The Grub Plug food truck was parked by the Oasis Street curb in front of the College of the Desert’s Indio campus late in the day on a Tuesday.
The city of Indio’s Community Development Department (ICD) was offering the first 120 visitors to their Indio Specific Plan open house—taking place in the college’s main-building lobby—a free food-truck meal, along with the chance to learn information on how to start a food-truck business of one’s own. All the ICD team wanted in return was for each visitor to walk through the display of a half-dozen white boards placed on easels, depicting photos and artist renderings of residential, entertainment-venue and business building options. Visitors were asked to place a colored dot on the images they most liked or disliked.
Judging from the lengthy lines both inside and next to the Grub Plug truck, the marketing strategy was a success, as Kevin Snyder—Indio’s recently hired community development director—and his team look to create a master plan that will guide the redevelopment of Indio’s struggling downtown area.
“In the planning profession, we do things more in a visual (context),” said Snyder, a veteran of similar challenges in cities across northern California, Washington, Oregon and Arizona. “At our first open house, we had a few pictures up, and we just talked to people who came in, and wrote down their comments. This time, we wanted to make (the experience) more interactive, so we produced these illustration boards.”
If you visit downtown Indio today, you’ll experience an often-attractive neighborhood with a traditional Southwest/midcentury-modern architectural look—and a sleepy, deserted feeling. Snyder and his team are planning to change that whole vibe.
“For many, many years, downtowns were the hearts of communities. But then, through changes in market forces and land use, particularly during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, a lot of that activity moved to other parts of communities like malls and shopping centers,” Snyder said. “It’s been a pretty common occurrence, not just in Indio, but across the Coachella Valley, California and the nation. In a lot of communities, there’s been a strong desire to bring downtown back to a place of prominence, where the community can engage with each other to shop, dine, recreate and come together in kind of an historic part of the community. This current Indio Downtown Specific Plan is really an attempt to take the focus to a different level on the key attributes that our city has: It’s walkable, and it’s a grid system.
“Most of the communities in the Coachella Valley have downtowns that are not grid systems, but because we are one of the oldest communities (in the valley), we have the opportunity to develop that grid system for our downtown. The plan envisions multiple activity areas where you can go and listen to music, or watch movies on an inflatable screen, or go grab a bite to eat, or shop in a small boutique retail outlet. There’s interest in having people live downtown. We have some interesting opportunities to look at multi-family apartments, perhaps in a mixed-use orientation where you have retail space on the ground floor with living (space) above. Because we are the eastern capital of Riverside County, we have county personnel here; we have the city work force; and we have the Indio branch of the College of the Desert—so we have roughly 6,000 employees in that immediate downtown area. We’ve talked to developers who do multi-family development. They’ve done some preliminary looks at market-rate rental numbers, and they think (the opportunity) is viable, that they could charge rents here and make money.”
Will downtown redevelopment include low-income housing units—which are sorely needed in the eastern end of the valley? Snyder’s answer was not exactly encouraging.
“In recent conversations with our City Council and the Planning Commission, that same question came up. Our interest right now is in getting market-rate rental units,” Snyder said. “We believe that’s going to be the first push into this marketplace. Now that doesn’t mean that potentially there couldn’t be affordable housing in the downtown area, but right now, we really want to focus on creating that market-rate opportunity so that the private sector sees value in investment. The first people who invest in revitalizing downtown areas are often pioneers who, by having made that investment and taken that risk, show others that it’s worth it, and that they can make money. I worked in a community where we had one party come in and build a 124-unit market-rate apartment complex, and five years later, there was over $100 million in investment money coming into that community.
“When we talked to the council and the commission, we said that these could be four- or five-story buildings, and they were comfortable with that. When you’re dealing with downtown areas, you’re dealing with different footprints. You can’t spread out like you can in other parts of the community. You have to build up.”
How long does Synder think it will take for this new Indio downtown to come to fruition?
“If I knew that, then I’d be playing the lottery all the time,” Snyder said with a laugh. “But I have said publicly that I think we’re probably looking at five to seven years. If you come back to downtown Indio then, I think it’s going to have a different vibe, a different feeling, a different physical presence. Right now, many communities have a goal of making an 18-hour downtown, where, from the morning until 9 or 10 at night, you get an opportunity to have multiple things going on.
“Indio is the place I want to be. I think it’s a great place, and it has lots of great opportunities to envision a different future—and I get the benefit of working with a great team.”