Costa Mesa architect John Linnert has especially enjoyed taking his daughter to the orthodontist over the years because he’s admired the Mariners Medical Arts Center, designed by Richard Neutra in 1963. But at the beginning of July, Linnert took his daughter to an appointment and learned that the three-building Newport Beach complex, designed to allay patients’ fears with calming courtyards, water elements, and landscaping visible from treatment rooms, was slated for demolition.
“I panicked,” said Linnert. He contacted his local AIA chapter and Neutra’s son Dion, and so began his foray into the precarious world of preserving southern Californian modernism.
Dion Neutra and architectural historian Barbara Lamprecht wrote impassioned letters to the city on why the building should be saved, while Linnert analyzed building permits, took meetings, and emailed city council and arts commission members, city planners, architects, and historians.
Plans for developer John Bral’s three-phase scheme, Westcliff Medical Plaza, had been in the works since 2004. Although the building was listed on the city’s historical inventory, it was not protected because it did not have historical landmark status.
But Linnert also saw a letter from the planning department that stated no demolition could take place without a historical assessment of the property, which is required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). While the law does not grant authority to prevent demolition, it does require that environmental effects—including historical significance—be made public before land-use decisions are made.
The historical assessment, it turns out, had never been submitted, and the city had issued permits anyway. Bral, who is a managing member of Westcorp Investors, said he had never heard of Richard Neutra and never received the letter requesting the CEQA-required historic assessment. He also said that while he is willing to meet with the ad hoc group that has coalesced to come up with a compromise plan, “The buildings are in very bad shape; there is a severe termite problem, pipes break all the time. It’s an absolute economic drain [to maintain them].”
With construction only days away, Linnert got a reprieve when Newport Beach Planning Director David Lepo suspended the building permits. Lepo, who said he never paid much attention to the building because “it doesn’t have much drive-by appeal,” added, “I decided we needed to go back and cross the T’s and dot the I’s. This process has been going on since 2004 and I don’t want any questions to arise that a proper environmental analysis was not done.”
Linnert recognizes that while the last-minute permit suspension gives those who protested the project a new opportunity to come up with a solution, they might have an uphill battle. Council member Don Webb, who represents the district of the building site, wasn’t familiar with Neutra’s work and described the building as “rather bland and blah.” He continued, “We’re a conservative community and pay a lot of attention to property rights here. If someone wants to preserve the site in its present form and bring it back to its original state, then I suggest they work toward purchasing it from the owner.”
That’s precisely what Linnert, a third-generation Orange County native, wants. “We’re looking for a proper steward for the building,” he said, acknowledging that he’s not even sure if Bral will sell. (Bral wasn’t willing to be interviewed after his permits were suspended.) “Right now the only thing Orange County is famous for is The O.C. Here is something that can give us some architectural notoriety, an ability to acknowledge this kind of architecture and retain some of the integrity in the arts and culture that have been created in our county in the last 50 years. It’s just worth saving.”