A First for Palm Springs: Urban Redevelopment

Times Staff Writer

The "Queen of the Valley" is getting a shot in the arm.

Palm Springs is experiencing its first major redevelopment project.

Redevelopment? In the playground of the stars, billion-dollar sandbox, oasis in the desert?

Well, it isn't like changing an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. The gracious hostess to a couple million visitors each year was just beginning to sag a bit.

After all, she was incorporated in 1938. She is what John D. Stiles Jr., president of the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce, calls "the oldest community out here." And, though she still has the highest taxable retail sales of nine area cities, Palm Desert has been giving her some new retail-sales competition for slightly more than a year.

As Carlos Ortega, redevelopment director for Palm Desert, expressed it: "We're rapidly catching up with Palm Springs. In 1983-1984, for example, Palm Springs had a 7.6% increase in taxable sales, while we had a hike of 45%."

Ever since Ernest Hahn's 742,000-square-foot Palm Desert Town Center opened about 15 miles to the east in December, 1983, there has been increasing concern about shoppers leaving Palm Springs, not only for Palm Desert, which reported $211,082,000 in taxable retail sales for the calendar year 1984, in contrast with $364,676,000 for the same period in Palm Springs, but also for Indio, which ranked second with $265,889,000.

"But we had a problem even before Hahn's shopping center opened," Ken Feenstra, Palm Springs redevelopment director, conceded.

For some time, the Desert Fashion Plaza, built in 1967 on the site of the famous old Desert Inn of the 1930s and 1940s, wasn't "functioning that well," as Feenstra put it.

Situated in downtown Palm Springs in the 100 block of North Palm Canyon Drive, the shopping mall has been described as "cold, stark and uninviting--the antithesis of Palm Springs' extended-village character."

Stores fronting Palm Canyon Drive--the main shopping street--apparently did well, but there was no major department store to anchor the back and draw customers through. "The Desert Plaza partners (who bought the center in 1978) wanted to expand and get a department store in the rear, but they weren't having any success," Feenstra explained.

Then executives of Saks Fifth Avenue, a prime revenue producer in Palm Springs since it opened there in 1959, "put the fear of God into us," he said. "They said that they would move to Palm Desert if they couldn't move to Fashion Plaza in the center of Palm Springs." They are currently in the financial district several blocks away.

Saks executives then introduced the Desert Plaza partners to one of the largest shopping center builder/developers in the United States: the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. of Youngstown, Ohio, and in turn, DeBartolo introduced the Desert Plaza partners to the Pratt Hotel Corp. of Dallas, which already operates 26 hotels in the United States and Mexico.

A joint venture between the partners (Gerson Fox and David Blum, owners of a Los Angeles-based jewelry chain with 110 stores, and Arthur Gilbert), DeBartolo and Pratt is what Feenstra terms "the key that made the thing work," the combination that enabled the $60-million downtown redevelopment project, which is spurring other development, to get under way.

By the time it opens officially in November, the mall will be more than double its current size. It will include 295,000 square feet of boutiques, including Gucci's, restaurants, a sculpture garden, and an expanded Saks and I. Magnin. The existing facade will be radically changed, though the wooden owls on the roof, to frighten off pigeons, will remain. The number of retailers will increase from 60 to 110.

And the first Maxim's Suite Hotel in the world will open at one end of the development. The hotel, featuring 194 suites, will be topped out on Friday.

When it opens in the fall, it will be operated by the Pratt Hotel Corp. through an exclusive licensing arrangement with fashion designer/entrepreneur Pierre Cardin, owner of the famous Paris restaurant Maxim's (established in 1890). Since Cardin bought Maxim's, he has been involved in the opening of several Maxim's restaurants, including one opening in September in New York and one that just opened in Peking. He also arranged for use of the name on six hotels, which will be operated by Pratt, though Cardin has been selecting artwork and the hotel staffs' wardrobes, and approving plans.

Next Cities Named

"I think the next two (Maxim's) hotels will also be in California," Fred Stadler, executive vice president of Maxim's Suite Hotel in Palm Springs, said, "preferably in Beverly Hills and San Francisco, then New York and Dallas. We feel that these cities can support this type of hotel."

What type? Classy but understated, judging by the one in Palm Springs, where suites will rent for as much as $350 and $450 a night but rooms will be decorated in soft shades of pink and taupe. The hotel was designed with clusters of suites around a six-story atrium opening onto the mall.

"We want a natural flow from the hotel to the mall," Stadler explained, "with background music and a place where people can sit and sip champagne."

Champagne? That's fitting. As the chamber's Stiles said, "There's no doubt that this is a wealthy area." Wearing another hat at Smoke Tree Realty, he has a $2.5-million listing for a 10,000-square-foot home that could "easily be a second or third home for somebody, because we have people who have money like that here."

Based on the 1980 census, only 8% of the population made more than $50,000 a year, he noted, "but that's not a good figure because the people who would run it up were not counted." They were not considered part of the permanent, 39,000 population, which swells--according to Feenstra--to at least 80,000 six months of the year.

However, he was quick to add, the image of Palm Springs as a resort exclusively for "snowbirds" or people trying to escape the winters Back East is changing, and nearly all of the hotels and all of the department stores are now open even during the hottest summer days when temperatures can soar to 115 and more.

Of course, longer store hours make life easier for permanent residents, who have traditionally shied away, he said, from shopping downtown. "The new mall will also make it easier for them," he added, "because they will be able to park conveniently (in the two new levels of parking mainly in the rear, toward the existing Desert Museum) and wander around the air-conditioned center" where they can buy such items as designer dresses, designer sportswear, sweaters at $500 or $600 apiece, and even furs. All will be offered at Saks, said Larry Buchanan, general manager, who listed among his regular shoppers Mrs. Bob Hope, Mrs. Walter Annenberg and Mrs. Gerald Ford.

New shoppers are expected to come from the hotel and other planned projects: a 400-room hotel due to be under construction by October, a 169-room hotel being built, and a 105-room hotel that Feenstra said "we're going into condemnation proceedings for now."

Palm Springs already has 6,500 hotel rooms--more than any other local desert community, but he figures the existing and planned rooms will complement other planned commercial expansions-- like a Bullocks-Wilshire doubling its 30,000-square-foot store--and the 100,000-square-foot convention center, which is also planned. "Anyway, there was no new hotel for 20 years before the Sheraton Plaza, which opened about 3 1/2 years ago," he said.

So an entire city block was razed and another block is being improved to expand Desert Fashion Plaza. "And if other plans materialize," he predicted, "within the next two or three years, we will revitalize more city blocks in the center of downtown."

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