Split council OKs $23M lecture hall, revised agreement with Library Foundation for 50-50 funding

By SARA HALL

In two separate items this week, a split City Council moved forward with the library lecture hall project.

Councilmembers voted 4-3 on Tuesday (Jan. 9) in favor of the third amendment to the memorandum of understanding with the Newport Beach Public Library Foundation. The agreement commits the city and the foundation to a 50-50 split on funding the project, with an updated total all-in cost of approximately $23.49 million.

Following the approval of the MOU, councilmembers again voted 4-3 to increase the funds committed and awarded a construction contract for the lecture hall project to AMG & Associates, Inc. for the total bid price of approximately $19.07 million.

The action also: increased appropriations by about $10.49 million to fully fund the project; established a contingency of about $1.91 million (10% of total bid) to cover the cost of unforeseen work not included in the original contract; added an amendment to the agreement with Robert Coffee Architects + Associates to increase the fee amount by $445,000 for construction support services, for a total not-to-exceed contract amount of approximately $1.12 million; added an amendment to the agreement with Griffin Structures to increase the fee amount by $187,000 for construction management services, for a total not-to-exceed contract amount of $867,000, and approved an agreement with Geocon West for construction special and geotechnical inspections and support service, for a not-to-exceed amount of $249,000.

The tentative schedule shows construction starting in spring and taking approximately 21 months to complete.

In both votes on Tuesday, Councilmembers Brad Avery, Noah Blom, Robyn Grant and Erik Weigand supported the item, while Mayor Will O’Neill, Mayor Pro Tem Joe Stapleton and Councilmember Lauren Kleiman dissented.

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Art courtesy of RCA/City of Newport Beach

The exterior of conceptual design for the planned library lecture hall

They need to jump on it when an opportunity like this presents itself, Avery said, considering the donations from all the residents that support the facility and the foundation working so diligently and collecting enough private donations to fund half the cost of the project.

“It’s a real gift, as far as I’m concerned, and it is a legacy project,” he said.

It will be a spectacular place where people can gather, ideas can be exchanged and people can learn more about the world, he said.

The lecture series he’s attended were excellent and well attended. As long as the programming remains engaging and interesting, they will continue to be full, Avery said.

Although he’s never been to one of the lecture series speaker events, Blom said the lecture hall is an important infrastructure project that will help transform the Civic Center into a cultural center for Newport Beach.

The lecture hall also provides enough space and potential for other uses, Weigand added. People from the nearby hotels could walk there for corporate speakers or business events, he noted, or elementary schools could host small performances.

“There’s a drive for this and I think it’s an economic engine,” he said. “I envision these things happening, not just the lectures series.”

Weigand also noted that fundraising and partnership with the foundation affirms what many in the community want, based on their donations toward the project.

“We have this public/private partnership and a significant amount of resources that our citizens – not random folks, not people from all over the country, (but) Newport Beach citizens – interested in this, I have to really embrace that,” Weigand said. “Part of our job is to help improve the quality of life for our residents and I believe that this does.”

Grant agreed and emphasized what the facility, named Witte Hall, will bring to the city.

“I am all-in to build Newport Beach’s legacy of prosperity and culture and community. And I hope that many of you who have had misgivings, after hearing everything here today, will agree,” Grant said.

A positive outcome of this process is that a lot of viewpoints have been expressed, she added, and they’ve had the opportunity to understand a variety of concerns and try to address them so they can “hit the sweet spot and make something wonderful happen.”

“There are two primary concerns: Can we afford it? And (do) we need it? And both answers are yes,” Grant said.

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The city has sufficient cash reserves to fund this lecture hall and does not need to borrow money, she confirmed, and still satisfy other high-priority concerns raised by commenters, like public safety, homelessness and the environment.

“I wouldn’t be in favor of this project if it meant that we were going to somehow jeopardize our reserves or we would be required to borrow,” she said. “We have sufficient money and reserves and revenue to take care of all of those ambitious objectives and build this lecture hall. There isn’t a ‘this or that’ involved here.”

It’s a “given” in her mind that the city can afford it, Grant concluded.

Answering the second primary concern about if it’s needed or not, she emphasized what the facility will bring to the city many years into the future as it fosters community, education and camaraderie.

“This lecture hall will serve as a cultural hub for generations to come,” Grant said. “It will represent an extension of what we already have, which is a world-class Central Library.”

They’ve built community centers, sports facilities, and even the Central library – now a popular and well-visited city asset – all of which are “wants,” she explained. This is an opportunity to enhance the Central Library and serve the community even better, she added.

“Newport Beach has always invested in more than just the bare needs. We’ve always done that and we take into account the value of the ‘wants.’ We don’t satisfy every want, but we look at what the value of those wants are,” Grant said.

People come to the city to live, work and visit because of all Newport Beach has to offer, she said, and this is an important part of that.

The city also has a long and successful history of public/private partnerships, Grant added.

Half the cost will be paid for by the foundation, Grant emphasized, so they will get the full value of an important asset to the community at half the price.

“That’s a great deal,” she said.

The primary reason for opposition, both on the dais and from the public, is the cost, which has significantly increased from the initial approximate $8 million price tag when it was first proposed in 2019.

O’Neill doesn’t question that the proponents believe that this project is in the best interest of the city. O’Neill said, it’s clear that it’s a strongly held belief by good people and he appreciates that. But the numbers got too high for the project to make sense when there are other issues to tackle in the city.

“At some point, project costs get too large to allow other priorities to be forfeited,” O’Neill said. As part of the budget process, “we know that a dollar spent in one area is not a dollar spent in another area.”

Kleiman agreed and, although she has seen the passion and emotional attachment for this project of those involved since its inception, and she respects and appreciates their tremendous effort and dedication, she can’t justify the cost of this project.

“I simply don’t believe that moving forward under the current scenario would be responsible stewardship of our taxpayer dollars,” Kleiman said. “We’ve heard from a lot of residents, and I mean a lot, over the last week or so, and it seems that a majority would agree.”

While she said she supports more opportunities for culture education and the arts in the city and making long-term investments that can potentially reimagine and reenergize an area, this facility has too narrow of a use to warrant the price tag.

“In this case however, I cannot justify $16 million, or even $11.5 million for a building that, while beautiful, will have such a limited use and reach,” she said. “I know we’ve heard from a few additional groups today, and there may be a dozen or two additional uses, but we do also have an unknown annual price tag attached to this.”

Although she appreciates the foundation’s campaign to raise funds for their half, she still has concerns.

“I do believe that the foundation will continue to use their best efforts to attempt to fundraise to meet their remaining 50% commitment to the extent possible with looming economic and other uncertainties,” Kleiman said.

The foundation anticipates using the hall about 50 days out of the year, she noted, which is what the newly negotiated MOU now allocates to the foundation annually. According to the agreement, the remainder of the programming will be scheduled by the city.

“I have concerns and don’t expect that the city will be able to find private or community uses that would substantiate the existence of a building designed only for lectures,” Kleiman said.

Kleiman also commented that Lido Theater, as well as Corona del Mar, Sage Hill and Harbor Day schools all have auditoriums that can be utilized for lectures.

Although Weigand later commented that using the local school theaters isn’t realistic because they’re used as classrooms during the day and are booked nearly all year long in the evening.

Stapleton’s reasoning for his no vote slightly differed. He wants to see a project like this happen and he appreciates the public/private partnership, but he can’t support the project in its current capacity. He echoed his previous comments from the November study session, when he emphasized re-imagining the original intent and consider creating a cultural arts center for Newport Beach. He also again mentioned a collaboration with the Newport Theatre Arts Center on Cliff Drive as a better use of the facility.

The final plans for Witte Hall call for a 9,814-square-foot building with 299 seats.

During the study session on November 14, council reviewed the project and discussed the recent construction bids. Councilmembers voted 4-3 on a motion to move forward with the lowest bid and direct the Library Foundation to reach out to the community to find pathways to incorporate the different elements of arts, business and culture as additional uses for the facility. In a straw vote, councilmembers Avery, Blom, Grant and Weigand raised their hands in support.

At the November 28 meeting, council established an ad hoc committee comprised of councilmembers Blom and Kleiman to renegotiate the MOU between the city and the foundation.

The foundation has committed to fundraising up to 50% of the total project cost, or approximately $11.74 million.

During discussion of the second lecture hall item (the construction contract) chair of the foundation’s Beyond Books capital campaign, Jill Johnson-Tucker, confirmed that the foundation has nearly $9 million in pledges and many contributors have already started paying off their pledges. They feel very secure in their effort, she added, and she hopes the council feels comforted in their fundraising abilities.

“I just want to reassure you that we’re there to make sure this happens,” she said.

Since the revised MOU was approved on Tuesday, the foundation was required to place $7.1 million in escrow immediately thereafter, confirmed Assistant City Attorney Yolanda Summerhill. In the second related item of the night, the city awarded the construction contract for the project. The foundation has either two years and/or until the time of the issuance the certificate of occupancy to provide the remainder, which is approximately $4.6 million.

The foundation has indicated that they are “very confident” that they are going to be able to raise the remaining funds, Summerhill said.

Kevin Barlow, chair of the Newport Beach Public Library Foundation board of directors, confirmed that they provided recourse if they fail to fulfill their fundraising efforts, including losing any privileges associated with the Library Foundation MOU.

He urged the council to support the project, which has been a decade-long journey to get to this point.

“(Witte Hall) will be the cultural, educational (and) informational heart of Newport Beach,” Barlow said.

Summerhill shared some of the significant changes to the agreement include:

–Reflection of the new $23.5 million cost.

Revised sections to increase the city’s and the foundation’s financial commitment to 50% or $11.7 million, along with language that NBPLF agrees to place $7.1 million into escrow within 10 business days of approval of the amendment. The remainder of NBPLF’s financial commitment is due within two years or upon completion of the lecture hall building. In the event of delay in payment of the remainder, the foundation provides additional assurances set forth in another section that the remainder will be repaid to the city.

Added provisions that control spending and limits cost overruns by defining which fixtures and equipment can be used, requiring any party requesting an optional change order to cover its cost, and only allows future project enhancements once the full NBPLF commitment of $11.7 million has been paid to the city.

Changes to the priority of use of the lecture hall, which now allocates 50 calendar days each year to NBPLF with the remainder of the programming scheduled by the city.

Added language to the MOU in order to facilitate the NBPLF’s fundraising, including an amendment to a section which provides additional naming opportunities for audience seats subject to compliance with council policy and another section which authorizes user fees based upon a fee study approved by the council for use of the lecture hall.

Although the council received hundreds of emails on the topic, with nearly 200 opposed and more than 150 in support, only about a dozen people actually spoke during public comment on Tuesday. The majority of the in-person speakers were in favor of the project, while a few were critical of the current plan. Most of the concerned comments, both in writing and in-person, were related to the cost and many were worried the city would pay the full $23 million price tag. Proponents argued that voting against the project would actually equate to forfeiting the $11.7 million in private donations, based on the 50-50 agreement with the NB Public Library Foundation.

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

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