Change in the Wind

Statistics aside, you need only open your eyes to the profound growth and sophistication sprawling from one end of the valley to the other.

Kanice Kleinschmidt Social Scene

It could be (and has been) argued that Palm Springs has the only downtown in the valley. Certainly it has the longest stretch — long enough that Palm Canyon and Indian Canyon drives split into “uptown” and “downtown” designations.

Less than a decade ago, Palm Springs’ downtown was more of a down town. Then the city got serious and dressed up the street with brick paving and stylized streetlights. The Vineyards was overhauled, Plaza Mercado brought new restaurants to town, and boutiques and trendy home accessories stores joined T-shirt and souvenir shops. Now people come downtown — even in the summer.

During the day,

Palm Canyon’s locals and tourists populate the sidewalks, browsing and buying in one-of-a-kind shops, eating lunch on a restaurant patio, or simply getting some exercise. After the sun goes down, the energy picks up as the sounds of live entertainment spill onto the streets and friends meet at the corner Starbucks. From November through May, busloads of people file out of the historical Plaza Theatre after matinee and evening performances of The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies. And people literally fill the streets during Thursday nights’ VillageFest.

The problem — to hear city officials, residents, store owners, and even tourists talk — lies with the buttoned-up Desert Fashion Plaza. Some street-frontage businesses hung on, but even longtime tenant Hamburger Hamlet recently rolled up the carpet. In June, city officials began talking with owner-developer John Wessman about gutting the current structure and building a mixed retail and residential complex. Time will tell if and when such talk will bear fruit.

Neighboring Cathedral City touts the growing Civic Center it considers its downtown. It has added four new buildings comprising 22,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space. Another 25,000 square feet of commercial space are supposed to be built across East Palm Canyon Drive, as well as apartments and a new senior center. More apartments are planned north of the Mary Pickford Theatre and a 90-room hotel in front of the Civic Center parking garage.

At the other end of the valley, La Quinta and Indio talk about their “Old Towns” — though La Quinta’s, in reality, is brand new. Developer Wells Marvin built Old Town La Quinta to evoke the spirit of communities where people leisurely stroll, do their banking, buy an item or two, have their nails done, and dine or enjoy entertainment. One by one, merchants have opened shops; and more are on the way.

Indio’s Old Town was alive and well in the 1960s. Some stalwart merchants keep their doors open, but rarely will you see someone on the sidewalks. That will change, city officials say, with the help of a task force that meets twice a week. They have big revitalization plans, which include façade improvements, landscaping, lighting, signage, paving enhancements, and artwork. Like Cathedral City, Indio is talking about adding housing to its downtown, with retail and businesses at pedestrian level and residential components on upper levels.  continued on page 207

A valley on the move

But for the mountains that make picture-perfect postcards for tourists to send home, Palm Springs Valley could find itself melting into a mass of nondescript, smog-choked cities. Demand for housing is pushing development to the outer reaches in any direction where a mountain isn’t in the way.

Ed Kibbey, executive director of the Desert Chapter of the Building Industry Association, says builders are wandering into territory where there’s more wind and sand because most of the choice land is taken. “It’s a case of pressure,” he says. “Last year, we built more houses than ever before, and we probably will have a similar year this year. If demand continues as it is now, I predict that most of the real good, usable land left is going to be gone. By then, we will probably put into effect the multispecies habitat conservation plan, which is going to take a few hundred thousand acres of land out of the mix in one fell swoop.”

While they creep toward their outermost edges, several valley cities’ northern edges end at Interstate 10, and mountains stop development to the south — except in the east end of the valley, where La Quinta is venturing that direction. “They will be doing some more annexations,” Kibbey predicts, “and they will wander down that way before they meet the lines of Coachella and the desires of Coachella.”

Midvalley’s Palm Desert, which for years concentrated on development along Highway 111, is leaping toward Interstate 10 — thanks in part to the multi-university campus along Cook Street. A hop, skip, and a jump across the interstate, World Trade Center University, a golf course, and Catholic preparatory high school are in the works on county land.

Desert Hot Springs notwithstanding, the “City of Festivals” has the most north-of-I-10 land and is getting the most out of it. “Indio is, you might say, growing a whole new Indio in that area,” Kibbey says. “It’s going to be high-end stuff. It will virtually change the overall makeup of the city.”

The next big thing

California’s first Wal-Mart Supercenter has done “phenomenally well” since opening in March, says Pete Kanelos, Wal-Mart Stores’ community relations manager. “Our La Quinta store is doing 20 percent more in sales than we initially anticipated,” he says. “We are very happy with the overwhelming, positive response we’ve gotten from the community.”

Thanks to the steep climb on population forecasting charts, two more Supercenters are planned — one in Palm Springs and one in Palm Desert, accompanied by Wal-Mart’s membership affiliate Sam’s Club.

Other big-box retailers have their eyes on the prize as well. Home improvement centers, electronics stores, and discounters such as Target and Kohl’s are in the planning and building stages.

Just across the street from Palm Desert’s future Wal-Mart Supercenter, Monterey Marketplace in Rancho Mirage gained muscle over the past couple of years like a bodybuilder on steroids. In addition to a series of smaller shops and eateries, a 33,000-square-foot Linens ’n’ Things and 30,000-square-foot Pacific Sales Kitchen & Bath Center have opened adjacent to each other.

With land-gulping big-box stores lining major thoroughfares, a trip through the valley looks nothing like it did a mere handful of years ago.

Growing up

Windmill operators may finally get a reprieve from complaints about the “eyesore” of the white towers that generate Earth-friendly energy from the wind whipping through Banning Pass. Now drivers entering the valley from I-10 see the 25-story Morongo Casino, Resort and Spa, which is 24 stories higher than anything else around.

Not all those stories, of course, will be dedicated to slot machines and blackjack tables. Most are for the 310 guest rooms, which begs the question, Will people stay at Morongo Casino instead of driving another 20 minutes to the heart of Palm Springs? Clearly, the Morongo tribe believes so or it wouldn’t be investing $250 million in the 44-acre project.

At half the height — but still taller than surrounding structures — is Cabazon Band of Mission Indians’ Fantasy Springs Resort & Casino’s 12-story, 250-room hotel under construction. Like the Morongo tower, it will have a sky bar and restaurants. A second building — called the Special Events & Conference Center — will offer 100,000 square feet of meeting space and 4,500-seat concert/sporting events venue. Both structures are scheduled to open Dec. 21.

For its event center, Fantasy Springs retained the company responsible for the landmark Space Needle in Seattle. Headquartered in that city, Howard S. Wright Construction Co. is building a      76-story Columbia Seafirst Center there, which will be the country’s tallest building west of Chicago — dwarfing anything Palm Springs Valley is likely to see.

While desert residents defend unobstructed views of the horizon with passion, the two towers represent more than a battleground for such rhetoric. The bottom line is that local casinos are vying for overnight guests (in addition to those who game during the wee hours). Until now, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians — which opened the $95 million Spa Resort Casino in downtown Palm Springs last November — has been the only local tribe with a hotel. Now the tribe faces competition for travelers who want to stay where they play.

Economic engines

This year’s astronomical gas prices didn’t deter people from buying new cars — and perhaps even motivated some consumers to purchase a more fuel-efficient model, though Jessup Auto Plaza in Cathedral City reports no mass trade-ins of Hummers. In fact, the few H2 trade-ins they had were for new H2s, says Andy Jessup Jr. Any softening of the market, he says, involves more than gas prices. “I think the public recognizes that the price of gas comes and goes, and it doesn’t really factor into their car-buying decision,” Jessup says. “If there’s anything that’s consistent, it’s the inconsistency of gas prices.”

Residents of Cathedral City and Indio in particular can be proud of new cars they purchase from their local dealer. Thanks to the Highway 111 Auto Center, Cathedral City gets a $4 million-a-year boost to its general budget. And I-10 Auto Mall in Indio fuels improvements in that city’s economic development.

In fact, Cathedral City’s auto dealers have done well enough to build new and larger facilities, including Nissan, Lexus, and Honda. The Volvo dealership is constructing a new building for its added Subaru affiliation, and Hyundai up the street has purchased land closer to the Auto Mall.

During fiscal year 2000, when the I-10 center began, Indio received $385,000 in auto sales tax. The following years yielded $835,000, $1.4 million, $1.5 million and, for the first three quarters of fiscal year 2004, $1.3 million.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch …

Melody Ranch, the abode of filmdom’s beloved singing cowboy Gene Autry, underwent a summer-long beauty treatment for its Oct. 1 debut as Parker Palm Springs.

Formerly The Gene Autry Hotel and Merv Griffin’s Givenchy Resort, Parker Palm Springs possesses a new aura — likened to visiting your rich aunt. Forget the standard check-in desk; guests will be greeted at the door and escorted to their rooms by their rich aunt’s butler.

To appoint the rooms, master potter and designer Jonathan Adler (who sold his first order of pots to Barneys New York) chose furnishings from throughout the United States, South America, and India. The Parker people prefer to keep private the price tag for the property’s transformation, but it includes floor-to-ceiling renovation, a new 6,000-square-foot banquet building, converting the four hard-surface tennis courts into clay courts, and adding a helipad behind the Autry residence.   continued on page 210

While some may lament the passing of the rose gardens (but, take heart, local residents transplanted the bushes in their own yards), the grounds now feature a palm court, a croquet lawn, a boule court, and a pétanque court.

Dining options have been expanded with the addition of a second restaurant.

Norma’s, a five-star diner (yes, there is such a thing, say the Parker people, evidenced by the five-star Norma’s in Parker New York), features indoor and terrace dining. The denlike Mister Parker’s serves dinner Tuesday through Saturday sans menu (the chef serves “only his best ideas of the day”).

According to the “history” created by Parker Palm Springs, Mrs. Parker is a charter member and “honorary Commodore” of the Palm Springs Yacht Club (a.k.a. the spa, which has undergone its own revitalizing treatment).

Wyndham Palm Springs recently completed its own $5 million renovation. Spiffed-up areas include a redesigned lobby and lounge, restyled and renamed hotel restaurant (now Café Terraza), remodeled and refurbished guest rooms (all 410), and the addition of outdoor function space.

Wyndham’s new CalaBrese lounge features an indoor/outdoor 25-foot-long stone and mahogany bar and outdoor fireplace, as well as flat-screen televisions and a 50-inch plasma screen above a professional billiard table.

How green was my valley

Apparently there’s no such thing as too many golf courses in one place when that place is a place where the game can be played virtually every day of the year. Palm Springs Valley has had more than 100 courses for several years now (113 at last count) — and there are plenty more where they came from. So far, no one has broken the law of supply and demand.

Bill Morrow, president of The Quarry at La Quinta, moved into PGA West in the mid-1980s. “In the beginning, it was really, really nifty,” he says. “Then it got too popular.” The solution? He got friends to invest with him in a new golf course development where they wouldn’t have to stand in line for tee times. In January, The Quarry even added a 10-hole short course.

In Coachella, a regulation nine-hole course opened in December at The Vineyards, a luxury motor coach community along Dillon Road north of Interstate 10. Next up for the city: an 18-hole golf course in a 1,600-home, 50-commercial-acre project by Stamko, the developer of La Quinta’s Wal-Mart Supercenter.

More full-length courses are slated throughout the valley, including one under construction north of Palm Springs at Windy Point scheduled to open in January.

Desert Hot Springs is in line for at least two new hillside courses with views down into the valley at Highland Falls, a 2,800-home development west of Highway 62. The first of the courses, designed by two-time PGA champion Dave Stockton Sr., is scheduled to be ready for play in November 2005.

Palm Springs is finally getting the on-again-off-again Classic golf course that stretches south from Vista Chino along Gene Autry Trail. The course, which will be open to the public, should open in early 2005. Palm Springs Village, a 1,200-home development at Avenida Caballeros and San Rafael Drive, won the city’s approval for an 18-hole executive course that will also be open to the public. Grading should begin later this year, with projected opening in November 2005.

Opening concurrently, a new course being built north of Bighorn Golf Club promises to be a real gem. Stone Eagle sits in a bowl in the Cahuilla Hills — 1,000 to 1,100 feet above the valley floor. Only 450 members will be able to play the Tom Doak-designed course. Attesting to the grandeur of the project — built in conjunction with a 42-home community — is the fact that heads of Fortune 500 companies have invested in it.

On the northern fringe of Indio, Del Webb Corp. is constructing an 18-hole course at its new Shadow Hills active-adult community north of Interstate 10. Nine holes should be ready for play next month and the remaining nine in the fall of 2005. Landmark Golf Management will operate the semiprivate course.

La Quinta’s redevelopment agency lined up Arnold Palmer to design a public, championship course as part of its SilverRock Resort. Although it won’t have the course ready until early next year, the city already captured a 15-year contract to host the PGA Tour’s Bob Hope Chrysler Classic beginning in 2006. SilverRock’s master plan also calls for a second 18-hole course, a driving range, and a golf academy. About as far southeast as you can go in La Quinta and still be in the city is Andalusia, a luxury home development with two golf courses planned, one being designed by noted course architect Rees Jones.

Not to be left out, Cathedral City is using golf as a lure to ensure a long-talked-about, four-star Sheraton hotel and convention center. The Desert Cove Resort would feature an 18-hole championship golf course between East Palm Canyon Drive and the Santa Rosa Mountains, beginning at the terminus of Date Palm Drive and continuing in the Whitewater and East Cathedral channels.

Speaking of water …

Keeping the greens green and the burgeoning population supplied with water for pools, taps, and toilets doesn’t present the challenge one would expect.

According to Dan Ainsworth, formerly general manager of Desert Water Agency in Palm Springs, “We have plenty of water here.” What we don’t have enough of, he says, is reclaimed water to serve all the golf courses — especially in view of their current proliferation. And here’s the ironic twist: We need more residents to make more wastewater to be treated for golf course use so the courses aren’t using fresh well water. This symbiotic relationship aside, Ainsworth concedes that the onslaught of development calls for more well sites and reservoir capacity so water can be pumped at the most economical times of the day.

“The crucial factor in the future is the successful protection and management of our aquifer,” says Steve Robbins, general manager-chief engineer of Coachella Valley Water District, “which is why we have placed so much emphasis on replenishment programs, water conservation, and the use of alternative sources other than groundwater.”

Conserving water takes on a different meaning in Desert Hot Springs, where the city council adopted new zoning restrictions to preserve something else: the tourism generated by its natural hot mineral water spas. In July, the city approved Visitor Serving District, Visitor Serving Village, and Visitor Serving Corridor zones that preclude housing in lieu of restaurants, galleries, boutiques, and other businesses that complete a visitor’s spa experience.

The pace of change valleywide could almost be likened to taking a trip in a time machine. Drive from one end to the other any day of the week and you’re sure to see something you’ve never seen. So hold on to your hats; the ride has begun.