Champagne was flowing; public officials were smiling; tourists were snapping pictures and asking what, exactly, was going on.
The answer: It was a party under sunny skies on the afternoon of Thursday, Feb. 7, to mark the beginning of the demolition of the Desert Fashion Plaza. The largely defunct mall is slated to be replaced by a new shopping center—including a controversial six-story hotel—built by Wessman Development, at the corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way.
“Look at what we’ve done in the last year,” said Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet, who presided over the ceremony in the parking lot near the “Forever Marilyn” statue, following his state of the city speech at the Hilton. “We brought in ‘Forever Marilyn,’ though we didn’t know she was coming. We brought this project forward. … What we’ve done in the last two years is remarkable.”
Pougnet was then followed to the stage by developer John Wessman, who discussed the evolution of the plans for the development—and specifically, the look of the proposed Kimpton Hotel, which was the subject of a recent signature drive that sought to send the hotel matter to Palm Springs voters for a yes or no vote. “We think it’s turned out really well,” he said. “… Sometimes, you have to go through some valleys before you climb the mountain, and now we’re climbing the mountain.”
Wessman pledged that demolition of the plaza would take just four months, and that 90 percent of the materials would be recycled. Pougnet later said that interior demolition would take place first, with the demolition along Palm Canyon happening later, after the tourist/snowbird season concludes.
After Pougnet and Wessman spoke, Pougnet directed the crowd of 250 or so onlookers to grab champagne—which had been poured into plastic cups on nearby tables—and walk closer to the fenced-off demolition area. There, mayor and the developer, followed by various officials—all wearing yellow plastic faux hardhats featuring the logos of Wessman, the city of Palm Springs, and the city’s Chamber of Commerce—took turns poking at the Desert Fashion Plaza sign with a Volvo backhoe. However, the old sign only crumbled slightly following multiple jabs, and after a while, Pougnet encouraged the waning crowd to head to the nearby grassy area, where various downtown restaurants had set up tables with food, for what had been formally dubbed a “block party.”
While the overall mood was festive and celebratory, not everybody was partying.
Around 1 p.m.—before Pougnet’s state of the city audience made its way from the Hilton to the Desert Fashion Plaza—Food Not Bombs Palm Springs set up on the Palm Canyon Drive sidewalk in front of “Forever Marilyn.”
FNB member Ethan Vega stood near a plastic bin, with a stock pot on top of it. The pot and bin contained 165 vegetarian burritos—containing spinach, rice, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms and green peppers—which were free to all comers.
Vega said that although FNB tries not to get too political—aside, of course, from promoting nonviolence and trying to shed a light on poverty—Food Not Bombs chose to show up during the “block party” for a reason.
“We’re just trying to show support for local businesses, smaller businesses, who may have been pushed out in this process—and to feed hungry people, really,” Vega said.
Vega was referring to the eviction of Latino Books y Mas, which is closing after losing a court battle to remain in its Fashion Plaza storefront off of Palm Canyon. The FNB Palm Springs Facebook page referred to the eviction of Latino Books y Mas as “illegal.”
FNB member Krystle Rogers handed out orange fliers to passers-by inviting them to the next free-food event (at 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 10, at Sunrise Park, at the intersection of Sunrise Way and Ramon Road). Meanwhile, Vega held a sign made of paper and wood, and handed out the food to both locals and tourists who walked by.
“Free burritos!” a young man would occasionally shout. “And they’re good, too.”
Scroll down for an image gallery of today’s events.