ample room for the clubhouse—which will be open only to club members and include a ladies' and men's spa, a fitness facility, a childcare facility, pro shop, lounge, restaurant, pool bar, sandy beach, swimming pools, and 150-boat slips for vessels up to 125 feet in length—and the proposed five-star hotel—with plenty of space to spare.

It's also not likely the club will encounter any static from City Hall. The Balboa Bay Club is on property that Orange County land baron James Irvine deeded to the City of Newport Beach for public use in 1928. The "public use" on which the city eventually settled was to use the spot as a dumping ground for naval wartime equipment. In 1946, Los Angeles stock broker Ken Kendall bought a weekend beach house in Newport Beach—this was before the million-dollar homes, restaurants and snotheads—and decided what the town really needed was a private beach club. In a sweetheart deal that has been extended several times over, the city leased the donated Irvine land for what would become the exclusive and private Balboa Bay Club.

The Balboa Bay Club went on to become a favorite recreational spot for such celebs as John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo, Jack Benny and Bob Hope. In the early '60s, the Balboa Bay Club served as the local headquarters for Richard Nixon, his family, staff and political advisors. Ronald and Nancy Reagan used to swing by, as did frequent guest Barry Goldwater, whose daughter Peggy Goldwater Clay remains a Balboa Bay Club member.

One could argue that Newport Beach's nouveau riche-ness sprang out of the Balboa Bay Club. But once houses started springing up around the club, residents complained of their ocean views being blocked by its repulsive, multistoried structures. As a concession to neighbors—who could easily pressure City Hall to revoke or fail to extend the club lease—the redesign incorporates breezeways meant to open up views of the harbor.

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