Despite lawsuits, concerns and a new $41 million price tag, work on the Estancia Theater could begin soon


The Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s plan for a multimillion-dollar theater at Estancia High School — to create parity between the Costa Mesa campus and other high schools in the district — continues to move forward, despite a pending legal challenge and a much higher price.

Trustees received a progress report on the proposal at a meeting on Tuesday that was interrupted after a man entered the boardroom and refused to wear a face mask in defiance of a warrant at the statewide, requiring participants to temporarily relocate.

Originally slated to be paid for by $27 million of Measure F, a bond passed by voters in 2005, the cost of the Estancia Theater soared to $32 million by 2020 as the project’s schedule dragged on.

Ara Zareczny, director of facilities development, said now that the construction work has been put out to tender, revised estimates put the total cost at just under $41.2 million. She cited inflation, supply chain issues and expanding the scope of the project as reasons for the hike.

A senior lawn at Estancia High School, seen here in 2020, would be removed to make way for a new performing arts complex.

(Raul Roa)

Jeff Trader, chief financial officer of NMUSD, assured administrators that the district could use facilities funds to cover the difference.

“There is money available to complete this project as we have estimated to date,” he said.

Construction is expected to begin as early as April and be completed in April 2024. NMUSD spokeswoman Annette Franco confirmed that board members are expected to consider bids at their next regular meeting on March 8.

The plan calls for the construction of a 46,000 square foot performing arts complex with a 350-seat theater, black box theater and lobby on the northeast corner of campus that currently houses a senior lawn of nearly an acre and over 30 mature plane trees. trees.

Several community members objected to the removal of the lawn, the only green space available to Estancia students, who mostly attend classes in windowless rooms.

Costa Mesa Councilwoman Arlis Reynolds — who represents Estancia District 5 — urged school board members to reconsider removing the lawn.

“This outdoor space adjacent to the classrooms is essential for fresh air and connection with nature, and [that] is critical to student health and well-being,” Reynolds said. “Please open the door to this huge investment opportunity to consider options for a project that protects the limited natural space that Estancia has.”

President Olivia Maldonado suggested the district remodel the current theater and keep the lawn, arranging for the school’s relatively small arts programs to share a theater with nearby Costa Mesa High, if necessary.

“Eighteen years ago, when I was a student there, the senior lawn was a safe place and a haven for us, a place where we could sit and enjoy the fresh air and the trees,” she said. “My niece is there now, and it’s her favorite place in the whole school.”

In addition to concerns over the loss of open space, the Estancia Theater project is the subject of a lawsuit between Newport-Mesa and the City of Costa Mesa.

Board members approved the project in October 2019. In December 2020, they declared the project exempt from analysis under California’s Environmental Quality Act.

School officials claimed that since the school’s existing theater would remain standing and the use of the new facility would not increase Estancia’s population, it would not create enough of an impact to trigger a CEQA examination.

City leaders in Costa Mesa argued that the exemption trumped public debate about the project’s potential impacts. In a lawsuit filed on January 15, 2021, they argued that the project would have a significant impact on aesthetics, open space, air quality, traffic, and vehicular traffic.

NMUSD countered, saying the city missed a significant window — 180 days from project approval in 2019 — to file a complaint under the CEQA. A judge sided with the school district in a November ruling.

Costa Mesa City Atty. Kimberly Hall Barlow confirmed Wednesday that the city has filed an appeal.

“The October 2019 council action was the first time there was a description of an environmental scan project,” she wrote in an email. “Treating it as a final sign-off completely deprived the community and students of any opportunity to weigh in on the project or request changes.”

NMUSD Superintendent. Wes Smith did not comment on the lawsuit on Tuesday, but promised officials would engage further with the community on upcoming projects.

“Although we followed the letter of the law, we can always do better,” he said.

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