Coachella Valley Abloom with Development : La Quinta Draws Developers : Nearly 20 Major Real Estate Ventures Approved

Times Staff Writer

Nature--and land developers--abhor vacuums, so it's only logical that this 26-square-mile, largely undeveloped city of about 6,000 year-round residents just west of Indio should emerge as a major development area in the eastern Coachella Valley.

Nearly 20 major real estate developments have been approved for a total of 11,577 condominium units--mostly of the luxury category--plus several hotels, apartments, resorts, golf courses and retail/office complexes, according to Frank Usher, La Quinta's city manager. A former Glendale resident, Usher has been at his post since the city was incorporated in 1982.

Virtually every sizable parcel of land in the city has been purchased by developers, he added. "The developments that have been approved are all well planned, high-quality housing," he said. "The residents of the Cove (the existing residential area generally south of 50th Avenue) supported the incorporation of the city, believing that it was important that the city gain control over the land use, the law, protection, planning, dumping and probably some things we haven't even thought of."

Followed Cathedral City

La Quinta was incorporated a few months after Cathedral City, another desert city undergoing a building boom: For the first 11 months of 1984, building permit valuation added up to $68,859,156 in Cathedral City, up from $35,983,231 for the comparable January-November period in 1983.

In La Quinta comparable 11-month total valuation figures were $26,488,028 in 1984 and $17,188,147 in 1983. For the entire year the totals were $29,643,048 in 1984, and $26,460,525 in 1983.

"It was only a matter of time," Usher said. "We have probably the desert's best resort location, tucked back in a cove, sheltered from the wind by the Santa Rosa Mountains."

Planning Director Larry Stevens, who came to La Quinta from Atascadero last March, said that the incorporation was not necessasarily a response to fears that Indio would annex the area, as one might assume from a look at the map: "People wanted more services, better police protection, more control in general. These same desires led to the incorporation of Atascadero."

Principal planner Sandra Bonner came to La Quinta in December 1982 from Cathedral City. She had worked for Riverside County before Cathedral City incorporated.

'Diversity of Housing'

"La Quinta has a remarkable diversity of housing prices, from $65,000 for a new three-bedroom tract home to $1.5 million for a custom home," she said. "This makes it a well-balanced community because many of the people who work here can live here."

As many with even a nodding familiarity with the Coachella Valley know, this diversity of housing opportunities is not all that common in many communities where service employees are forced to commute long distances from their homes in Indio, Yucca Valley, Beaumont, Banning.

Cathedral City and La Quinta remain possibly the most affordable cities close to the resort developments of Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells and other cities.

Santa Rosa Cove, a 595-unit new home development in the 800-acre La Quinta Hotel resort compound at 50th Avenue and Eisenhower Drive, was the first major new home resort in La Quinta. More than 200 units have been sold at prices ranging from $150,000 to $331,000, according to John Newcomb, vice president of the Anden Corp., the developers.

Many--perhaps a majority--of buyers come from Southern California, but plenty of Midwesterners and Canadians are represented in Santa Rosa Cove, he said.

"Buyers here want golf and tennis facilities in a quiet, wind-protected scenic location," Newcomb said. "They don't want to live amid the bright lights and bustle of Palm Springs, but they have it only a few miles away if they want it. We have a lot of chief executive officers and celebrities who come to the cove because it's peaceful, quiet and secure."

Until the late 1970s--and especially since incorporation nearly three years ago--La Quinta was a true hideaway. The name means the fifth in Spanish, signifying a resting place on the fifth day of a journey through the Coachella Valley when California was a province of Mexico.

The first resort in the Coachella Valley, the La Quinta Hotel, was built in 1923, but Palm Springs quickly took center stage. Developments like Charlie Farrell's Racquet Club in Palm Springs were closer to Los Angeles and patrons of La Quinta such as Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and Dolores del Rio were left to unwind in peace.

Hotel Changes Hands

Landmark Land Co. purchased the 268-room La Quinta Hotel and its grounds in 1977 and recently sold the hotel for $46 million to a group of Washington, D.C., investors. Landmark retains a 20-year management contract.

The purchase price covered the hotel and access to the golf course, but not the course itself. The price also covered access to the La Quinta Hotel Tennis Club, with 12 hard courts, four grass courts and three clay courts.

The club will be the scene Feb. 18-24 of the $375,000 Pilot Pen Classic, featuring Jimmy Connors and Yannick Noah, among other tennis stars. The director of tennis is Charlie Passarell, who collaborated with Landmark and Arthur Ashe, Dick Stockton, Marty Riessen and others in the development of the club.

Golf at Santa Rosa Cove is played on two 18-hole, 6,800-yard courses--the Mountain and the Dunes--designed by Pete Dye, along with a 22,000-square-foot clubhouse.

Landmark Land Co. is also involved in residential development through the Duna La Quinta specific plan, Usher said. This 246-acre site on 50th Avenue between Avenida Bermudas and Adams Street is oriented around the La Quinta Hotel Golf Course and includes nearly 1,300 units priced from $90,000 to $400,000.

Other major developments that have been approved include:

--La Quinta Hotel Tennis Club Condominiums, by Landmark Land Co., featuring 108 two-story town houses priced from $140,000 to $175,000. Twenty-three have been completed. Two-story units are relatively new to the everything-on-one-level low desert.

--Laguna de La Paz by M. B. Johnson Properties. A 396-unit development on 100 acres at Eisenhower Drive and Washington Street. The six-acre lake and 57 units priced from $175,000 to $250,000 are under construction.

--Isla Mediterranea by the Johnson firm, with a 32-acre lake and 894 condominiums on a 150-acre site on Washington Street north of 48th Avenue, prices would range from $100,000 to $200,000.

--Reflections, formerly Indian Wells Villas, at Washington Street and Fred Waring Drive, consisting of 354 condominiums on about 60 acres.

--Horizon Palms by General Management Corp., at Fred Waring Drive and Dune Palms Road, 146 units on 40 acres.

--Dune Palms by Southwest Development Corp./Psomas, at Miles Avenue and Dune Palms Road, 130 detached condominium units on 33 acres.

--Desert Club Condominiums by Tom Thornburgh at Avenida Bermudas at Calle Sinaloa, adjacent to the Desert Club of La Quinta; 56 condominiums on 5.6 acres, with access to the pool and tennis facilities at the Desert Club.

--The Grove specific plans, formerly the ATO/Figgie development, by The Grove Associates, bounded by Washington and Jefferson streets, 48th and 50th avenues, with two 18-hole golf courses designed by Robert Trent Jones II and a 28-acre country club with 80 guest cottages.

Mixed-Use Project

Probably the biggest single development in the city will be the 1,665-acre PGA West development by Landmark Land Co. on Jefferson Street between 54th and 58th avenues. According to Andy R. Vossler, a Landmark vice president, the project will feature no less than four 18-hole golf courses, 5,000 dwelling units, a 20-acre retail/office complex and a 65-acre resort village with a 400-room hotel and 250 apartment/condominium/hotel units.

According to a city spokesman, the massive project due east of Lake Cahuilla has been approved, with development to be processed through separate tract map approvals.

Is there the possibility that all this development, along with similar projects in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and Indio, will result in a glut of unsold houses and condominiums similar to that of 1979 and a few years following?

There is always the chance, but a product glut is unlikely to occur again, according to Don Rowan, regional vice president of Walker & Lee Real Estate in Palm Desert.

"Real estate brokers are always ready to be optimistic just as reporters always seem to see the dark clouds on a sunny day, but I don't believe we'll see an excess of unsold inventory like that at the beginning of the decade," he said. "Builders are a lot more cautious because they saw what happened when everybody rushed in and built the same kind of house for the same kind of buyer."

A glance at the list of approved developments in La Quinta provides fuel for arguments on either side: The developments are generally gate-guarded resort condominiums priced above $100,000, all going after the second-home buyer from the Southland and other parts of the country. There is the possibility that too many projects will come on the market at the same time.

Small Phases Planned

On the other hand, as Walker & Lee's Rowan points out, the developments are being created in small phases. The Laguna de La Paz project, for instance, projects a total of 396 units, but only 57 and the six-acre lake are under construction.

William Northrop, community development director for Indio, remembers the housing boom of the late 1970s and the subsequent glut of unsold housing.

"We're a primary residential community, with only one or two resort-style developments, so we're very price sensitive when it comes to housing," he said.

His colleague, Charles Hansen, economic development planner, added that 90% of the home sales in Indio, a city of 26,000 that is the service and governmental center for the eastern Coachella Valley and much of eastern Riverside County, are financed through FHA or VA.

"Indio is more typical of the average American city than places in coastal areas of California," he said. "Most new houses sell for well under $80,000 and existing houses can be purchased for $50,000 or even less."

Commenting on the job opportunities for residents of Indio in the resort projects of La Quinta and other communities, Hansen said that "we're farming the country clubs that are fast replacing the date and citrus groves."

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