Saturday, November 05, 2011

Palm Springs, Desert Fashion Plaza, and Prop J

Desert Fashion Plaza, a block-long shopping mall in the center of downtown Palm Springs, has sat empty like a rotting white elephant for close to 15 years while a series of dubious redevelopment plans have been considered and rejected for the area over the last decade. The latest installment in the saga is a 25-year one-cent sales tax increase, Proposition J, that is being proposed in this Tuesday's election which will supposedly give the city the funds it needs to create a vibrant downtown.

Many residents are not buying into the plan, principally because it guarantees $43 million upfront to the multimillionaire real estate developer John Wessman who has owned the site since 2002. Wessman's initial proposal was to have a mixed condo-retail complex that was six stories tall, even though there was a 35-foot height limit in downtown, and the plan would have effectively destroyed the San Jacinto mountain views for anyone not staying in the place.

The site originally housed the luxurious Desert Inn Hotel complex, one of the old movie star hangouts, but 1978 brought Proposition C which lowered property taxes and which hit municipalities hard. So Palm Springs turned to redevelopment plans and made a deal with the DeBartolo family, owners of the San Francisco 49ers, to build a huge shopping mall which was completed in 1986.

According to most accounts I have heard from people who lived here at the time, the complex was quite beautiful, with marble floors and Saks Fifth Avenue and I. Magnin as anchor clients. "I hate shopping malls," one elderly gentlemen told me, "but that was the only one I ever liked." However, it was not a success in the long run for a number of reasons, including the fact that they charged for parking in their underground lot. In Southern California, free parking is considered a god-given right.

Another factor in its decline was the fact that the upscale clientele they were counting on had mostly moved further southeast in the Coachella Valley to Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert and La Quinta, where fancy new shopping malls were also being built. Desert Fashion Plaza soon became a ghost town. Eddie DeBartolo, with Willie Brown, Jr. leading the charge, put a measure on the California state ballot in the mid-1990s to allow gambling on his properties, but the measure failed, and they sold the empty shopping center to a San Diego corporation in 1998 for $20 million. Subsequently, it ended up in the hands of John Wessman in 2002 who has been blackmailing the city into providing public funds for essentially private plans.

On Wednesday afternoon, there was a protest against the Prop J proposal and the hanging of a huge sign on an abandoned Bank of America building on Palm Canyon Drive touting the measure. Wessman and his supporters countered with signage and a protest of their own, although their promise of new jobs rang a little hollow since all the construction companies that were being paraded on the street were from other towns rather than Palm Springs.

People are so sick of the dead shopping mall in the center of town that they are ready to vote for the measure just to get "something" done, even if it's just another dumb shopping mall.

Others are urging a no vote and starting from scratch, using eminent domain to take the property from Wessman at its appraised price of $16 million.

The possibility of the latter happening is just about nil since Wessman is nothing if not politically connected. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out, just as it was interesting watching the newswoman above try to walk in her provocative outfit.

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