Council OKs Balboa Peninsula fire station and library project design style, removal of landmark tree

By SARA HALL

City Council this week unanimously approved a design style and layout for the planned replacement facility for the Balboa Peninsula library branch and fire station combination project.

Councilmembers voted 6-0 (Robyn Grant was absent) on Tuesday (May 14) for a cottage-style design and a layout that removes the public works storage at the site, located at 100 and 110 East Balboa Blvd.

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Renderings by COAR Design Group/Courtesy of City of Newport Beach

Concept renderings of the architectural style and layout option that council approved for the Balboa Branch library and fire station facility

The most discussed aspect of the project was the planned removal of a city-designated landmark tree, a blue gum eucalyptus. Nearly two dozen residents spoke at the meeting, most sharing passionate comments urging the council to keep the special tree, which serves as home to nesting blue herons.

Residents love the library and fire station, but they also love the trees, noted Councilmember Brad Avery.

“It’s a tough thing to lose,” he said. “You’re losing something, but you’re gaining something. It’s going to be a better facility for everyone.”

He asked that the trees be replaced with fairly fast-growing shade trees.

Although they haven’t decided on the species yet, they can choose trees that have broad canopies and are rapid growers, confirmed Kevin Pekar, the city’s parks and trees superintendent.

A lot of effort has gone into it and it’s a great project overall, Avery concluded.

The recommendation to remove the tree was primarily due to the increase in rot found in the tree when evaluated and the probable impact and disturbance to the tree and its roots that would occur in order to complete the much-needed replacement of the fire station and library.

“This is also, as you can imagine, not our first rodeo with discussing trees,” said Mayor Will O’Neill.

Also, over the past two decades, the city has added 684 more trees to the Balboa Peninsula than what previously existed, he added.

“This has been a city that obviously takes trees very seriously. Adding them matters; subtracting them requires study,” he said.

In this case, it’s been done twice, he added. The studies were conducted by an arborist the city has trusted in the past and has done commendable work. They can’t follow the word of people simply looking at the tree and claiming there’s no problem and that the arborist is wrong.

“We don’t have the luxury to do that because in the past we have had limbs fall on people, we have had limbs fall on property, we have had major problems with trees like this,” O’Neill said. “We can’t allow for a failure.”

They conduct the tests in the first place to ensure that they’re paying attention to potential safety concerns, he added. In this instance, when considering removal, they have to weigh the multiple tests showing an exponential growth in rot and the knowledge that this work has to be done.

“It’s not feasible for us to be trying to design around a tree that is not going to work going forward,” O’Neill said.

There are two existing landmark trees at the site, Pekar said, a blue gum eucalyptus and a Canary Island date palm.

There are also two other Canary Island date palms at the location, but they are not landmark trees as they likely were much smaller when the special tree list was incorporated, Pekar explained. There were previously two other landmark trees of this same species, he added, but they died from the fusarium wilt disease these palms are known to get and were removed.

The site also previously had two other landmark eucalyptus trees, which were removed due to decay, Pekar said. He noted that a follow-up review on the most recently removed tree confirmed the rotten trunk section identified by the tomography scan was evident in images, which proved that the wood was compromised. The tree was tested in December 2022 and again in August 2023, which showed an increase in decay from 17% to 43%.

The remaining blue gum eucalyptus tree was examined at the same time and detected rot increased from 2% to 7% during the nine-month period. They usually recommend removal of a tree at 30%, which is the industry standard, he added.

“This decay will continue to increase exponentially, given that same kind of rate. We’re expecting it to reach that threshold within about five years,” Pekar said.

The rot is irreversible, he added. The best way to decrease the spread is to keep the tree healthy and not disturb the site, Pekar explained, which would not be possible with this project. The roots under the building footprint and parking lot would be impacted, there would be root-pruning, a lack of consistent water and nutrients, and compacted soil from heavy equipment, he explained.

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“If we were to keep this tree, even with the best preservation methods available, we would still impact the tree,” Pekar said, and likely any arborist would agree with that conclusion, he added.

The prognosis for the existing landmark Canary Island date palm is similar. It would be impacted by construction, likely start to decline, and eventually die in the next three to five years, Pekar predicted. They are already noticing signs of the fusarium wilt disease, he added, including dead fronds.

They assess the trees early on to determine the state of their overall health and decide what to do, added Public Works Director Dave Webb.

“The city is very passionate about our trees,” he said. “We do our best…(and) really work hard to keep our trees. Some trees just get to the point where we can’t (save them).”

After the trees were scanned, they found all of them were in a diseased state of some level, Webb explained, which is what led to the recommendation to remove them. They’re working on a long-term project and they now know the trees have a shorter timeframe, he commented.

They would not remove the trees during nesting season, Pekar emphasized. The herons that currently call that eucalyptus tree home will likely find another neighboring tree, he said. There are a lot of opportunities for them to nest in nearby eucalyptus trees, he added. Staff also consulted a biologist who ensured them on the issue.

“Herons are opportunistic nesters and that they’ll look for other nesting grounds within their range, which can be up to 30 miles,” Pekar said.

More than 20 people spoke during public comment and nearly all opposed removing the eucalyptus tree. Many urged the council to save the green space and the heron’s nesting area.

Some emphasized that during the process they have repeatedly asked to find a way to keep and design around the tree, which is a beautiful, city-designated “landmark tree.” It contributes to the character of the neighborhood and isn’t so hazardous that it needs to be removed. Several commenters asked to give the tree – and the herons that inhabit it – some time and re-test it before removing it. Mother Nature is resilient and already fighting back, noted one speaker, who pointed to the tree’s new growth and greenery.

Longtime resident Robert Hampton encouraged the council to look at the herons and the tree in a new way and emphasized that, as living, connected things, they should be treated with respect.

“I heard it mentioned that herons are opportunistic and, yeah, they could live far away – a lot of people commute too and don’t like it,” he said.

“As a retired physician, sometimes getting a second opinion would be a good idea,” he added.

Several speakers also commented that the playground and parking lot were not necessary and that the space would better be used for interior features of the building.

Several councilmembers sympathized with the public’s comments in favor of the tree, but found that the need for a new fire station and library – coupled with the rot already discovered in the tree – justified its removal.

“I recognize that there is a tree there that needs love, but our community also needs love by re-doing that fire station and in the meantime, we’ll redo that library,” said Councilmember Erik Weigand.

The city takes great pride in trees, Weigand said, noting that Newport Beach has been earned Tree City USA recognition for more than 30 years. They city spends more than $2 million annually servicing the urban forest, he added, which is comprised of about 35,000 public trees.

“I sympathize with the tree that’s there, but we do take great care of our trees and we are good stewards of our trees in our city,” he said. “I take that to heart, your comments, and I do recognize that we need to protect our environment and protect those species that exist. I’m sympathetic to it, but I just take the greater good of the public when it comes to a redo on our firehouse. And if we start touching that land, we’re going to destroy that tree anyway even if we tried to protect it.”

Weigand noted that there are a number of public safety incidents happening, all day long, up and down the Peninsula, and the fire station is need of replacement in order to properly service the area.

“There’s a ton of activity that having a proper, well-manned fire station brings our residents and when you need them, you need them quickly,” Weigand said.

After getting on the council, he toured the fire station and found it severely lacking. The facility is run down, it doesn’t have proper accommodations, and it’s not functional, he commented. It needs to replaced, he emphasized, and that project includes replacing the library.

Other councilmembers agreed and emphasized the importance of an efficient and function fire station.

“I totally support our public safety in terms of our personnel, but also in terms of facilities that we need to build to guarantee that when you need help, you’re going to get a great response,” Avery said.

Based on the input received at previous Board of Library Trustees and Parks, Beaches & Recreation Commission meetings, the architect produced and refined three different floor plans and two architectural styles that council reviewed on Tuesday. With the identified goals in mind and based on feedback from the Library Board and PB&R meetings, staff presented three options for proposed layouts. Each alternative varied slightly in the square footage for the various uses, the number of trees, and planned on-site and street parking spaces.

Option 1 layout orients the facility along Balboa Boulevard with public parking and the library entrance off Bay Avenue. Option 1A was developed to remove the public works storage bay, but otherwise follows the layout orientation of Option 1. Option 2 layout orients the facility along Island Avenue with access to the parking lot from Balboa Boulevard and Bay Avenue.

The proposed themes are “cottage house” or “natural modern” styles.

Ultimately, council selected option 1A with the cottage design style.

Design and permitting are expected to take approximately one year, with construction beginning in the last quarter of 2025.

The estimated construction cost is $16 million, which is a much larger number than they were expecting, commented Assistant City Engineer Tom Sandefur.

“We continue to see pressure in the construction industry driving up the costs,” he said.

The all-in cost is estimated at $17.7 million, which includes design, construction support and other soft costs.

There’s no question that it’s expensive, O’Neill said. It’s something that they’ve been saving toward for quite some time. It will probably require council to set aside most, if not all, of this year’s anticipated surplus toward the facility’s financing plan, he added.

The original 566-square-foot Balboa Branch library was constructed in 1929 at the northeast corner of Balboa Boulevard and Island Avenue. The building was eventually expanded by about 4,500 square feet in 1952. A decade later, the 3,423-square-foot fire station was added.

Both facilities were evaluated and rated in poor condition in 2021. As part of the city’s Facilities Financial Plan, the existing Balboa library and fire station are scheduled for replacement with a planned construction start in 2025.

City plans have long-included replacing both buildings, O’Neill said. As part of the design process, they considered what that might look like and found a successful plan from the Corona del Mar library and fire station combination project.

“At the end of the day, that is incredibly important, for both our residents and our visitors, to work through on the public safety side,” O’Neill said.

Staff and a council working group met to understand the needs and programming for the proposed new facilities. The goals included reviewing the site trees’ health for future viability, providing a modern fire facility and providing a modern, right-sized neighborhood branch library.

On Jan. 10, 2023, council approved a professional services agreement to COAR Design Group for the design of the project.

Following up on a comment he received from former mayor and councilmember Don Webb, Weigand also asked if there would be a spot to place a refurbished eight-foot city seal that’s from the original city hall location (now where Lido House Hotel and Mayor’s Table restaurant sit). It’s currently at the public works yard and Weigand suggested at the new site or at another city location, including possibly the new city hall and civic center.

While some seals have the flag blowing in the wrong direction (opposite of the wind, according to the sailboats pictured on the seal), Weigand noted, this one has it correct.

“It’s a cool piece of history,” Weigand said.

After Weigand’s comments, a few other councilmembers noted their interest in the item as well.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu Newport.


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