An archival photo of City Hall at Palm Desert Civic Center Park.
PHOTO BY PALM DESERT HISTORICAL SOCIETY
While local historians credit developer brothers Randall and Cliff Henderson with creating a progressive place to live in the Coachella Valley’s geographical center, the sisterhood of Kathleen and Dolores also spurred an investment with lasting impact. During the nascent years of Palm Desert’s incorporation, devastation from tropical storms Kathleen in 1976 and Dolores in 1979 led city officials to devote efforts to stormwater protection, including channels and bridges.
“The $60 million investment Palm Desert made in flood control beginning in the 1980s defines our city culture,” Mayor Kathleen Kelly says. “We prioritize infrastructure planning to protect quality of life. It paid off during [2023’s Tropical Storm] Hilary.”
Noting that the city fared exceptionally well in light of the torrential rains, Kelly reflects on the wreckage from Dolores. When that storm hit, she was visiting the Grand Canyon with her father. “In 1979, my mom was up in the middle of the night digging channels to take water away from the family house.”
Flamingos at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa; JW Marriott lagoon, 2018.
PHOTO COURTESY VISIT GREATER PALM SPRINGS
On Nov. 26, 1973, Palm Desert became the 17th city in Riverside County. (There are now 28.) According to newspaper coverage of the incorporation, the new city encompassed 8.5 square miles (now 26.96 miles) and had a population of 14,166 (now 53,087).
“When my husband became assistant city manager in 1977, his first project was flood control,” Rosemary Ortega recalls. Carlos Ortega served 31 years with the city as assistant city manager and executive director of the city’s redevelopment agency, and then as city manager (the first Latino to hold that position in the Coachella Valley).
“Another task he was given was to find a location for a City Hall and Civic Center Park,” Ortega says. After initially holding City Council meetings at Palm Desert Middle School, the city in 1975 began renting the former sales office for the Sandpiper condominium complex. Concurrent with its 10th anniversary in 1983, the city held a parade from its Prickly Pear offices to its current City Hall at the 70-acre Civic Center Park — now dense with public art and encompassing sports fields and courts, an amphitheater, a pond, and an aquatic center.
Desert Town Center, now The Shops at Palm Desert, in 1982.
PHOTO COURTESY PALM DESERT HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Carlos Ortega also secured raw land for the city that subsequently became extension campuses for California State University, San Bernardino, and University of California, Riverside. In 1986, a CSUSB “center” opened on land leased from College of the Desert. In 1994, the city donated 53 acres for construction of a CSUSB campus. With the inaugural freshman class enrolled in 2013, the city added a four-year university to its assets, and in 2015, it gifted another 113 acres. In 2005, on 20 adjacent acres donated by Palm Desert, UCR opened a graduate center for students pursuing master’s degrees, as well as for researchers.
Ortega further says that her husband met with John Willard Marriott Jr. to discuss land for a luxury brand hotel. Opened in 1987, the 450 acres of JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa includes 70 acres of manmade lakes, home to a flock of pink flamingos, and dining accessible via a boat ride from the lobby.
Across the street from the hotel’s two golf courses, the city introduced its own pair of public courses — Firecliff in 1997 and Mountain View the following year — at Desert Willow Golf Resort. Also on the environmental front, Palm Desert opened an Office of Energy Management in 2007 and committed to reducing energy use in the city by 30 percent in five years.
“There were a lot of significant benefits from our Set to Save program,” says Martin Alvarez, public works director, noting complimentary energy audits for residents, free retrofits including LED lights, rebates for high-efficiency pool pumps, and city funding so homeowners could pay for solar installations through property assessments. The city additionally has promoted water conservation with turf rebates in 2010, 2014, and 2022.
Palm Desert climbed the retail ladder in 1982, when shopping center developer Ernest Hahn built Palm Desert Town Center (now The Shops at Palm Desert), then anchored by May Company, Bonwit Teller, JCPenney, and Bullock’s.
Feed a giraffe at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens.
PHOTO BY DANIELA STALLINGER
Though El Paseo served as a shopping beacon well before city’s incorporation, it evolved as an upscale avenue for designer clothing and jewelry, dining, art galleries, and home furnishings, particularly in the 1990s — aided in part by the cultural aesthetic of sculpture exhibitions along the median. In 1993, the city installed concrete pads and lighting for monumental works. Now, the El Paseo Sculpture Exhibition, which rotates every two years, attracts entries from international artists.
The 1998 introduction of The Gardens on El Paseo attracted more national and international brands to the street, including the Coachella Valley’s only Apple store in the adjacent Village on El Paseo block.
Building on its relationships with El Paseo merchants, Palm Springs Life introduced Fashion Week El Paseo in 2006 and married the event (now held at The Gardens) to the culinary scene with the 2010 launch of Palm Desert Food & Wine. Held each March, both events feature a full slate of programming with fashion designers and celebrity chefs from throughout the United States and abroad.
Shop along El Paseo, among other retail centers.
PHOTO BY DANIELA STALLINGER
Culturally speaking, Palm Desert appeared on the national map in 1988 with the debut of the McCallum Theatre. Celebrities filled the stage and audience seats. Lucille Ball emceed the auspicious opening night saluting Bob Hope, and former presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford with their wives watched from box seats.
Three years before Palm Desert incorporated, the budding destination boasted a tourist attraction beyond the lures of sunshine and golf. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens opened in 1970 as a 360-acre nature reserve. But it was in 1983 that it earned accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Expansions have included specific habitats for everything from cheetahs (1996) and giraffes (2002) to butterflies (2014) and rhinos (2021). In 1993, The Living Desert debuted what has become an annual holiday tradition: a nighttime celebration known as WildLights.
Palm Desert offers hiking trails.
PHOTO COURTESY VISIT GREATER PALM SPRINGS
Opened in December 2022, Acrisure Arena marks the city’s newest major attraction. A project costing more than $300 million, the venue serves as home to the American Hockey League’s Coachella Valley Firebirds and hosts concerts by major musical and comedy performers, as well as Cirque du Soleil and monster truck shows.
One suspects that even visionaries Randall and Cliff Henderson would be amazed at how far Palm Desert has advanced in 50 years. Ryan Stendell, the city’s former director of community development, notes the trajectory.
“Randall [published] Desert Magazine, celebrating the natural environment; and Cliff found ways to develop respectfully within that natural environment,” he says. “What the city did well was stay open to good ideas and then find ways to get them done quickly.”
The Party in the Park
Palm Desert celebrates its 50th anniversary Nov. 18 with free festivities from 3 to 10 p.m. at Civic Center Park including live music, art, family activities, food, and a beer and wine garden. Residents and visitors are encouraged to submit photos for a city “tell board,” either by dropping them off at city hall, uploading them at palmdesert50.com, or bringing them to the event.