CVIndependent

Wed09202017

Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

A bottle, perhaps two, of Barolo might have helped cost the city of Palm Springs a fortune.

The Italian red wine was served during a meeting in 2010 between Steve Pougnet, then Palm Springs’ mayor, and developer John Wessman. Before the meeting, Pougnet had publicly talked about filing eminent-domain proceedings against Wessman’s Desert Fashion Plaza—which the developer had kept largely empty for almost a decade.

The following day, at the State of the City luncheon, Pougnet announced a deal with Wessman and a “new downtown vision that will benefit all of Palm Springs and the valley.”

The bond between Pougnet and Wessman grew after that. The mayor was hired to work for the Palm Springs International Film Festival—which has long included Wessman as a board member and vice chair. IRS records show that the Palm Springs International Film Society, the nonprofit that runs the festival, paid Pougnet $37,500 in the fiscal year 2011-2012, while Wessman Development Co. was paid $90,638 for building rent.

That was not the first time Pougnet and Wessman would find their financial interests linked.

In 2012, according to public records, Wessman purchased a property at the foot of the Tramway Road for $1.1 million. The property, known as Pedregal, was once owned by developer Dennis Cunningham, who lost the development. In addition, the City Council, led by Pougnet, awarded Wessman $4 million that Cunningham owed in bonds on the property.

The high-profile FBI raid of Palm Springs City Hall on Sept. 1, 2015, gathered documents and other evidence regarding Pougnet’s deals with developers, including Wessman. But beyond the ongoing scrutiny and the corruption probe, Wessman finds himself busier than ever.


Despite his high profile, Wessman remains an enigma: Not much is known about the man himself. His age is even hard to pin down; a Palm Springs Life article from May 1980 said he was 40 then; if accurate, that would make Wessman now 76 or so.

Wessman—who did not directly respond to requests to speak to the Independent—grew up on a farm in Hemet, surrounded by his six brothers and Swedish-born parents. As a teen, he worked in construction and never finished a college.

In 1964, he was employed by a construction company owned by Warren Coble and Arthur Press. A year later, Wessman bought out Press, and in 1972, he parted with Coble as well.

He’d soon develop one of the most unusual—and profitable—developing philosophies the valley has ever seen. In that aforementioned Palm Springs Life piece, he stated: “… I make more money from keeping property than I do by building and selling.”

The most prominent example of Wessman’s business strategy can be found smack-dab in the midst of downtown Palm Springs. It all started with the Desert Fashion Plaza, which he managed to keep largely vacant after purchasing it in 2001. Over the years, he held on to the property—and wore down many of his critics, a group that at one time included Pougnet.

Then in 2011, Palm Springs voters approved Measure J, a 1 percent increase in the city sales tax slated to be used on various city projects. Soon thereafter, the Palm Springs City Council, lead by Pougnet, opened the city’s wallets for Wessman Development Company.

“In the initial round,” said local real estate broker Robert Stone, “he got $32 million in public funds to help with the private improvements to the Desert Fashion Plaza parcel. It was simultaneously accompanied by another $11 million for streets, sidewalks and infrastructure improvements that are typically a developer expense.

“Then there were a bunch of change orders to the original giveaway,” Stone said. “When Wessman failed to provide adequate open space as required by the city’s specific plan for the site, the city bought a large parcel from him and made it permanent open space. They paid him $5.3 million for it, based on an appraised value which considered the value of the parcel if fully developed.”

One of the key elements of Wessman’s development is a Kimpton Hotel, rising quickly where the Fashion Plaza once was. However, Wessman has never built a hotel before.

“The 155-room Kimpton Hotel is our first hotel project,” said Michael Braun, the senior vice president at Wessman Development Co.

According to Braun, who’s also Wessman’s son in law, the Kimpton will be first new relevant large hotel in Palm Springs since 1988, when what is now the Renaissance was built.

Wessman recently announced plans to build yet another significant hotel downtown: a 150-room Virgin Hotel. Some opponents of Wessman’s project have expressed concerns about density, traffic and parking space for the proposed 69-foot-tall hotel. According to Braun, there is no problem.

“Based on current approvals, the downtown site has more parking spaces than required,” Braun said.

Another problem is the current occupancy rate for Palm Springs hotels, which is less than 60 percent. Additionally, other hotels may be built soon, including one by the Agua Caliente tribe on its downtown property.

Again, Braun said there was no problem. “You have to distinguish between various hotel-product offerings,” he said. “Palm Springs needs several new four-star products to attract a different tourist segment. The … occupancy rate is irrelevant, as it relates to all product offerings in Palm Springs.”

According to Judy Deertrack, a local urban lawyer, the downtown project morphed over time into something quite different than what was in the original plan.

“There has been no attempt at a market study or feasibility study since 2011, even though the project has grown from an expected $110 million in construction costs to its current estimate of $350 million,” Deertrack said.

“All the way through, the downtown development has shown a lack of public hearings and transparency, (and an) inappropriateness (in) the way the entitlements have gone through on the consent calendar and new business agenda without public notice, hearings and citizen review,” she said.

Over the years, Wessman has been associated with at least 44 companies, according to public records; 33 of the companies are still active.

“About five years ago, I did a search to find out how many parcels Wessman owns personally or in conjunction with other investors under his many DBAs,” Stone said. “At that time, he owned 135 properties in the valley. They were all commercial properties or unimproved land.”

Deertrack expressed serious concerns about the ongoing FBI investigation.

“The elephant in the room,” Deertrack said, “is the connection between the ongoing public corruption investigation, for possible fraud or undue influence, and the extraordinary entitlements granted to Wessman. The cities are prohibited from granting contracts or land entitlements to a developer or party who is a source of income to any City Council member, the mayor included.”

As for the FBI probe, Braun had only this to say: “It is company policy not to comment on any ongoing investigation.”


Meanwhile, Pougnet is no longer part of the City Council. While the new council slate seems to be keeping a more watchful eye on Wessman’s project, new Mayor Rob Moon said via email that construction will definitely continue.

“At our last City Council meeting, our council agreed unanimously that we were not content with continuing to ‘kick the can down the road’ on the downtown development. As I said at that meeting, further unnecessary delay is not fair to the developer, the residents, and certainly not to the downtown businesses who have been impacted by construction and the associated traffic, dust and noise. The council therefore stepped up to the task for which we are responsible, and we voted on each and every designated block and decided on height, density and setback for each of them.”

Moon said that while Wessman is currently planning to build two hotels, he has agreed not to build a third—at least not for a while.

“Wessman Development has agreed not to build a third hotel, currently described as a JC Marriott, until the members of the downtown hotel association have two years of occupancy over 62 percent,” Moon said. “That is a request made by the other hoteliers, which our Planning Commission has publicly supported, as well as the City Council. Nobody, least of all the other hotel owners, want to saturate the market.”

As for what Deertrack called the “elephant in the room”: What would happen to the city funds given to Wessman if he or Pougnet were ultimately prosecuted?

Moon said he did not know the answer to that question, and that he would forward the query to City Manager David Ready. Ready, in turn, forwarded the question to City Attorney Doug Holland.

“The developer’s obligations are secured by a performance deed of trust, and in the event the developer defaults on its obligations, the city has the right to exercise its rights under the performance deed of trust, and ultimately force a sale of the property for which financing has not been secured, and building permits have not been issued,” Holland said “This is the city’s primary enforcement tool.

“The city has acquired the parking structure and certain lots, and therefore, the payments for these assets would not be part of any default. Two properties have been released from the performance deed of trust (the Kimpton parcel on Block C-1 and the “West Elm” building on Block A) because these properties were fully financed, and building permits were issued. The remainder of the project is still subject to the performance deed of trust.

In other words … since the Kimpton and West Elm properties have been released, the city would have no real recourse regarding those parcels should criminal charges be filed.

Published in Local Issues

Some folks just don’t like change.

That’s one of the messages of Brian Blueskye's profile of Frank Tysen, the local hotelier who has been leading the charge against John Wessman’s hotel/retail development on the site of the former Desert Fashion Plaza. The piece went online last week, and serves as our March print-edition cover story.

Tysen says he’s in favor of downtown redevelopment in Palm Springs—but not this kind of downtown redevelopment. He thinks the proposed Kimpton Hotel is too big, too boxy, too glassy, too L.A. He thinks a new shopping center in Palm Springs is a terrible idea. And he thinks it’s stupid to try to attract younger professionals and millennials as tourists to the Coachella Valley, because they lack the time and money that older visitors have.

I don’t agree with Frank Tysen. I think, in this case, change is good.

To my untrained eyes, the plans for the Kimpton Hotel (a hotel chain which I’ve had nothing but good experiences with on my various travels) look just fine. The height—about the same as the Hyatt next door—doesn’t bother me. A shopping center, if it has the right tenants and support, could work in a revitalized downtown Palm Springs. And up until I gave up my job (and a lot of money) to move here and start the Independent, I was a young professional who spent a lot of time and money in this city as a tourist—so I know he’s wrong there.

While I don’t agree with Tysen, I respect him—and regrettably, a lot of city officials, most notably Mayor Steve Pougnet, have shown a distinct lack of respect for the man.

That bothers me. Tysen isn’t just some loudmouth crank; he’s owned a small business and has made it work in downtown Palm Springs for 25 years. He’s had a distinguished career in architecture and urban planning—including a Guggenheim Fellowship (!)—so he knows what he’s talking about.

Yeah, Tysen may not like change, and I definitely disagree with him. But he deserves respect—and I think you’ll come to the same conclusion after reading Brian Blueskye’s profile of him.


As for some other downtown Palm Springs folks who apparently don’t like change: The Independent’s theater reviewers have seemingly been banned from receiving review tickets from the Palm Canyon Theatre.

Here’s what I know: In the not-quite-a-year that the Independent has been reviewing plays, critics Valerie-Jean Hume and Bonnie Gilgallon have covered a half-dozen Palm Canyon Theatre shows. They thought some shows were so-so; others they really liked; and only one review, arguably, was more negative than positive (of October’s The Sound of Music).

Well, something in Bonnie Gilgallon’s recent review of Les Miserables must have upset the folks at the PCT. Valerie-Jean Hume recently called to arrange to see a performance of the latest show, 9 to 5 (which opens this week)—and was told that theater managers were meeting to determine whether they’d continue offering press comps to us. The woman to whom V.J. spoke said she’d call back after the meeting.

V.J. never received a return call, so she called back the PCT and left a message, which went unreturned. I then called to find out what was going on, and left a message. As of this writing, I, too, have yet to receive a return call.

I don’t know what’s going on. I do know that in my lengthy career as an editor, I have never had a theater company ban any of my reviewers from receiving press tickets (even after reviews that could be classified as scathing)—much less issue a ban without the courtesy of an explanation.

If the theater ever gets back to me, I’ll let you know what’s up. But as of now, it seems the Palm Canyon Theatre doesn’t like the change that the Independent has brought to town—namely, honest theater reviewers who tell it like it is.

Published in Editor's Note

The spot that once was home to downtown Palm Springs’ Desert Fashion Plaza—and before that, the legendary Desert Inn—is under construction. It’s slated to eventually become home to a shopping center and a Kimpton Hotel, under the direction of developer John Wessman.

One man has been leading the charge against the project as it is planned: Frank Tysen, the owner of the Casa Cody Bed and Breakfast Inn.

Because of his opposition to what many consider “progress,” some city officials—most notably Mayor Steve Pougnet—have harshly criticized and even demonized Tysen, who has been a fixture in various Palm Springs development battles now for more than two decades.

On Jan. 16, during his State of the City speech, Pougnet issued his most vicious public attack on Tysen to date. He referenced a series of letters that Mike Depatie, the CEO of Kimpton Hotels, was supposedly sent by Tysen and Tysen’s colleagues. Pougnet characterized the letters as “vile.”

“You know what that reminds me of? ‘We don’t want people here,’” Pougnet. “It’s something we got over in Palm Springs. We’re over it: ‘We don’t want Jews; we don’t want gays; we don’t want blacks; we don’t want Agua Calientes.’ We’ve moved past that kind of rhetoric that Frank Tysen continues to spew.”

Given all the controversy surrounding the proposed Hotel Palomar, the Independent decided to take a closer look at Tysen, his motivations and his future plans.

In a recent series of interviews with the Independent, Tysen denied sending any letters to Depatie that were in any way hateful or vile. (More on that later.) We found Tysen to be far from hateful; in fact, he comes off as polite and even charming. He’s also brilliant: In 1966, he was a Guggenheim Fellow due to his work in architecture, planning and design.

While Tysen is passionate, knowledgeable, resourceful and opinionated, he also has a point of view on the city of Palm Springs that may very well be antiquated. Most notably, he criticizes attempts by some city officials and business leaders to aggressively pursue business from younger professionals.

“The stupid thing that goes on is that City Hall has become obsessed about bringing in the millennials,” he said. “What makes this town work is basically an older crowd, because the older crowd has the time to come in mid-week; young professionals don’t have the time to come in mid-week, because they work.

“Every year now, they’re putting on this rock concert called Tachevah that they call a block party. I went there last year to take a look, and I saw all these youngsters from Coachella and Indio. These aren’t people who are staying here; it’s not going to fill the beds during the mid-week.”


About 25 years ago, Frank Tysen and his business partner were shown the Casa Cody Bed and Breakfast Inn. Tysen immediately fell in love.

“I thought it would be fun to have a little hotel here,” Tysen said. “(Palm Springs) was dead at the time, and there was nothing happening. Palm Springs was at a real all-time low in the ’80s.

“People complain now, but there’s nothing to complain about, because the town is hopping,” he said with a laugh.

“I loved the whole feeling of the place and the natural beauty, but also the lovely architecture, the beautiful estates, and so on. (Casa Cody) was in shambles because it was run like a flop house. We saw the potential and started to restore it. It’s been a nonstop restoration ever since. We’ve added three other properties … over the years.”

Over the last two and a half decades, Tysen has watched as Palm Springs has evolved.

“Several people came to the city (around the same time that I did) and started picking up the old inns and fixing them up,” he said “Basically, that started what I believe is the revival of Palm Springs in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. People started to discover it again.”

Flash forward to November 2011, when voters in Palm Springs approved Measure J, a 1 percent increase in the sales and use tax, with that money dedicated to the revitalization of downtown Palm Springs. Tysen said he was supportive of the measure.

However, as plans for the old Desert Fashion Plaza emerged, Tysen soured on that portion of downtown redevelopment. One of his main complaints involves the design of the Hotel Palomar, slated to be operated by Kimpton. In particular, the modernist design and height of the hotel was questioned and opposed by Tysen. (Most reports say that the hotel is slated to be six stories tall; however, Tysen insists that he’s seen plans showing the hotel could rise up to nine stories.)

In May 2013, Tysen and his group, Advocates for Better Community Development, filed a lawsuit to block hotel construction; the group also started to collect signatures to force an election on the hotel plans. The group eventually submitted 2,700 signatures—seemingly enough to send the matter to voters. However, the city refused to place the matter on the ballot, claiming the issue was not subject to voter approval. In December 2013, a Riverside County Superior Court judge ruled in the favor of the city; Tysen and his group appealed.

Then came that Jan. 16 State of the City address by Mayor Steve Pougnet. In addition to calling out Tysen’s “rhetoric,” Pougnet shocked the crowd by announcing the city would send the hotel decision to voters after all—during an April special election.

Then on Jan. 29, the city made yet another about-face, agreeing to pay Tysen and ABCD $50,000 (apparently to cover legal fees) to drop the lawsuit, and canceling the April election.

Tysen said he decided to drop the lawsuit because it felt like the right thing to do.

“At that point, there was such a show of hysteria,” said Tysen, who reportedly received a death threat after the State of the City speech. “The city, especially, approached me to drop it. So I tried to look for another way we can solve these problems.”

However, that doesn’t mean it is clear sailing for the redevelopment of the old Desert Fashion Plaza: A remaining lawsuit, also filed by Tysen and ABCD, challenges various approvals of and changes to the redevelopment project.

As for Pougnet’s claims that Tysen and his fellow hotel opponents were sending rhetoric-filled letters to Kimpton hotels, the matter remains unclear. However, Tysen provided the Independent with a copy of a letter that he sent to Mike Depatie, the CEO of Kimpton Hotels. The letter is well-written and politely lays out Tysen’s concerns about the hotel, with no “vile” rhetoric to be found.

“I am very much aware of the wonderful reputation of your company and the sensitive way in which you have fit your hotel in historic areas such as Alexandria, Virginia, and I hope for something like that,” Tysen wrote. (See the letter for yourself at the story's bottom.)

The Independent left multiple messages with Pougnet to discuss Tysen and his opposition to the downtown redevelopment project; the mayor did not return the calls.

What is the point behind Tysen’s opposition to the hotel? He said it’s all in the design.

“The whole thing started off fine,” Tysen said. “Everything looked like it was going to be exciting. There was no mention of a nine-story hotel in the visioning sessions. It was completely different and looked very European, very low-key; they talked about world-class architecture. … Then, suddenly, the mayor decided to drop the eminent domain and started working with a developer (John Wessman), and what came out of that had no relation to the visioning sessions.”

Tysen insisted the architecture is not appropriate for Palm Springs.

“If you see the pictures, it looks more like downtown L.A., in the area near the Staples Center,” Tysen said. “It certainly doesn’t look like Palm Springs. … It’s really nothing that people are going to come and look at. It’s a glass box.

“The whole thing is very dense. Also, the whole surrounding retail … is another stupid thing to do, because we already have so many vacancies that haven’t been filled. To add another couple hundred thousand feet of retail makes no sense.”

Several times, Tysen insisted that the voices of tourists and part-time residents are being ignored—in part because they are unable to vote in local elections.

“The tourists are shocked,” Tysen said. “Unfortunately, they don’t have any voice in it. If they asked the tourists, they wouldn’t build it. Somehow, there’s a group of people in town who are so tired of nothing happening for 10 years, that now, suddenly, they think we should do anything that comes along. To me, it’s something you just don’t do. You do the right thing instead. … The people who are really affected don’t vote here. The tourists and the second homeowners—all these people coming in don’t have any idea of what’s going on.”


Some of Tysen’s critics have speculated he is fighting to protect his own interests, because his hotel is just a few blocks away from the redevelopment site. Tysen insisted that’s not the case; he said he simply believes that the hotel is a bad fit for Palm Springs.

“If anything, we might get more business if people walk around, and they see a small place that looks charming,” Tysen said. “It’s going to affect the feeling of the town and those who do or do not come here. The world is getting so crazy, crowded and congested, and right now in L.A., you can’t even move around anymore. People go to places like Catalina, Carmel or Santa Barbara to get away from all that. People come here to savor the nature of it, and also the feel of a small town. To have this thing sitting in the middle of it—it’s a terrible mistake.”

Tysen also said he believes the proposed hotel and shopping center are bad ideas because the millennials who are coming to the city are not spending any money. He claimed that most of the corporate hotel chains in Palm Springs are suffering through too many vacancies.

“The average occupancy at the Hyatt Hotel in Palm Springs is no more than 50 to 60 percent,” Tysen said. “Palm Springs, like many resort cities, is a seasonal town. The high season is February, March and April. Most of the hotels fill up during those few months of the year. With the young market, the Hard Rock Hotel was selling rooms in November for $59 a night during the middle of the week, and that’s the ‘hot, crowded Hard Rock.’ The Saguaro was selling rooms for $69 during the middle of the week in November. The Riviera was selling Thanksgiving for $109. There’s a lot of foolish stuff going on. This would be a big, subsidized thing.”

The Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism did not respond to requests from the Independent for demographics and specific hotel-vacancy information.

“You can’t do everything, and I think … Palm Springs has spontaneously become very popular with young people. They enjoy coming down here, so we’re doing fine, and I’m not worried about it. But these people who say, ‘We need more millennials!’ don’t understand that they have no time or money to spend in the hotels!”

Tysen claimed Palm Springs’ quiet, lovely nature attracts more visitors than anything else.

“Everyone is so impressed by what’s going on at the Coachella festival once every year. Coachella is Coachella, but Palm Springs is Palm Springs. There’s no one at the Palm Springs International Film Festival under the age of 40. Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg! Don’t kill the flavor of the whole town.”


John-Michael Cooper, the general manager of Palm Springs Rendezvous and the president of Small Hotels of Palm Springs (SHoPS), has worked closely with Tysen, a fellow SHoPS board member. He said portrayals of Tysen as a radical are off-base.

“People judge Frank in a very general way,” Cooper said. “There are a lot of things about (Tysen) that are completely ignored.”

Cooper said he’s worked with Tysen on various matters for five years now. While he does not always agree with Tysen, Cooper said he has a lot of respect for him.

“He’s one of the founding members of the association of which I’m now president of, and he’s a very skilled hotelier,” Cooper said. “We’re all in favor of Measure J, and he’s been very accommodating. But he is very motivated in what he does, and he’s super-passionate. I’ve agreed with him on a lot of sides of this thing that is known as Measure J. I can’t say I think one way or the other about (the proposed hotel and shopping center), because it is pretty multi-faceted—but I have a lot of respect for Frank.”

Tysen said people are quick to make assumptions about him.

“The real sad thing is there are a lot of people who have a lynch-mob mentality,” said Tysen. “You know, ‘Oh, let’s go get him—the son of a bitch! He’s stopping progress and everything.’ Most of the time, they don’t even know what’s going on; they don’t even know the issues. It’s scary to see people crawling out from under the rocks. I came to Palm Springs because I liked what I see. I don’t know why they came to Palm Springs—they could have gone to Las Vegas if they liked that kind of stuff.”

Make no mistake: Agree or disagree with Tysen, he’s no dummy. In fact, before he became a hotelier, he had a long career in urban design, planning and architecture. He also has a history of public opposition to controversial projects.

“I taught for many years at USC in urban and regional planning. I have done lots of studies about all of this. I was a Guggenheim Fellow, and I spent time in India (working) on master-planning in Calcutta. I worked with Gov. Ronald Reagan and had a lot of impact in not moving the (main L.A.) airport from Los Angeles to Palmdale. I was very instrumental in stopping the freeway that was going to go through Malibu and Santa Monica, and I stopped two oil refineries when I was on the … environmental council, in Beaumont and Banning. So I’ve tried to protect the environment all throughout California. It’s not just that I own a small hotel.”

He also took credit for helping make Palm Springs a successful destination.

“The reason this town is so special is because people like me have fought these battles,” Tysen said. “It starts when Nellie Coffman owned the Desert Inn (which was located on the Desert Fashion Plaza site); they fought an asphalt plant that was going to be up the street. There was a group here called Citizens United that had a building moratorium here.

“All kinds of battles have been fought. Pearl McManus would cancel an escrow if somebody built something she didn’t like. All this stuff has been going on, and that’s why this town is special. It isn’t special by accident. Otherwise, it would look like Beaumont, or it would look like Fontana. It’s special because people like me have fought these battles.”

Photo by Kevin Fitzgerald

Published in Local Issues

This story is all about stories, and how, in my view, too many of them can block the view.

The impending demolition of the Desert Fashion Plaza in downtown Palm Springs has raised concerns that a new six-story hotel will impede the view of our local mountains.

But just how important is it to have a view? After all, Sarah Palin says she can see Russia from her house, but she still thinks Africa is a country. Barbara Walters reminds us to take some time to enjoy the view, but asks us: If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?

What is it about our magnificent mountains that makes them so visually appealing? I've come up with some ideas that would allow sky-high structures to exist while still retaining the all-important view.

Idea No. 1: All buildings above six stories must be made entirely of glass. This would allow people to see the mountains right through the building.

Of course, occupants would be required to provide their own means of privacy. This would apply primarily to restrooms and bedrooms.

Idea No. 2: Embed all new buildings into the mountain itself. This would ensure that the structure would essentially become part of the view. The soon-to-be razed Chart House restaurant would be a perfect example of this.

Idea No. 3: Eliminate the mountains. If there are no mountains, there would be no view to be blocked.

There are two ways this could be done. We could wait for natural erosion to do its work. However, this method may take several million years.

For those who are too impatient to wait that long, an organized effort could be made to supply workers with pickaxes. These laborers would chip away at the terrain until there's nothing left. However, removing the mountains may put an end to the tourism industry here.

So all of us have to decide what's more important: having the ability to construct tall buildings, or keeping the view?

The development in question is slated to take up three city blocks, so the solution is actually quite simple: All someone needs to do is walk a short distance to their left or right. When they are no longer standing in front of the hotel, the view will miraculously reappear. But in this car-conscious society, any suggestion of walking would be met with resistance. Therefore, I'm proposing some ideas to get people moving.

Idea No. 1: Install a conveyor belt directly in front of the hotel. It would look much like the ones passengers stand on in airports. People could then be taken a few blocks away, where they can once again see our majestic mountains.

Idea No. 2: The city could issue stilts to anyone seeking to elevate their view. These would be similar to the stilts used by circus performers. However, this technique might give the area more of a carnival atmosphere than it already has.

Idea No. 3: Have a series of trampolines situated in front of the hotel. Anyone who can jump high enough would be able to catch a brief glimpse of the mountains.

Of course, some of these ideas may cause serious injury, especially to our elderly visitors.

We could make use of the many local artists here in the desert. For a small fee, one of them can paint an artist's rendering of our snow-capped mountains so people won't miss the real thing. We could even take a cue from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and have a cable car attached to the power and telephone lines directly in front of the hotel.

Some of these proposals may be considered shocking—in the case of the last one, quite literally. But this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

What it all comes down to is perspective. It's really all about how you look at the situation.

If you went to see a movie, and there was a tall person sitting in front of you blocking the view, would you chop off his head with a pickaxe? It depends whether the movie is worth watching. But generally speaking, we shouldn't lose our heads about this.

Palm Springs has always had a quaint, village-like atmosphere. Building a new six-story hotel is a tall order that would bring controversy to new heights. That's my view. End of story.

Published in Humor

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.

Published in Local Issues

Boosters and opponents of the planned high-rise hotel in downtown Palm Springs are sharpening their blades for battle, after a group of residents delivered a petition to City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 22, seeking to quash those plans by forcing a citywide vote.

Members of Citizens for a Sustainable Palm Springs, the group behind the petition, said that if the City Council doesn't reconsider the look and height of the six-story Kimpton Hotel at the corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way, the city may face a referendum on the issue in November.

The petition's 2,775 signatures are now being vetted by county officials. Should it qualify and come to a successful vote, other aspects of the revitalization—which, all told, would create several blocks of office, retail and restaurant space—would likely not be impacted, according to City Attorney Doug Holland.

Meanwhile, demolition on the project, which would raze most of the moldering Desert Fashion Plaza, is scheduled to begin in about two weeks.

Tuesday's turn-in set the stage for continuing clashes between business owners, residents and, most important, friends, some of whom have known each other for decades. The fight has been waged in public hearings, on Facebook walls and in newspaper comment sections, with both sides admitting that it has occasionally gotten personal.

For their part, opponents of the hotel rattle off a number of problems they have with the development, starting with aesthetics.

"People don't come here to see high-rises and concrete," said Frank Tysen, owner of the Casa Cody Country Inn and one of the most vocal members of the anti-hotel group.

Manny Montoya, a spokesman for Citizens for a Sustainable Palm Springs, added that the hotel's design "isn't conducive to the brand of Palm Springs" and would muck up the skyline. Unlike painting a building or naming a street, he said, "this is something that's going to have an impact on quality of life forever."

But Joy Meredith, owner of downtown's Crystal Fantasy shop and president of the Main Street Palm Springs merchants’ association, said "fear of change" is at the core of the opposition.

"Palm Springs has a great history, but we have to grow, too," she said. "We can't keep living in the past."

Things got a little testy in recent weeks, when a flier issued by redevelopment proponents (and signed by business leaders including Meredith) was circulated, and went to customers of at least one restaurant. In addition to projecting that redevelopment would add hundreds of jobs, it accused paid signature gatherers of lying about their identities.

"Please also warn your neighbors," read the flier, which urged residents not to sign the petition. "This obstructionist scheme will result in keeping our downtown blighted."

Meredith said that she herself had encountered a signature-gatherer who implied that he was working for the city. "People felt like they were being misled into signing it," she said.

Montoya dismissed the claims.

"We feel we've satisfied the burden of proof in this area," he said. "We did not overstep any legalities to do what we did."

Tysen, meanwhile, has accused his "fanatically involved" opponents, in the throes of redevelopment "hysteria," of spreading rumors to undercut his group's message. He said the hotel's proponents are so fed up with the void in downtown Palm Springs that he wouldn't have been surprised if they had voted for a grain silo to take its place.

"The whole thing is an insane idea, driven by the developer, who doesn't care," he said. "It's beyond rational decision-making."

Tysen's group has also taken issue with the way local government "fast-tracked" the redevelopment in December, when the City Council agreed to plans put forward by developer John Wessman. That approval came after two large-scale reviews, open to public comment, were conducted in November.

"They bent all kinds of rules and regulations and codes that need to be followed," said Tysen, who did not give specifics. "It wasn't a good democratic process."

According to Meredith, however, there were ample opportunities to contribute input before December's approval. She said having a group of hotel opponents try to make an end-run around the process was like being "stabbed in the back."

"It was a very lengthy process, and they were all open meetings," Meredith said. "And I know, because I was at those meetings, and I'd like to know where they were."

She also bristled at the notion that exactly how private property should be developed would be decided democratically.

"I did not vote for Frank Tysen," Meredith said. "Is this how they'd want their private-property rights being treated?"

With county officials due to report back to the city on the petition's legitimacy within 30 days, both sides have little to do for now but wait—and try to keep things civil.

"I hope this doesn't become the way people decide things should be done around here," Meredith said. "It can only get more chaotic." 

Published in Local Issues