Balboa Island, Calif.: An Expensive Retreat for a Dedicated Following

The Four Percent


Maxine Maly was 5 years old the first time she visited Balboa Island, the harborside neighborhood in Newport Beach, Calif., about 40 miles south of Los Angeles. It was 1963, and she was on a day trip with her father — a visit, she said, that would influence the course of her life.

“I thought it was the most magical place I had ever seen,” said Ms. Maly, 62, a retired portfolio manager for JP Morgan. “I just fell in love with the place.”

Ms. Maly’s family moved to the Orange County city of Newport Beach shortly after that visit, and she returned to Balboa Island often, visiting school friends who lived there and trick-or-treating for Halloweens along its compact, festively decorated streets. Ms. Maly moved to the East Coast in 1985, settling in New Canaan, Conn., and commuting daily to her office on Wall Street. She married and raised three sons.

In 1995, she convinced her family to stay on her beloved island during a visit to California. They rented a small house on Garnet Avenue, and it took only a few days of watching the electric Duffy boats on the harbor and strolling along the shops on Marine Avenue, Balboa Island’s main drag, for Ms. Maly to make up her mind.

“I cried because I realized how much I missed Balboa Island and California,” she said of that visit.

She and her husband bought a three-bedroom, two-bath cottage on Diamond Street for $580,000. Like so many homes on Balboa Island, where candy-colored houses are packed tightly on streets named for gemstones, and pedestrians stroll in via a bridge or ride in on the ferry, it was small but charming, with easy access to Marine Avenue and the community’s long, paved boardwalk. It became the family’s summer home.

“In Connecticut, we had four-acre zoning, lots of wildlife, no neighbors,” Ms. Maly said. “We would have to drive somewhere to go trick-or-treating. And we would come to Balboa Island for eight weeks every summer, where the kids would have so much freedom.”

In 2005, the family sold the Diamond Street house for $1.5 million and upgraded to a waterfront property on South Bay Front, paying $3.7 million and then tearing it down to build what Ms. Maly called “our dream home” — four bedrooms, three and a half baths and a view across the harbor.

But while the house was perfect, Ms. Maly’s life was not. Her mother, who still lived in Newport Beach, was in poor health. And back home in Connecticut, her marriage was ending. She left the East Coast with her sons, moving into the house on South Bay Front while she cared for her mother.

In 2014, faced with mounting bills, Ms. Maly sold the home on South Bay Front, which was now worth $7.2 million. She bought a sunny, three-bedroom cottage for $2.7 million back on Garnet Avenue, where it had all begun. She’s about 13 blocks from her first home on the island, and at last, she says, she’s found a home on Balboa Island that she never plans to leave.

She worries about rising sea levels, and the noise from nearby John Wayne Airport can be bothersome. But neither is enough to drive her out. “Some people say living here is like living in Disneyland, but you can’t replicate Balboa Island,” she said. “It has walkability, water, gardens. Everyone knows everybody. Neighbors look out for each other. I can’t find any other place like it.”

John Scudder, 74, also visited Balboa Island for the first time as a child. Mr. Scudder’s parents began traveling from Los Angeles to Balboa Island in the 1930s after his mother decided she had had enough of traffic and air pollution. In 1930, he said, they purchased a lot for $2,000 and spent an additional $6,000 on construction. Mr. Scudder, the grandson of Laura Scudder, the entrepreneur who created the first sealed bag for potato chips, still lives in the home his parents built, a four-bedroom, five-bath house that he estimates is now worth $4.5 million.

Today on Balboa Island, homes are being built to the edges of their lots, and prices have risen to the point that only the very wealthy can afford to buy. Yet Mr. Scudder, who has watched the changes through the decades, said there are some things about the area that will never change.

“There’s an increasing density in all of Newport Beach, but it’s still a lovely place,” he said. “It’s so crowded now, but the boating is still good and the spirit is good.”

The community of Balboa Island actually comprises three man-made islands: Balboa Island, the largest land mass, is split from Little Balboa Island to the east by the Grand Canal. Collins Island, a smudge of land with eight homes just off Balboa Island’s western tip, punctuates the trio. In all, it’s about a mile long.

Marine Avenue is an old-fashioned main street with stores, restaurants and a handful of sweet shops (including Dad’s Donuts and Sugar ‘n’ Spice, both of which claim they invented Balboa Island’s classic chocolate-dipped indulgence, the Balboa Bar). Cars and pedestrians alike cross onto the island via the Marine Avenue bridge, or the ferry that makes regular trips to Balboa Peninsula.

To prepare for rising sea levels, the city of Newport Beach in 2018 added a nine-inch cap to the sea wall that surrounds Balboa Island.

With nearly 3,000 residents sharing 0.2 square miles, Balboa Island has a population density of 13,636 people per square mile, a tighter squeeze than many major cities — including Los Angeles, where the population density is 7,544 people per square mile, according to the most recent U.S. census data. There is little room for green spaces or swimming pools.

Prices on Balboa Island are high, and hover in a steady range. In 2019 there were 50 homes sold at a median price of $3.1 million; in 2018 there were 48 homes sold at a median price of $3.5 million; and in 2017 there were 53 homes at a median price of $2.7 million, according to data from the California Regional Multiple Listings Service.

Vacationers booking short-term properties on Airbnb can rent a two-bedroom cottage for around $150 a night; on VRBO, three-bedroom family homes can be found from $300, with large waterfront houses fetching as much as $1,200 a night.

Jonathon Curci, an agent with Compass Real Estate who grew up on Balboa Island and continues to sell homes there, said the community is undeniably wealthy, but it holds tight to its relaxed beach vibe.

“As a kid, I was surrounded by people living in these $3 million cottages, but they drove around in Hondas they had had for 20 years,” he said.

Many homeowners live in duplexes or triplexes, with parts of their houses rented as vacation homes for supplemental income. But Balboa Island embraces its “island in the city” vibe, or as the tour guide and historian Carolyn Clark put it, “When people would drive over the bridge into Balboa Island, their whole mind-set would change, and their attitudes, because now you were on island time.”

The population on Balboa Island also skews considerably older than in most communities — the median age is 60.4, compared with 47.3 in Newport Beach, 37.8 in Orange County and 36.7 across California, according to 2018 data in the American Community Survey by the United States census.

Balboa Island is part of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. (There are no schools on the island itself.) Most elementary students attend Lincoln Elementary, where during the 2018-19 school year, 58 percent of third-graders met benchmarks for English language arts on the California Smarter Balanced Assessment test, compared with 65 percent districtwide and 49 percent across California. In math, 56 percent of third-graders met benchmarks, compared with 66 percent districtwide and 50 percent across California. (According to the Department of Education, students with scores at or above benchmark levels on these tests are ready for higher-level coursework).

Older students attend Corona del Mar Middle & High School. During the 2017-18 school year, 96 percent of students taking the SAT exam there met benchmarks for English, compared with 83 percent districtwide and 71 percent statewide; 87 percent met benchmarks for math, compared with 63 percent districtwide and 51 percent statewide. (For the SATs, the College Board defines students as “college ready” when their tests scores meet a benchmark of 480 in English and 530 in math).

The Balboa Island ferry runs from 6:30 a.m. to midnight every day; the five-minute ride costs $1 for adults, or $2 if they’re in a car.

Commuters driving from Balboa Island to downtown Los Angeles can expect a ride of one hour to 90 minutes; those driving into work in Irvine should budget 20 to 40 minutes.

William S. Collins, a property developer, dredged Balboa Island and created its three distinct sections between 1905 and 1913, according to the Balboa Island Museum. Collins failed to raise enough revenue to add sewers, power and water, so the city of Newport Beach stepped in and incorporated the land in 1916. It remained primarily a vacation spot until after World War II.

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