With College of the Desert (COD) planning a community meeting this week to answer questions about its plans for the design of a Palm Springs campus, the answer to a more pressing question about land once eyed for the project is now known:
There was no stipulation in a 2010 property transfer agreement between the city and COD that specifically stated the college had to return 119 acres the city gave it in northern Palm Springs if it failed to build a college on the property.
“What you are referring to is sometimes called a reversionary clause,” City Attorney Jeff Ballinger wrote Monday when asked about the transfer of 119 acres off Tramview Road and Indian Canyon Drive. “There is no express reversionary clause in the 2010 agreement between the City and COD.”
Last week, the city offered to purchase the land from COD for $5.7 million. But it already paid $2.1 million for it 12 years ago before transferring it to the college to use for a satellite campus. If the college accepts the city’s offer, taxpayers will have paid a total of $7.8 million to buy the land twice.
That news was met with immediate condemnation from some residents.
“Why the heck do we have to buy back land that we donated to COD?” asked Ron Knott of Palm Springs on a social media post. “They reneged on the agreement to build a campus. Period. The land should go back to the city at NO COST.”
A review of the agreement, however, shows that is simply not the case.
While there was discussion of what the college hoped to build on the site, and mention that hundreds of millions of taxpayer-approved bonds would be used to fund the campus, the transfer approved by the Palm Springs City Council on July 21, 2010, had only one formal condition.
“There is a deed restriction in the agreement, which says that the property can only be used for educational purposes,” Ballinger said.
That restriction remains in place and is at issue as the college mulls selling the land to a private developer, Watermarke Homes. The developer hopes to build up to 850 units of housing but has not promised the homes would be sold for anything other than market rate in an area of the city desperate for more affordable housing.
The city has no interest in allowing the private project to move forward. Instead, Mayor Lisa Middleton said last week, it hopes to help facilitate construction of affordable housing, community facilities, childcare, and commercial development on the land.
That’s exactly where the city stood in 2014, when officials from both Palm Springs and COD announced they would shift their focus for the campus to the site of the defunct Palm Springs Mall off East Tahquitz Canyon Way. The move came after Southern California Edison canceled plans to develop a solar park on half of the 119-acre proposed northern Palm Springs campus.
“We simply couldn’t afford to occupy nor needed 120 acres without our partner,” said Joel Kinnamon, COD’s president at the time and a current candidate for the COD Board.
The East Tahquitz Canyon Way land was eventually secured, at a cost of $22 million. But since the mall was razed in 2019, there has been little to no activity on the 29-acre parcel in the center of the city. That has led to accusations, first reported in The Post last year, that the college was looking to bail on the Palm Springs campus in favor of projects in the Eastern Coachella Valley. COD officials have repeatedly denied the accusations.
According to the most recent Capital Projects Report to the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee in May, the Palm Springs campus will still be in the design phase until spring of 2024, with construction concluding in fall of 2027
A COD spokesperson said Monday it’s too early to tell exactly what will become of last week’s offer from the city to buy back the 119 acres. While The Desert Community College District Board of Trustees “maintains its commitment to building the Palm Springs Development Project,” he wrote, the Board won’t meet again until Aug. 19.
The Palm Springs community will get a chance to learn more about COD’s plans, and weigh in with thoughts, during a Zoom forum planned for Thursday at 5:30 p.m.
Participants in the forum can complete a feedback survey and will also be able to ask questions via the chat function. Survey results “will assist College of the Desert in getting a holistic view of the community needs of the Palm Spring area and refine how the project can best benefit students,” the college said in announcing the forum.