Time hardly seems to register in downtown Palm Springs. The lunch hour passes, but dinner remains a distant event. Nevertheless, crowds fill restaurants, with people lining up on the sidewalk at some venues. Live music gives bar patios a steady beat, revelers on a pedal pub call for attention, and everyone appears tuned to The Carefree Channel.
Structures desolate for decades have sprung to life. In the 300-north block of Palm Canyon Drive, Lighthouse Marijuana Dispensary and Bluebird Days coffeeshop occupy a former food court. On a 300-south corner, Four Twenty Bank Dispensary & Lounge repurposes a former bank building with a stage for live entertainment and the vault converted into an arcade.
Meanwhile, construction promises a hotel along the main street, a vast Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, a historical gem of modern architecture called Aluminaire House, and a public park.
You can still buy “Palm Springs” T-shirts and souvenirs downtown — after all, tourism drives the city’s economy — but you’ll also find a purveyor of French fashion, local brewery pubs, gourmet shops, a Santa Barbara County winery’s tasting room, and trendy national chains mixed with locally owned boutiques.
Those who have suffered through the larval stage of downtown’s caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation may recall the day in 2013 when sparkling wine in conjunction with a backhoe evidenced the collective mindset. Locals amassed to celebrate the first punching blows into the masonry of a misplaced mall.
Built in 1967–68, Desert Fashion Plaza lost its anchor tenant (Saks Fifth Avenue) in 2001 and within a few years became a monolithic shell that had residents, downtown business owners, and visitors wondering what the hell was going on.
“Desert Fashion Plaza was the biggest mistake the town ever made,” intones Michael Braun, president of Grit Development, which owns the shopping district that introduced DFP land to air. “It was a monstrosity. People don’t come to Palm Springs to be inside a mall.”
When mall demolition began, Meredith says, “People finally had hope that we were going to move forward.”
Though temperatures hover around 110 degrees on a Monday in July, Palm Canyon Drive seduces people onto its sidewalks; and more than a handful of them have stepped into Crystal Fantasy.
“I don’t recall downtown being as busy as it is now,” says Joy Brown Meredith, who opened the store in 1987 with her husband, Scott. “What really impressed us as business owners was the small-town feel and vibrant community. From attending conferences like the California Downtown Association’s, I learned that a successful downtown has local businesses, regional operations, and national chains. I think our mix is very strong now.”
With a front-row view of the downtown scene spanning 34 years and as board president of the Main Street merchants association, Meredith assesses the evolution since Desert Fashion Plaza evaporated.
“I feel things are going in a good direction,” she says, noting “a lot more color brought to downtown” by way of public-art installations; artist-painted benches; and street banners with illustrations by Josh Agle, aka Shag, whose Palm Canyon Drive gallery stylizes the midcentury mystique.
“Palm Springs is not like any other city,” Meredith claims. “It’s an entity unto itself.”
Grit Development’s offices overlook the changing landscape between Palm Canyon Drive and the steep face of the San Jacinto Mountains. Stepping up to the plate-glass window, Michael Braun aligns his gaze with an oversized representation of Marilyn Monroe. Though he calls the 26-foot-tall statue “kitschy,” he points out that it draws Palm Springs Art Museum’s entrance toward Palm Canyon Drive.
Braun has branded the area west of Palm Canyon Drive and from Hyatt Palm Springs to Tahquitz Canyon Way as The Block Palm Springs and endowed it with its own website (theblockps.com), Instagram handle (@theblockpalmsprings), and hashtag (#TheBlockPalmSprings). His aim is to encourage people to share their experiences with the masses.
“The Block is our shopping district, but I’m trying to give exposure to what surrounds it,” he says. “We need to activate all our assets.” His sweeping “we” encompasses anyone interested in the city’s economic welfare.
“We have reached an inflection point,” he says. “People are moving away from ‘buying’ and toward ‘enjoying.’” He champions injecting art into spaces around buildings — and even onto them. He plans to mount a sculpture and a mural on his residential project, a block west of Palm Canyon Drive, that replaces what was to be a Virgin Hotel.
Grit hired Design Arc in Los Angeles — designer for its Kimpton Rowan hotel — to create The Park Residences. He anticipates breaking ground for the 45-unit structure in the summer of 2022 and opening in spring of 2023.
Meanwhile, he continues trying to interest a restaurant or nightclub operator in his renovation of the historic Town & Country Center (to be called The Center). Though Grit has a waiting list for spaces in its newer buildings on the west side of Palm Canyon Drive, potential tenants don’t like the east-side Center’s late-’40s low ceilings and lack of street frontage.
Braun aims to satisfy what he says is the top reason people come to Palm Springs: “to chill.” However, he calls building for visitors his secondary goal.
“Downtown needs to be developed for the community first,” he says. “Without people here, you only have empty buildings. We are colorful. We are fun. The key attraction is that we are a diverse community that is inclusive.”
Like the rest of us, Willie Rhine wants to view his world through pre-2019 eyes. But the owner of Eight4Nine Restaurant & Lounge is quite specific on this point: “I would like to see downtown changed back to the way it was — more pedestrian and tourist friendly, with no parklets,” he says, referring to impromptu outdoor dining areas created to meet pandemic restrictions.
Rhines’ own business booms. His 6-year-old restaurant is so successful that in February he and fellow restaurateur Chad Gardner opened 1501 Uptown Gastropub (similarly named for its address on Palm Canyon Drive and, thus, six and a half blocks from Eight4Nine’s hot pink sign). So why should he care? After all, he acknowledges, most of the parklets lie south of Alejo Road, the zoning boundary separating “downtown” from “Uptown.” (The latter gets capitalized because businesses in the 500-plus blocks branded themselves as Uptown Design District).
“Uptown reminds me more of the ‘original’ Palm Springs. It’s quieter and quainter,” Rhine says, adding that he thinks it attracts more affluent tourists because of its designer showrooms. His objections to parklets have nothing to do with competition for diners.
“I think there are enough tourists and locals to support all the restaurants that are here now and even more,” he says. “I love the variety.” His underlying concern is that blocked sidewalks and streets dampen the essence of being in Palm Springs.
The Bar Owner
Rob Giesecke and William Vastardis became patrons of Chill Bar Palm Springs after moving from San Francisco to the desert six years ago. In 2017, they bought the bar on the block of Arenas Road lined with other businesses catering to the LGBTQ+ crowd.
Giesecke likes downtown’s evolution and, pandemic aside, notes “a steady increase” in Chill Bar business. “The revitalization is not the driving factor, but [it] contributes,” he says. “We benefit from awareness of the Coachella Valley created by the [Coachella] music festival.”
In his opinion, what has been missing are hotels that attract the music-festival demographic. While acknowledging The Rowan as such an attraction, he says, “On its own, it is hard to ‘carry the water.’
“William and I are opening another business, so we are obviously optimistic about Palm Springs’ future,” Giesecke adds, referring to their plans to launch a bar/restaurant/nightclub of 9,000 square feet plus patio space on Palm Canyon Drive in the building still occupied by BevMo. He anticipates Reforma opening in early 2022.
A personal epiphany struck architect David Christian while he was designing the layout for condos at the west end of Tahquitz Canyon Way: He and his wife, Judi, should live there. “We could walk downtown,” he told her. And that’s what The Villas’ first residents have been doing for 15 years.
“It’s not just nice to be close to downtown; it’s fantastic,” Christian enthuses. “I can say, ‘It’s five o’clock, Judi. Are we going to stay in or go out?’ We walk downtown and we’re in the midst of great restaurants.”
Christian’s morning constitutional often includes a stop to chat with friends whose days begin at Starbucks Reserve on Palm Canyon Drive. He might walk “to town” multiple times a day — such as when he has a lunch meeting, restaurant dinner, and an ongoing design project.
“I went into a limited architectural practice. If I couldn’t walk to the jobsite in 10 minutes, I wasn’t interested,” he says, noting one drawback to his lifestyle: “I have had the battery in my car go dead [from lack of use].”
Christian observes that the long-shuttered Desert Fashion Plaza created two independent stretches of downtown that redevelopment has joined. “We now have a stretch of some 10 blocks with action,” he says.
From an architect’s perspective, he views the scale of new construction as complementary to older structures. “I like the flashes of urban character, and the Palm Springs’ village quality is still there,” he says. “I think that, finally, there is a critical mass of development to give momentum to Palm Springs for a long time to come and that this is a pivot for the city that has been coming for 25 years.”
“We hear overwhelming support of our downtown development, and we aren’t done yet,” Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege says. “I am really excited about the new park, because downtown was missing a community gathering place.
“Residents are impressed with the progress we have made in the revitalization of our business corridor. There are still a few projects that need to be finished as soon as possible, so the city council has taken a very aggressive approach,” she adds, referring to the authorization of legal action to force completion of stalled hotel properties. Beyond that, she notes the challenge of straddling the line between growth and maintaining the “village” atmosphere in conjunction with preservation and restoration of historical buildings.
“Design guidelines for new growth are really important,” Holstege says. “We want downtown to look iconic — like the Palm Springs ‘brand.’”
Looking to the future, the mayor anticipates a trend toward more residential opportunities for people who want to live where they can walk to restaurants, bars, shops, and cultural attractions.
“Many small cities are faced with losing their downtowns to vacant storefronts, blighted areas, and crime,” she says. “Ours is the opposite. Ours is revitalized.”
Ignoring the fact that Palm Springs lacks a place for ships to dock, people eagerly placed $10,000 deposits on residential lofts at Port Lawrence, which in 2007 promised to introduce luxury residential living in downtown Palm Springs.
Buildings were demolished to make way for the 4-acre project at Palm Canyon Drive and Alejo Road. But 2007 promise turned into 2008 precipice when the national economy plummeted.
Although recovery came too late for original plans, the value of a footprint in the downtown of an alluring city can be depressed for only so long, right?
Audible sigh. Answers too often come in the form of yes and no.
In 2015, city and tourism officials touted the property as the site of an Andaz hotel. This year brought news that it would be rebranded as a Thompson hotel (both lie in Hyatt’s portfolio).
Granted, it’s 841 acres smaller than New York City’s Central Park and, therefore, cannot accommodate a zoo. But Palm Springs’ new 2-acre park gives the city bragging rights. After all, most downtowns don’t “give up” ground that could generate revenue via commercial development. The site — land historically hosting guests seeking a wellness retreat — influenced the park’s designers.
“Nellie Coffman, the Desert Inn’s founder, espoused the space, stillness, solitude, and simplicity of Palm Springs,” says Nate Cormier, managing studio director at RIOS. “It was our aim to imbue the park with this spirit.”
The Los Angeles firm used 3-D modeling software to measure shade coverage at various times of the day and year to ensure sun protection across the grounds. The result encompasses 135 native palms, as well as 13 shade trees and an event-stage canopy inspired by palm fronds. Ambient cooling also will come from cascading water and a splash zone with pop jets and fog emitters.
Additional elements include an event lawn with amphitheater seating, public restrooms, and a police substation.
Lawrence Kocher and Albert Frey proved the practicality of mass-producing structures with “off-the-shelf” materials in designing a house for New York City’s Architectural and Allied Arts Exhibition of 1931. The Aluminaire House Foundation donated the building to Palm Springs Art Museum in 2020, to be reassembled at the museum’s southeast corner.
Though construction has taken longer than the lickety-split 10 days in 1931, no one can deny that it makes sense to have the Aluminaire in Palm Springs, given Frey’s connection to the city (including his design of City Hall). The structure should be ready for exterior visitation at the end of this month.
“Phase 2 for the interior is still very much in the planning and fundraising stages,” says Scott Slaven, the museum’s director of marketing.
Recognizing Palm Springs’ Indigenous people, the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza on Indian Canyon Drive will include a museum, spa, and outdoor spaces for reflection and gathering. For years, the Native American tribe has relied on its museum presence in a collection of small structures on South Palm Canyon Drive that pay homage to Palm Springs’ history and pioneers.
Palm Springs Life’s October issue two years ago heralded a concerted effort to revive downtown’s theater, which debuted in 1936 and has been shuttered since 2014.
As anyone familiar with show business knows, timing is everything. Donations began pouring in, and a fundraising concert starring Nancy Sinatra sold out the venue’s 800 seats. Then a pandemic crashed the party. Major donations were rescinded. Save the Plaza Theatre steering-committee activity stalled. And $160,000 in the bank falls far short of a goal to raise at least $10 million.
But hope springs eternal. In January, the Oasis Music Festival could refire the pilot light.
“I think the theater is so important to downtown being an arts, entertainment, and culture destination,” says Frank Jones, president and publisher of festival organizer Palm Springs Life. To that end, he committed a minimum contribution of $10,000 from festival proceeds, plus exposure and contribution opportunities through a donation box and hashtag, plus an appeal to the city (in conjunction with J.R. Roberts, steering committee chair) for $50,000 in repairs and updates (approved by the council in July).
“The theater is the grande dame of venues because of its history,” Jones says. “It’s natural to make it a focal point for the downtown experience.”
Up With Tribal Culture
One new development in downtown Palm Springs could be transformational for Indian Canyon Drive. The Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, located at the intersection of Tahquitz Canyon Way, will offer a gathering place with a world-class spa and a museum where the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians can share its history, traditions, and culture with residents and visitors.
Opening in 2022 (the tribe has not announced a date), the plaza unfolds over almost 6 acres, with the Oasis Trail bisecting the campus with flowing water, native Washingtonia filifera palm trees, and rock formations akin to those in the nearby Indian Canyons, the tribe’s ancestral home.
JCJ Architecture and tribal leadership collaborated on the design of the spa and museum, where the circular entry and curvaceous interior take their inspiration from a traditional basket starter for weaving. Inside, a 36-seat theater introduces the Agua Caliente creation story en route to the permanent and rotating exhibition spaces.
On the other side of the Oasis Trail, The Spa at Séc-he stretches out in a similarly shaped structure that restores access to the healing mineral waters that have been bubbling beneath the surface for thousands of years. Here, the ancient bathing tradition of “taking the waters” will live on amid scores of other amenities, including private mineral baths, a salt cave, conductive grounding rooms, cryotherapy, zero-sensory flotation pods, and more.
By Janice Kleinschmidt
People typically move to the Coachella Valley for its golf courses, midcentury modern architecture, and thriving LGBTQ+ culture. I moved to Palm Springs because of its downtown.
The year was 1988, and I had a good job in Monterey. My husband Michael and I drove 450 miles on Memorial Day weekend to climb Tahquitz Rock. But the next morning, we sat in our car while an ice storm raged in Idyllwild. When climbing prospects reached zero, Michael suggested, “So you wanna go down to Palm Springs?”
“Whatever,” I replied, my laissez-faire due to never having been to Palm Springs nor heard of its charms.
As Michael drove down Palm Canyon Drive, I peeled off layers of clothing I’d worn for our mountain adventure and dropped my jaw at the sight of young people in halter and tank tops. Everyone strolling the sidewalks exuded happiness!
“I could so live here,” I proclaimed.
“Are you serious?” Michael asked.
The following Memorial Day weekend, we drove 450 miles to house hunt and by the first week of August moved into our Palm Springs house.
Over the decades, I witnessed downtown’s mood swings. On Palm Canyon Drive, I saw spring breakers “cruising the drag”; live performances by the diverse range of Leslie Gore, Steppenwolf, and k.d. lang (the latter a concert in Muriel’s projected onto an inflatable screen on the street); the 23-year-run of an internationally acclaimed revue called The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies in a 1930s theater; Greater Palm Springs Pride and Festival of Lights parades; and classic cars and historic airplanes parked on display.
On the parallel Indian Canyon Drive, I saw spring breakers cruising north (to loop back to southbound Palm Canyon Drive), the opening celebration of the “naked bridge” that allowed naturalist resort members to cross the road sans clothes, and the city’s first electronic sign at Spa Resort Casino.
My favorite restaurants and bars lie downtown. VillageFest has been my go-to source for holiday gifts. I recommend downtown’s boutique inns to visitors. When I worked downtown, I spent lunch hours walking up and down Palm Canyon and Indian Canyon drives. I even got locked in a shop on one such lunch hour when the owner stepped out for lunch without realizing I was in a dressing room.
I could go on. And with a positive direction, I am sure downtown can.