Downtown Turnaround

You can hear the buzz: Finally, downtown Palm Springs has a makeover plan to excite anyone disheartened by empty storefronts on Palm Canyon Drive.

Sheila Grattan Home & Design, Real Estate 0 Comments

The renderings provided with this story offer only a hint of what downtown Palm Springs will look like as these developments surface over the next several years. These drawings are artist’s interpretations only and may not accurately reflect the current state of the plans.

You can hear the buzz: Finally, downtown Palm Springs has a makeover plan to excite anyone disheartened by empty storefronts on Palm Canyon Drive.

The plan that has the blessing of city and tribal officials, retailers, and much of the community picks up where the revitalized Uptown Heritage District left off, around Alejo Road, where the Port Lawrence residential/retail development has broken ground.

We can’t help but beam at the prospect of a wrecking ball having a few swings at the all-but-abandoned Desert Fashion Plaza. The bright ideas of open space that showcases the stalwart E. Stewart Williams-designed Palm Springs Art Museum, a new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, and a pedestrian-energized landscape could transform the village — returning it to the walking, meeting, and socializing destination it was meant to be.

With several new hotels also on the drawing board, the city has a stellar opportunity to reinvent itself while preserving its heritage and hip vibe.

No longer destined to be your daddy’s nostalgic-but-tired vacation haunt, downtown Palm Springs over the next five years could be converted into one of the most vibrant and connected urban lifestyle villages on the planet.

City, tribal, and developer players say the transformation will result in a lively east-west corridor with shopping, dining, hotel, entertainment, residential, and cultural amenities unprecedented in the city’s history.

“This is an historic turning point for the city,” Palm Springs Mayor Ron Oden says. “It will make downtown a top attraction for decades, and it will give us a great tax base for improved city services.”

A new downtown that connects the convention center, Spa Resort Casino, Palm Canyon Drive, and Palm Springs Art Museum attracts financing. “It’s a cooperative vision shared by the city, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and developers, several of whom have stayed with us during some challenging times,” Oden says.

Most downtown businesses are “totally on board to take downtown to the next level,” says Joy Meredith, president of Main Street, an organization of downtown businesses. “[Downtown business owners] know something has to be done, and these plans are worth going through the inconveniences all development brings.”

“If these projects are built as planned, it will be a dream come true for downtown Palm Springs,” says Aftab Dada, Palm Springs Hilton Hotel’s general manager and chairman of the Palm Springs Hospitality Industry and Business Council.

During the next five to six years, the total investment in the Palm Springs core will reach or exceed $2.5 billion, according to Tom Davis, chief planning and development officer for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and Michael Braun, Wessman Development vice president. Each is tracking his design team’s financial requirements and that of other downtown players coming on line. The notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts applies here, they concur.

Davis is spearheading a $500 million replacement of the Spa Resort Hotel property with two hotel towers, a climate-controlled shopping galleria, a spa, luxury condominiums, a Vegas-style showroom, and a parking garage. Developer John Wessman’s design team is charged with reclaiming Desert Fashion Plaza’s site from its decade of doldrums.

“This city council and staff have provided the political will and support to make this investment possible,” says Agua Caliente Tribal Chairman Richard Milanovich.

“This huge opportunity for Palm Springs is possible largely because the city council has established good guidelines,” Wessman says. “It is exciting, and it’s a positive experience to work with them.”

Many observers consider Wessman’s latest plan — a $600 million, mixed-use project — to be his best proposal to replace Desert Fashion Plaza, which has been dormant for the past decade. Designed to be pedestrian-friendly, the mini-village would be anchored by Palm Springs Art Museum to the west and split by a 300-foot-wide street called Museum Way.

Plans call for 14 new buildings of varied heights, stepped back from Palm Canyon Drive around the central entertainment plaza. They encompass luxury condos and lofts, a 180-room upscale boutique hotel, and more than 250,000 square feet of retail space. Three architecture firms will design sections of the project to “give the feeling the 13 acres evolved over time like a European village,” Braun explains.

Tentatively called Museum Market Plaza, the development’s gathering place will have a permanent stage on the plaza for people to listen to live music, sip an espresso, or crack open a new book from Barnes & Noble. And when the sun sets, the lighted Palm Springs Art Museum will flaunt its sophisticated E. Stewart Williams architecture for the first time in decades.

According to Braun, Wessman Development will devote 53 percent of the project to open space and set buildings on a perpendicular angle with view corridors, making the mountain more visible from Palm Canyon Drive than at any time in the city’s modern history.

The $2.5 billion investment in Palm Springs could change the look, energy, and connectedness of downtown; boost the labor market; and bring new dollars to housing, retailers, and services throughout the Coachella Valley.

Development dollars floating the local economic boat would be only the beginning. The city would reap sales and transient occupancy taxes to expand costly public safety services. Annual tax revenues for the Wessman and tribal projects alone are projected at $8 million and $6 million, respectively.

Ground is scheduled to be broken for most of the projects by the end of 2009, with Hard Rock and Mondrian hotels and Agua Caliente Cultural Museum coming on line by 2010. Museum Market Plaza and Spa Resort Hotel could take until 2013 to complete.


Spa Resort Hotel
Expanded casino
Two luxury towers
Climate-controlled retail galleria
2,000-seat showroom
Parking garage
Mondrian Hotel
10.5 acres at the corner of Amado Road and Avenida Caballeros
200 rooms and 50 condo/hotel units
Expected to open in 2010
Hard Rock Hotel
Located at the corner of Tahquitz Canyon Way and Calle El Segundo
450 luxurious residences
20,000 sq. ft. Spa Center
40,000 sq. ft. of meeting facilities
Expected to open in 2009
New spa and fitness center
Pools and hot spas
Modernized “bath house”
Illustration by Matt Perry

Streets surrounding the Spa Resort will be reconfigured to integrate several elements into one destination bounded by Calle El Segundo, Amado Road, Indian Canyon Drive, and Tahquitz Canyon Way (closing portions of Andreas Road and Calle Encilia). A new east-west pedestrian corridor being developed by the tribe involves widening pathways along Amado Road from the Palm Springs Convention Center to Indian Canyon Drive.

The porte-cochere of the crescent-shaped hotel will face Indian Canyon Drive. Two towers will offer luxurious accommodations, with VIP privacy and penthouse suites.

A 140,000-square-foot galleria running through the hotel’s center was inspired by Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, which faces the La Scala opera house and often is described as the most beautiful place in the world to shop. The two- to four-story Spa Resort galleria will be accessible through large entryways at Indian Canyon Drive and Calle Encilia that will remain open or automatically close, depending on the outside temperature.

Davis describes the galleria as an air-conditioned public street with upscale shops, entertainment venues, and sidewalk restaurants. A glass-dome ceiling will afford views of the mountains and blue sky.

WATG and Lifescapes, theme resort and landscape architectural firms responsible for the Spa Resort Casino, have paired up again for the new property. They are known throughout the resort and entertainment industry for the Las Vegas magnets Treasure Island, The Mansion at MGM Grand, and Bellagio Hotel and Casino.

Sensitive to the envrionment, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is attentive to the hydrology and geology of its hot springs at the corner of Indian Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way. “Before we lift a shovel [to build a structure resembling a sacred temple over the hot springs], we are making sure we protect our historic hot springs,” Milanovich says.

Anchoring this new cityscape on the eastern end will be a Mondrian hotel at Amado Road and Calle Alvarado and a Hard Rock Hotel bounded by Calle El Segundo, Andreas Road, Calle Alvarado, and Tahquitz Canyon Way.

“Once the Hard Rock and Mondrian hotels are built, we’ll have the coolest convention center anywhere,” says John Raymond, the city’s director of economic development.

With the potential of being rated as four- or five-star properties, the hotels are expected to bring more lucrative group meetings to the recently expanded convention center, which has had difficulty attracting larger groups since the Riviera and Ramada Inn hotels closed for renovation — a temporary loss of 800 rooms.

“Hard Rock will bring new energy. It will be an icon for the city and a catalyst for downtown,” predicts Cynthia Nelson, vice president of Nexus Development, a downtown planning consultant for the city and builder of the 490-room Hard Rock and an as-yet unbranded 400-room hotel at Tahquitz Canyon Way and Hermosa Drive.

Set for groundbreaking in early 2008 and expected to open in 2010, Hard Rock Hotel will have two restaurants branded by famous chefs and an expansive pool area, described by Nelson as “a staging area where attractive young guests add to the theater atmosphere by wearing 3-inch heels with their bikinis.

“[Hard Rock] is a brand for all ages … any group that likes to have fun. This includes the boomers who grew up on rock ’n’ roll,” Nelson says.

The four-story, 400-room Mondrian will include condos ranging from 2,500 to 2,800 square feet. The hotel is expected to attract lucrative group meetings and trendsetter guests, says Lauri Kibby, vice president of the Oasi Group. “Each of our hotels is one of a kind, and each attracts successful and discriminating guests in the 35-to-50 age group,” she says. The Palm Springs property will include a Sky Bar, a Mondrian trademark known worldwide for attracting celebrities. It also will have a recording studio for the convenience of the chain’s music industry clientele.

“Mondrian will attract great new group-meeting business to Palm Springs,” Kibby says. “Executives love to stay in a really cool place.”

While lifestyle center planners advise cities and developers to include a cultural anchor to draw visitors, Palm Springs will have one on either end of the east-west corridor: Palm Springs Art Museum at the base of the mountains and the new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum at Tahquitz Canyon Way and Hermosa Drive.

These synergistic plans could at long last give national retailers the demographics and foot traffic they require to invest in long-term leasing, installation, marketing, and staffing. Tribal and developer representatives agree that no matter how well they plan for a new downtown, two issues are guaranteed to be controversial: the fate of the old Town & Country office and retail center between Palm Canyon and Indian Canyon drives, across from the Desert Fashion Plaza; and building heights.

Opinions may differ on the architectural merits of the Town & Country center, but developer, city, and tribal representatives agree that the downtown plan will not work if the center continues to be a barrier to the natural customer flow between the new Spa Resort Hotel and Museum Market Plaza, preventing completion of the east-west corridor.

The Spa Resort and Hard Rock projects, both in tribal-owned Section 14, will conform to the city’s general plan maximum of 10 stories for their hotel towers. Museum Market Plaza’s four towers will be limited to the general plan’s maximum of six stories along Palm Canyon Drive. However, Braun expresses concern that the general plan was adopted more than a dozen years ago when ceiling heights were lower.

“Today, the retailers we seek insist on higher ceilings,” he says. “In fact, all of today’s fixtures and displays are designed for 16 to 20 feet. Buyers of upscale residences also expect 10- instead of 8-foot ceilings and 12-foot ceilings for penthouses.”

Developers say that they have to build vertically since land has become so valuable. According to Davis, costs don’t pencil out until you reach an optimum height of at least five stories. Among downtown business people, Meredith says, there is little, if any, controversy regarding the proposed heights.

“We have all become more educated about the impact of building heights,” says the owner of the Crystal Fantasy novelty store on Palm Canyon Drive. “The real issue is design. Height can be acceptable and views protected through good design.”

Lawrence Rael, whose Port Lawrence development just south of Alejo Road between Palm Canyon and Indian Canyon drives is scheduled for completion at the end of 2008, was among the first to see the new potential in downtown Palm Springs. His mixed-use project encompasses 118 gallery-loft condominiums and 30,000 square feet of retail space. The developer claims the project is drawing local, upscale buyers who are attracted to the private courtyard residences offering the desert outdoor lifestyle while providing walking-distance access to downtown amenities.

“Only people can bring the vibrancy that will attract great retail,” Oden says. “When a dynamic, upscale, year-round population is ensconced in downtown living, retail will take off.”

If all goes according to plan, Palm Springs should have its new downtown in time to celebrate the city’s 75th anniversary in 2013. 

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