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Thursday, 24 January 2013 13:30

Downtown Palm Springs Hotel Battle Pits Longtime Friends Against Each Other

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This flier made the round during Citizens for a Sustainable Palm Springs' signature drive—and was even sent by managers of popular downtown restaurant TRIO to customers. This flier made the round during Citizens for a Sustainable Palm Springs' signature drive—and was even sent by managers of popular downtown restaurant TRIO to customers.

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." 

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