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Fast-Growing Coachella Valley Cities Support Unusual Plans

Two cities known for providing a large chunk of the Coachella Valley's affordable housing may soon see some more upscale and very different development.

Early this year, the City of Indio approved a master plan for a 48-acre mixed-use development that is proposed to feature nine 10-story condominium towers and more than 500,000 square feet of commercial space.

Meanwhile, the nearby City of Coachella is starting work on a specific plan for a 4,000-acre
"entertainment commercial district" that the city envisions as the home for golf course resorts, a theme park, an amphitheater, an equestrian center, a soccer stadium and extensive residential and retail development.

For many years, the two cities at the east end of the Coachella Valley were poor sisters to their more upscale neighbors, such as La Quinta, Indian Wells and Rancho Mirage. Indio and Coachella provided housing for people who work on the valley's farms and in the hospitality industry. The cities still have some of the valley's most inexpensive housing. But as Indio and Coachella grow rapidly, their demographics are changing. Both cities are seeing more middle-class workers and retirees, and Indio in particular is experiencing a growth in tourism.

Both Indio and Coachella qualify as more growth-friendly than most jurisdictions in the sun-drenched valley. The population of both cities has more than tripled during the last 25 years to 77,000 in Indio and to 38,000 in Coachella.

"Projected buildout," said Indio Development Manager Mariano Aguirre, "is maybe as high as 150,000 people. We are estimating that we could reach that within 10 years."

Indio has a number of fairly routine housing and shopping center development projects moving forward, including the third phase of the Del Webb/Pulte Homes Shadow Hills project, which will add 950 units to the existing 2,200-unit project for the 55-and-older crowd. Attention, however, is focused on Polo Square, which would be unlike anything in the Coachella Valley or anywhere else in Riverside County.

Located along Highway 111 between Jefferson and Monroe streets, Polo Square is proposed to have 512 condominium units in nine, 140-foot-tall towers; a 10-story, 250-room hotel; a 120-room extended-stay hotel; 550,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, some of it with lofts on upper floors; and roughly 80 single-family houses. The city approved a master plan, general plan amendment, rezoning and environmental impact report in January. Developer William Swank Sr. said his team is working on tentative maps and design details to submit to the city in hopes of breaking ground during the summer of 2008.

Swank said he wants his project to be very different from run-of-the-mill, auto-dependent development that he says cities encourage with their strict zoning and design restrictions.

"You're either going to go up, or you're going to go out," Swank said. "I hope that others will follow. This project not just because of me will change the valley in a very positive way."

"If we're going to have any open space at all, we're going to have to go vertical," Swank continued. "The reception we've been getting has been great. We've got enough people to fill up our project."

For a project of its magnitude, Polo Square generated very little opposition. Only two residents complained during the public hearing at which the City Council approved the project, and no one challenged the EIR in court. Swank said extensive community outreach and thoughtful design won over the neighbors. The towers will be thin structures, so they won't block views of the mountains. Plus, about half of the site will consist of patios, landscaping and open space.

In July, Swank, who built projects in Asia and the Middle East for 20 years, announced that he had lined up $60 million in financing from a consortium of Korean banks, enough to press ahead with what could eventually be a $600 million development.

Polo Square is a critical project for Indio, Aguirre said. "It's one of the biggest mixed-use projects anywhere," he said.

Swank spoke highly of Indio officials, who were able to process his master plan and related planning documents in only two years. "The city has bought into our project," said Swank, who refers to the project as a city within a city. "We started off looking for a site for two hotels, and it grew from there."

Polo Square appears to be the real deal. In Coachella, the city's entertainment commercial district remains more the stuff of big dreams. When it updated its general plan in 1998, the city established the district on 4,000 acres of cropland, open space and Indian lands along Interstate 10 and Highway 86.

The city has since adopted a vision plan for the district that speaks of shopping centers, golf courses, equestrian centers and a variety of housing. However, the only significant development within the district is two tribal casinos and two massive truck stops. That could be changing soon, said Carmen Manriquez, the city's community development director.

The city recently hired the Planning Center to help with a specific plan process, during which planners intend to revisit the existing land use designations. A specific plan will provide necessary guarantees for both developers and the city, Manriquez said. There is a possibility of increasing residential densities because of demand for such development. "There are [residential] projects out there that would like to move forward," he said.

The city is also embarking on a general plan update, and it recently received one of the Southern California Association of Government's "two percent" grants to do some intensive town planning. Manriquez said the three processes specific plan, general plan update and two-percent plan could eventually merge together.

One issue facing city officials is a lack of public interest in long-term planning, said Manriquez, who added that the city is working to generate interest and keep people engaged.

Contacts:
Carmen Manriquez, Coachella Community Development Department, (760) 398-3102.
Mariano Aguirre, Indio Community Development Department, (760) 391-4120.
William Swank, Polo Square Partners LLC, (760) 777-1557.
Coachella Entertainment Commercial District Vision Update: http://www.coachella.org/Vision%20Update.htm
Polo Square website: http://www.polosquare.com/

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