Grassroots movement to save downtown Palm Springs

Posted by Paul Kaplan on Thursday, July 10th, 2014 at 12:09pm

There's a lot of uproar in Palm Springs lately regarding the recent design approved for the Desert Fashion Plaza located in the heart of Downtown Palm Springs. 

A brief history-  the fate of the Desert Fashion Plaza has been an ongoing battle between the developer, John Wessman, and the City of Palm Springs.  Measure J was passed by the citizens to support and provide funding for the re-development, in a recent election.  At the time, there were citizen groups, town hall meetings, and input gathered by residents, asking for input on how we wanted to see the Desert Fashion Plaza developed.

Unfortunately the current approved plans are nothing like what was originally proposed to the City, and not what was expected.  Since the City is helping to fund this project, many of us feel we DO have a say with regard to the future redevelopment of this site.

Below is a one of the most recent renderings-  what do you think???

Grassroots Movement

Click:  The Desert Sun's June 27th article that discusses the new plans:

I think the following letter posted in the Desert Sun  7-8-14, by Hank Plante, accurately summarizes the local sentiment about the current design not living up to the expectations of the city:

Hank Plante: Send Wessman back to the drawing board

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Public opinion has an arc. You can feel it start with a few comments that ring true, then watch it build into a groundswell.

That's the sense I'm getting from the increasingly negative reaction to John Wessman's uninspiring design for Palm Springs' downtown revitalization.

Consider the comments to The Desert Sun after reporter Skip Descant's two stories last week updating the project. There were 39 comments on the stories — all of them negative. Most criticized the Planning Commission's approval of the project's retail blocks. Reader William Cain typified many when he wrote, "Block A and B sounds like a prison or reformatory."

Other local citizens, including Realtor Chris Menrad, began a letter-writing campaign last weekend, urging city officials not to rubber-stamp the "frankly ugly project."

Critics have compared Wessman's drawings to strip malls you might find on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley or to the worst parts of Phoenix.

In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find local residents who are genuinely enthusiastic about the drawings Wessman has presented.

Sure, we all want something built, and the proposed structures would be acceptable in most cities. But Palm Springs isn't most cities. Our renaissance is happening not just because the weather is hot but because the town is cool. That coolness is rooted in our artistic sensibility, especially our midcentury modernism. No wonder this year's Modernism Week drew a record 45,000 visitors.

You would think developers and retailers would want to better incorporate that style to bring in business. Of course, you'd also think they would add more shaded coverings to encourage shoppers, but not so.

In fact, the Planning Commission wisely said its approval rests on the project having more shading and cooling areas, a view also expressed by City Councilman Paul Lewin at the June 18 City Council meeting.

The commission also wants another "color and materials" plan presented, which brought this response from Planning Commissioner Doug Hudson, himself a nationally respected architect: "It's going to take much more than colors or materials to make this a better building."

So why the rush into a bland development that we'll be looking at for decades? Because people are tired of the empty hulk that has marred our most important intersection for years.

Planning Commissioner Kathy Weremiuk was perhaps too candid when she said, "I'm sympathetic with moving this forward because we have a community that's really impatient to see something happen."

Wessman's lawyer added to that impatience by blaming the project's slow movement on legal action against it, saying, "That lawsuit delayed the entire development by more than 15 months."

Really? That's news to many of us who have followed this project since Day 1. Desert Sun reader Bruce Douglas wrote, "Can someone explain how on Earth the earlier lawsuits held up design drawings for this part of the project? That doesn't pass the smell test."

It also doesn't build trust with a public already skeptical over a design process that remains secret until plans are unveiled.

It's ironic that Wessman himself sat on the empty Desert Fashion Plaza for more than a decade, but now his team thinks we should hurry along and approve his plans.

So are we really that impatient or are we willing to ask Wessman to come up with a better design?

After all, Wessman has already changed his plans so many times that they resemble little of what was originally presented, including what was suggested by citizens who attended the so-called "visioning sessions" that were staged to sell the project to the public.

But that public should be listened to now, since it's the public's money being invested in the development through our Measure J tax.

City officials would be wise not to ignore the growing arc of public opinion. They should ask Mr. Wessman to aim higher, and to come up with a design that's more worthy of Palm Springs' future, with a nod to our architectural past.

Hank Plante, of Palm Springs, is an Emmy and Peabody-winning journalist who spent three decades reporting for the CBS TV stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Email him at hankplante@yahoo.com

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