Out of the Park

Developers Eye Public Parks

Orange County is running out of open space, a tremulous prospect for a place that is economically and politically based on paving paradise and putting up parking lots. Early reaction among developers is varied. Some are looking up—which is where Mike Harrah intends to thrust the 37-story One Broadway Plaza tower above old Santa Ana. Others are looking down—like, maybe just down the street from you, where your public park might make a nice time-share.

"That's what's happening to what's left of Newport Beach," says Tom Billings, a lifetime resident of the town that once epitomized the kitchy California seaside village and now is the template for the soulless FOX TV series The O.C."The City Council is trying to put 8.1 acres of recreationally zoned land in the hands of a hotel developer."

A group headed by Stephen R. Sutherland, another longtime Newport Beach resident, has contracted with the city to build a 110-room time-share hotel—they're promising five-star quality—on this sweet piece of bay-view property near the corner of Balboa Boulevard and 16th Street.

"If that hotel goes in, the people of Newport Beach will lose the last waterfront beach park of its kind," bemoans Billings. "That's simply wrong."

It may be wrong—but it isn't quite that simple.

Despite the recreational zoning, it's been about a half-century since the public has had access to all those acres of city-owned waterfront land. The site has been occupied by a trailer park—which in Newport Beach-speak was known as the Marinapark Mobile Home Resort—where 60 tenants paid up to $2,000 per month to park their double-wides next to what they pretended was their private beach. In fact, they pretended so well that almost everybody bought their act.

"The way the mobile homes were laid out created the illusion that the beach was private," says C.J. Bahnsen, a former Marinapark employee who lost his job after writing an OC Weekly cover story about the place ("Trailer Park Confidential," Sept. 1, 2000). "I very rarely saw anybody on that beach who wasn't in the extended families of the trailer-park residents. In fact, just about the only non-residents I saw were people who came in to chase down their tennis balls."

Tennis balls were constantly bouncing over the trailer-park fence from tiny Las Arenas Park, a small city recreation center consisting of boat-docking facilities, a few swings, a patch of grass, and a couple of basketball and tennis courts. Most of the public access to the beach and bay was through Las Arenas Park.

When the trailer park's lease expired, many Newport Beach residents assumed Las Arenas Park would be expanded. But a few months ago, Billings discovered that the City Council had moved to rezone the land for hotel use and contracted with Sutherland's development group, going so far as to outsource a private-sector project manager to work with a senior planner on the city payroll. He immediately raised such a stink—founding a group called Protect Our Parks (www.newport-parks.com) and encouraging angry citizens to crowd council meetings—that council members began to get a little nervous.

"I'd never done anything like this before, but I saw what was happening and wanted to do something about it," said Billings. "There wasn't much time, but the issue touched people on such a basic level that their reaction was almost immediate."

Consequently, at the same meeting where the council approved the environmental impact report that was supposed to green light the project, it also decided to let voters make the final decision in the November election.

"I guess you could call that a victory for us," says Billings. "But it is a secondhand victory. In the very first place, a hotel project on recreationally zoned public land never should have gotten this far."

Maybe not, but as open space dwindles in OC, the pressure to develop public land intensifies. Consider the toll roads that have slashed through some of the county's last remaining unspoiled wilderness areas. It was almost by accident that OC good-government activist Shirley Grindle discovered four years ago that one-third of the county's 27,000 acres of parkland lacked any legal protections against development and that fully half of the entire park system—more than 13,000 acres—were collateral for the county's bankruptcy-recovery bonds (Anthony Pignataro's "Bad Deeds Go Unpunished," April 28, 2000). County supervisors were loath to close that massive loophole—one that had already been exploited by developers—and delayed four votes before finally amending the park deeds and permanently preserving the parks.

"I hear about things like that and I worry for the Newport Beach that I remember as a child growing up," says Billings. "Newport Beach has a heritage, a village ambience based on people who are living their lives by the sea, but there is precious little public access to the bay anymore. What you're seeing happening through the city's unconscious greed or desire for commercialization is the surrendering of our heritage. They are trading our nautical village for hotels and condominiums. It makes the city feel cold. It's not Newport Beach anymore. It's somewhere else . . . and who wants to live there?"

 
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