Thursday, November 21, 2019

'Heart of Palm Desert:' Multi-million-dollar San Pablo project rooted in the city's history - Desert Sun

In the 1940s, when Palm Desert’s founding fathers began mapping out a city that would not be incorporated for another 30-plus years, they designed El Paseo as a place they hoped would become one of “the greatest fashionable avenues in the world ... .”  

Today, that one-mile stretch of roadway — often called the “Rodeo Drive of the desert” — with its high-end shops and restaurants, is the city’s crown jewel. 

It helped put the city on the map, and today draws visitors from around the globe to such major annual events as Fashion Week El Paseo and Palm Desert Food & Wine and the iconic Golf Cart Parade.

But another avenue in the heart of the city is about to spring back to life. At least that's what city planners hope.

A few years ago, the city set out to link El Paseo and some of its other key amenities – the McCallum Theatre, College of the Desert, Civic Center Park and the aquatic center within, and CV Link.

They envisioned a city center that invites more mixed-use developments where people can easily walk or bicycle to nearby shops, restaurants and schools.

It’s what City Manager Lauri Aylaian calls the “heart of Palm Desert.”

They set their sights on San Pablo Avenue as the perfect spot to realize that vision and today, that plan is nearing reality as phase one construction between Highway 111 and Fred Waring Drive is about midway to completion.

With the completion of phase one, “people will experience a transformed corridor that re-balances the roadway to provide greater pedestrian connectivity to businesses, residences and civic amenities,” Principal Planner Eric Ceja said.

Vehicle lanes will be reduced from four to two and sidewalks will be widened to encourage foot traffic. Drainage, lighting and landscaping will be improved to offer more shade, and a roundabout is under construction at San Gorgonio Way to ease traffic flow.

The narrowed road “will send the message out to everybody that this street is going to be for shoppers, diners, walkers and bicyclists. They have priority over the traffic,” Mayor Susan Marie Weber said at the groundbreaking for phase one. 

The street is already home to one of the city’s five community gardens, which  encourages people to get outdoors and interact with each other. 

“This means new street trees, on-street parking, bulb-outs leading into neighborhood streets, new pocket parks around the community gardens, wider sidewalks, new striped bike lanes, new painted crosswalks, and new design elements to accommodate restaurant patios and retail space,” Ceja said.

Benches also will be added to help to create a community atmosphere where people can sit and mingle. A portion of the street will become an area that can be closed to vehicle traffic to make way for public events such as farmers’ markets, concerts and possibly become the new home of the Golf Cart Parade. 

The project is being paid with funds from a variety of sources, including Capital Bond, Measure A, drainage facility, park, recycling and gas tax funds. 

While sprawling in size – Palm Desert covers about 27 square miles of the Coachella Valley – the area around San Pablo has historically been the heart of a city that now includes more than 30 golf courses and country clubs, two university campuses and at least five industrial zones.  

Before the rapid expansion of the 1940s and ’50s, Palm Desert was called Palm Village and labeled on early maps as a “sand hole.” Development of what is now Palm Desert is credited to the Henderson brothers – Clifford, Randall, Carl and Phil. 

Randall and Clifford Henderson arrived to the area in the late 1940s. Randall, a publisher, brought his Desert Magazine headquarters from El Centro to Highway 111, near the east end of El Paseo.

Clifford began the development that became Palm Desert, breaking ground on the unincorporated city’s first major development, Shadow Mountain Resort & Club, off of San Luis Rey Avenue, west of San Pablo and south of El Paseo, in 1946. It was designed and built to attract people to the area, with hopes that those who stayed would want to remain and invest in the valley’s newest city.

Once development started, it continued slow and steady, the Historical Society of Palm Desert notes in the book, “Images of America: Palm Desert.” 

Among some of the city’s earliest businesses are Keedy’s Fountain & Grill. Opened in 1957 by Bob Keedy, next to Mullin’s Drug Store on Highway 111, it soon became a place that drew those who visited and lived in the area, including William Boyd, best known for his movie and TV character, Hopalong Cassidy.

College of the Desert broke ground on its campus in 1961, with the first classes offered a year later. The first building on El Paseo was a fire station which is today home of the historical society and museum.

Brett Romer, past president and longtime volunteer with the Historical Society of Palm Desert, and his wife arrived in Palm Desert in August 1964. He had taken a teaching position at College of the Desert.

“We drove, via Avenue 44, up on the campus of the College of the Desert and looking out it did not look like anyone lived in Palm Desert,” Romer recalled.

They went back to Indio and got an apartment. 

“We later discovered that people did live in Palm Desert,” he said, and they relocated to an apartment on Santa Rosa Way, near Portola Avenue, just east of San Pablo. After a couple of months, they moved to a house on Peppergrass Street south of El Paseo and welcomed the birth of their son. 

Three years later, in 1967, they purchased a home on San Antonio Circle — west of San Pablo — for  $16,000, Romer recalled.

“Most of the lots in that general area were vacant during much of our tenure at that location,” he said, adding they moved to a home in Silver Spur Ranch in 1972. 

“Basically, everything was open and minimal traffic. Our son was able to walk to school at Washington Elementary.  Originally the only market in town was Village Market at the corner of Highway 111 and San Pablo, which was a little too pricey for us. 

“However, at one time I needed to cash a check and I went into the market, not a customer, and asked to cash a check.  The response was, ‘You teach at the college, of course,’” Romer recalled. “This was a small town.” 

Among the spattering of shops and businesses were an A&W Root Beer stand, Sambo’s restaurant, a hardware store, The Red Barn and Philips Jewelers, he said.

“We did our grocery shopping in Indio where there was a large grocery store,” Romer recalled. “Sometime in the mid- to late-’60s, Market Basket came in where Jensen’s is today,” on Highway 111, between San Pablo and Larkspur Lane.

“We also had a Sprouse Reitz and other businesses in that center.  Of course, Keedy’s was there and Vern Emry’s Chevron next to Keedy’s. I would have breakfast at Keedy’s regularly and pumped gas for Vern a couple of summers,” Romer recalled.

It's that type of eclectic environment, one which draws people to shop and dine locally while mingling with family and neighbors and maybe take in some entertainment within a walkable distance to homes, that the city wants to achieve with San Pablo.

The first new development for the area is in the works on a prime corner lot the city owns and says would serve as an anchor for its San Pablo vision.

In February, the city announced it had entered into a contract agreement to sell a vacant lot on the southeast corner of Fred Waring Drive and San Pablo to Chandi — a prime spot that the city says will serve as an anchor for its vision for San Pablo.

The city’s plan calls for a three-story development with restaurants and shops on the ground floor and two stories of residential units above on the five parcels totaling 1.55 acres, directly across from City Hall, Aylaian said.

It would be different from the strip malls with fast-food/drive-thru restaurants and gas stations with mini-marts that the Indio-based developer has become known for in the valley.

“Our vision aligns with the city’s vision for this property — to bring in a contemporary, mixed-use development that will be attractive to both existing city residents and newcomers that might be looking for a more urban lifestyle, with amenities that are nearby and walkable,” Nachhattar Singh Chandi, founder and president of Chandi Group USA, said at the time.

The contract was initially for six months, with Chandi required to make a $50,000 cash deposit which would be refundable should the deal fall through. The council in October approved a contract extension to Dec. 30 as Chandi continues to work on plans.

“The city recognizes the importance of this site as a key development opportunity,” Economic Development Director Martin Alvarez said. “We wanted to provide additional time for staff to work with the developer on architecture and design that represents Palm Desert.”

The company knows, too, this is a pivotal project for the city. Palm Desert and Chandi Group want the design to be something both can be proud of for years to come, Chandi Group said. To get there requires a cooperative approach to the architectural design of the finished project, and coordination of input from many different teams within the city and on behalf of the developer, company representatives recently said.

“We are very excited and proud to be part of the important development in the city of Palm Desert and look forward to sharing the final concept design soon,” Chandi said.

If Chandi does buy the land, it will be at fair market value, though no dollar figure has been made public.

Once phase one is completed, the stretch of San Pablo between Alessandro Drive and San Gorgonio can be closed to traffic to allow for special events, such as farmers markets and concerts.

The annual Golf Cart Parade may move off El Paseo to San Pablo.

“Assuming no delays in construction, our hope is to host a ‘grand-opening’ type event in May as part of the city’s First Weekend event series,” Ceja said.

The street improvements have garnered a lot of interest of businesses and development groups, Alvarez said.

“The city continues to receive interest in new commercial opportunities of varying size and type on new sites, as well as interest in expansion and improvements to existing businesses along the San Pablo corridor,” Alvarez said.

Some of the commercial buildings on San Pablo, between Highway 111 and San Gorgonio, are 50 to 60 years old.

Property owners who may want to give their buildings a face-lift to complement the improvements would currently have to shoulder the costs themselves, but that could change in the coming year.

The city has a façade enhancement program, but it currently is available only to Highway 111 and El Paseo property owners, Alvarez said.

“Staff is working on a comprehensive economic development incentive program that will potentially apply to all commercial properties,” he said.

A program is expected to be presented to the City Council in early 2020.

“If approved by the City Council, the program could include a robust grant that will assist with capital improvements such as façade enhancements, parking and major redevelopment projects,” he said.

Phase two of the San Pablo makeover, from north of Fred Waring Drive to Magnesia Falls Drive, is expected to start next fall and take up to 10 months to complete.

Preliminary designs for that phase were shown at a recent open house at City Hall, but continue to be fine-tuned with completion expected in April, then go to the council for approval.

Plans call for more on-street parking and removal of the tamarisk trees in the median, at the north end of the street.

“The city will be using many of the same landscape features between both projects, so there will be a consistent appearance to the landscaping and hardscape,” city spokesman David Hermann said.

Full cost of that portion of the project won’t be known until it goes out to bid, but it is estimated between $5 million and $7 million.

This year, the city received a $3.2 million transportation grant to help cover some of that cost, Hermann said.

Not all are happy about the change or understand the need.

“I really can’t see the upside to this expenditure,” Palm Desert resident Trish Pierce wrote earlier this month in a letter to the editor. “I understand that they expect this to be more pedestrian friendly, but are people really going to stroll down this street past the pawn shop, Circle K and funeral home?

“I expect they would rather amble down El Paseo with all the sophisticated upscale shops and restaurants,” Pierce wrote.

Sue Gibson, who has a home in the neighborhood east of San Pablo, disagrees.

“I think it’s great,” she said, while out on a recent walk on San Gorgonio with her dog.

“I think it’s a good idea to connect El Paseo to the (Civic Center) Park,” she said, adding she hasn’t been too inconvenienced by the construction.

Change doesn't come without some pain and sacrifice.

The construction on San Pablo, which started in July and will continue for at least six months, hasn’t been without consequences with businesses experiencing short-term losses in the hopes of reaping long-term gains.

“Construction is taking a toll,” Comic Asylum owner Chicks Halay-Ay said recently.

Walk-in business is down 40% to 50% and people from out of town are discouraged from coming in, she said.

Parking access in front of the store should be restored in a few weeks. In the meantime, there is parking and store entrance in the back of the building for all the shops in that strip.

Construction is occurring at a time when comic book interest is up, due to the Marvel movies and recent launch of the Disney+ streaming service, which includes all the Marvel and “Star Wars” movies, Halay-Ay said.

She and her husband/store co-owner, who goes by the name Big Q, opened Comic Asylum nearly four years ago and just signed a new three-year lease for the space, at 44-829 San Pablo.

When shopping for a location to establish their comic book store, they knew the city’s plan for San Pablo and purposely located in that spot, believing in the vision and that improvements would bring people to the area — and still do, she said.

“I’m optimistic about it,” she said. “We want to hang in there and reap the goodness of it all.”

While most established businesses have remained open during construction, there is one change on San Pablo that disappointed the Historical Society of Palm Desert. The recent demolition of the Bungalows & Cottages of Palm Desert included four structures built in 1957 and designed by mid-century modern architect Walter S. White.

At one time, the property was owned by actor Boyd.

Situated on the northeast corner of San Pablo and San Gorgonio avenues, the property had changed hands several times.

In 2015, Loving All Animals founder Lindi Biggi — BG Desert Investments — bought the property with a vision to create a pet center with a sanctuary for her many birds. Those plans changed after she had a falling-out with the city.

The long-vacant property had been a draw for the homeless and would have been too costly to restore, property manager Arleen Benson said.

One bungalow, which had been remodeled and made livable a few years ago, remains. But Biggi isn’t sure what she wants to do with the property — a prime corner on San Pablo and at the center of the city’s redevelopment plan.

“We’ve not really had an opportunity to discuss the San Pablo site just yet… it’s on the agenda though,” Benson said.

The land is zoned with a downtown edge, which allows for a broad range of mixed uses and residential options, Ceja said. It allows for buildings up to three stories tall with ground floor retail space or residential units.

Desert Sun reporter Sherry Barkas covers the cities of La Quinta, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert. She can be reached at or (760) 778-4694. Follow her on Twitter @TDSsherry

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'Heart of Palm Desert:' Multi-million-dollar San Pablo project rooted in the city's history - Desert Sun
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