Reflections of an Elder Statesman
Longtime resident Bill Ficker shares his thoughts on the evolution of Newport Beach.
In the heat of the Great Fire Ring Brouhaha, I learned that Bill Ficker started visiting Newport Beach in the mid-1930s when his “health nut” mother wanted to escape the smoke from smudge pots warming the citrus orchards surrounding their Pomona home.
As a regular visitor, he and his young pals dug pits in the sand, threw all manner of things into the pits to sustain a bonfire, and often barbecued dinner.
So far, he’s made it to a vigorous 85 despite living near that beach smoke most of his life. He’s still in love with the first love of his life, Barbara, his wife of 60 years.
“We haven’t yet had our first argument,” he says softly.
In 1970, Ficker – by then a successful architect with a knack for business and a passion for planning – would win the coveted America’s Cup sailing championship representing the Newport Harbor Yacht Club.
The 1970 victory put him in everyone’s sailing hall of fame, and further cemented Newport Beach’s claim to worldwide sailing prominence.
If there were a hall of fame for civic involvement, Ficker would no doubt be in that, too. A former member of the city’s Planning Commission, he has participated in significant civic debates and decisions for decades.
Ficker led the successful campaign when voters endorsed moving the city hall on the Peninsula to a city-owned site in Newport Center. Having ruffled some municipal feathers, he was not invited to participate in the subsequent planning and design decisions that produced the new Civic Center.
In a wide-ranging conversation, this wise, measured and accomplished elder statesman was characteristically constructive. He stressed the importance of comprehensive planning, community involvement and collaboration to improve outcomes.
THE NEW CIVIC CENTER – “It belongs in Newport Center, which has become the center of town, and a vital commercial place close to our wonderful central library. It is more convenient for residents. As it matures, more people will gravitate to it. It’s hard for me to speak with authority about the cost. Design and cost go hand-in-hand, and I wasn’t involved. But if it lasts 80 years, it will, worst case, cost each voter about $3.50 a month. I’m more concerned that the design elements are going to prove a large maintenance burden in the future.”
HAVING SAID THAT – “My major criticism is that I don’t believe we needed a symbolic building with an ocean wave roofline and a spinnaker that some critics say looks more like Mae West’s half bra. After all, we already have an international reputation and identification based upon our recreational harbor that is unique, clean and high-quality, and largely free of commerce and shipping. The water makes us and defines us in powerful ways that a building never will. If we were Palmdale, I understand why we would do a symbolic building.”
THE VACATED CITY HALL SITE – “It really shouldn’t be developed until there is a plan for the entire area, one that would significantly improve an important entrance to our city. We need a sophisticated and comprehensive planning study driven by solid economic research. It’s complicated. Not simple. But we have the opportunity to do something special that is coordinated with surrounding landowners. Something that can help lift the struggling Peninsula. Right now, the area is so bad that nothing fits. We have to bring more people to the table to develop big, new ideas.”
CATAMARANS IN THE AMERICA’S CUP – “In years past, the race was about speed and tactics. The sailboats could only go so fast. They essentially went at the same speed. So tactics became more important. Things like how you adjusted to ever-shifting wind. The giant catamarans are strictly about speed. It’s like drag racing. A very different thing. They are flat-out dangerous.”
PUBLIC ART – “I believe we should do more. But we need to be very thoughtful not only what art to put where, but also how it should be displayed. We shouldn’t rush into it. And the decisions should be shaped by professionals – artists, sculptors, architects. Not just laymen, no matter how well-intentioned. For instance, The Wave on display at the Civic Center should be on a pedestal. It was intended to be seen at eye level. People don’t look down on a wave. It’s a design problem. I happen to like the Bunny Rabbits nearby. The landscape artists were very talented. They got people talking about them. That’s good.”
FIRE RINGS – “I haven’t studied the issue. The people on the bluff may have a legitimate gripe about the amount of smoke they suffer. I just haven’t observed it. I’ve lived here for a long time. Until recently, I haven’t heard anyone complain about fires on the beach.”
RESTORING THE OLD BALBOA THEATER – “Again, there should be a plan for the entire area first. I don’t mind having a place where they will show vintage movies. But it needs more land around it to operate successfully.”
BUILDING CIVIC CONSENSUS – “I’m an optimist. I believe in the power and benefits of thoughtful planning that invites broad community input and debate. I believe we learn a lot if we listen, and that outcomes are improved through thoughtful discussion and an exchange of ideas based upon facts. If people don’t take up sides too quickly, you can get things done.”
THE CHANGING CITY – “I think we’ve seen less involvement than in years past from significant, successful people in our city who are willing to give their time to address our most important issues. People who could offer both experience and creative ideas. I see less of that, and more elected leaders who make political decisions with no grounding in sound planning.”