City Council Shows Support for Lecture Hall

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Rendering showing the placement of a lecture hall adjacent to the existing library building and parking lot

A long-discussed lecture hall addition to the Newport Beach Public Library on Avocado Avenue is another step closer to reality after receiving support from the City Council during last week’s study session.

Board of Library Trustees member Jill Johnson-Tucker walked council members through a PowerPoint presentation that included the history of the library and the growing need for a lecture hall.

Johnson-Tucker noted that the library building, which serves as the cultural hub of the city, turns 25 this year. It had a 17,000-square-foot expansion in 2013, bringing the total to 71,000 square feet.

“Much of what goes on today would not have been thought of 25 years ago,” she said. “You can still check out books, but it’s buzzing with other activities. The biggest change we’ve seen is the surge in programming. It’s the number one growth area in public libraries nationwide.”

Johnson-Tucker pointed out that attendance for library events was just under 70,000 in 2018, with many of those events sold out months in advance. Events are usually presented in the Friends Room, a 2,600-square-foot multi-purpose room with a capacity to seat 187 people, although its sightlines are not conducive for lectures. Seating is on stackable chairs and the AV is not up-to-date, she commented.

The library is proposing a state-of-the-art, 275-seat auditorium with the ability to add more folding chairs. There would be a green room, rest rooms, a small lobby, and other amenities.

A lecture in the library’s Friends Room, the venue currently used for special events

Last year, an ad hoc committee was formed, comprised of library trustees, library foundation members, Library Services Director Tim Hetherton, and Assistant City Manager Carol Jacobs. They visited lecture halls in cities from San Diego to Los Angeles, and – working with the original library architect – identified an appropriate location on Newport Beach Library property.

The primary site selected by the committee is on the northwest corner of the library’s parking lot, adjacent to the library building. It would require removing about a dozen parking spaces.  

Johnson-Tucker predicted that the lecture hall would be an immediate success, and that an average of four programs a week would be served by the lecture hall.

Programming has been funded by the Newport Beach Library Foundation, which last year raised $750,000, and the Friends of the Library, which raised around $300,000.

“From the moment it opens, the lecture hall will be fully functioning,” said Johnson-Tucker. “It’s a good venue for local nonprofit groups that currently use the Friends room. We could also rent the facility out.”

She noted that funding for the venue could be a public-private partnership, and that there are already pledges in place for more than $750,000.

Councilman Brad Avery called the project “an outstanding contribution to the community. I am totally in support.”

Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neill asked about the timing for bringing it back to council, assuming the city sends out a request for proposals.

Staff replied that it could take three to four months for discussion of concept phase, environmental studies, budgeting, and council approval.

Mayor Diane Dixon said the council could include the building cost, estimated at about $8 million, in the 2019-2020 budget proposal.

Councilwoman Joy Brenner thanked Johnson-Tucker for a great presentation and noted the support the library has in the community.

“There might not be any programs that have the breadth of support that this program has. The fundraising efforts might be more successful than you might think,” Brenner commented.

During public comments, longtime Newport Beach resident Elizabeth Stahr told the council that “25 years ago, my husband and I were given the job of building the Newport Beach Public Library. We ended up raising $2 million. I am so proud of the library. I support this lecture hall. It will be a wonderful addition to our city.”

Her son, Walter Stahr, a noted author who has spoken at the Newport Beach Public Library Friends Room, said that “from an author and speaker perspective, you cannot see the speaker, and the author cannot see the audience. I love to have eye contact, that is hard in the current flat room.”

Among the letters sent to the city council in support of the project was one from Gregg Schwenk, CEO and Executive Director of the Newport Beach Film Festival. He noted that the film festival uses the civic center community room every year for its free filmmaking seminar series. The prosed lecture hall would allow the film festival to expand its programming, and increase community engagement overall.

“From cinema to performing arts to lectures to book signings, the proposed lecture hall would greatly enhance the lives of our citizens and increase Newport Beach’s visibility as a destination for innovative programming, memorable artistic experiences and a place to discover new ideas, technologies and perspectives,” wrote Schwenk.

Steven Rosansky, President and CEO of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter of support from the Chamber Board of Directors, who heard a presentation by Johnson-Tucker earlier this year. The Chamber Board voted unanimously to request that the City Council give full consideration to the proposal developed by the Board of Library Trustees, and that they prepare a “next steps” plan to move the project forward.

A majority of Council members seemed to support the plan.

“I endorse this exciting new project,” said Dixon. “It strikes me as modest, it is appropriate to scale to the civic center facilities. It will be a beacon of light for our library and civic center. I wish you all great success in the fundraising. As we go forward in the budget process let’s get the right numbers so we can make this process smooth, with council support to be determined as we go through the budget process. This has been going on several years and you have brought it forward almost to the finish line for budgeting.”

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