Agreement to extend deadline for Orchid Tree project comes with push to begin improving, securing property

The City Council also began discussions around a reparations program for descendants of the events at Section 14 and swore in the new police chief.

Plans to build a resort on a prime piece of Downtown Palm Springs real estate currently known more for drug use than its historical value were allowed to be pushed out again Thursday evening by the City Council. The move did not come without conditions that something is done immediately to begin cleaning and securing the property.

The property, located on 3.1 acres at 284 West Baristo Rd., contained the Orchid Tree Inn and Community Church. The buildings date back to the 1930s but have remained vacant for many years. Multiple fires have plagued the property, including one in 2013 that nearly burned the historic church to the ground.

Neighbors have pleaded with the city to force the owner to secure and clean the property for years. They point to multiple instances of drug use and sales on the site as reasons to ask the property’s owner, Richard Weintraub, to take action. Weintraub first brought the concept of creating the Orchid Tree Resort and Spa to City Hall in 2014 but has received multiple extensions to delay significant work at the site.

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As envisioned, a hotel with spa, restaurant, bar/lounge, and meeting/event space would be erected on property that currently includes the former Community Church and Orchid Tree Bungalows, as well as abutting properties to the north. Completion of the development would include:

  • The re-use of two Class 1 historic sites.
  • Demolition of existing structures.
  • Construction of new hotel buildings.
The Orchid Tree Resort and Spa, as envisioned by its developer.

Thursday evening, the Council approved an amended agreement with Weintraub that calls for the action neighbors want. The agreement calls for the immediate start of work that would lead to demolishing buildings on the property that are not of historical value, hiring overnight on-site security, and installing cameras that will record every move on the property.

The vote was not without stern warnings from some who have heard the neighbors’ frustrations loud and clear and were frustrated with the fact that under terms of the amended agreement, the developer now has until April 2025 to complete the project.

“One of the really difficult issues in this is that there have been so many delays that the credibility of this project is now very much an issue within the community, said Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Middleton. “Most people I talk to who are neighbors of the project who were originally excited begin conversations with me now by saying, ‘You know this is never going to get done.’

“That’s a really tough place to be in, when over and over again that is how conversations begin on this project.”

The Orchid Tree project is one of four hotel developments that had stalled in the city, drawing the ire of residents and city officials alike. In March, the city notified the hotel developers — including the Orchid Tree, Dream Hotel, Andaz (now a Thompson Hotel), and TOVA hotels — of its intent to seek judicial relief if the developments were not re-commenced or their nuisances otherwise abated.

The TOVA hotel was subsequently abated by its owner through the demolition of the hotel project’s shell. The hotel formerly known as the Andaz, which is now a Thompson Hotel, has recently re-commenced construction and is expected to open in late 2022 or early 2023. The owners of the Dream Hotel have recently met with city staff and the City Attorney’s Office to submit revised project plans to move forward with that hotel project.

In other action Thursday night:

  • The Council discussed a broad conceptual framework for a reparations program following the formal apology for Section 14 evictions and the decision to begin the process for removing the Frank Bogert statue from in front of City Hall. Among the points of discussion were what approach to take (settlement vs. atonement), who might qualify, whether reparations would come in the form of payments or programs, and how much should be allocated. During public comments earlier in the evening, members of a newly formed group consisting of Section 14 survivors spoke in support of the move and offered to meet with city leaders. While there was not broad support voiced for direct payments, there was agreement that housing should be a central focus of any program. “This began with people losing home homes, and where it needs to come back to is people gaining homes,” said Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Middleton.
  • Council members voted unanimously to send a letter to College of the Desert (COD) addressing concerns over the lack of forward movement for construction of a planned Palm Springs campus. They also voted to authorize hiring of an outside legal firm to represent the city in dealing with College of the Desert, at a cost of up to $500,000. That move was necessary, Councilmember Geoff Kors said, because COD refused to issue a waiver allowing City Attorney Jeffrey Ballinger to work with COD because he works at the same firm as the COD attorney. At issue are allegations that the college is being used as part of a political power play — first reported in The Post here — and lack of communication about the project from COD leadership, including new President Martha Garcia.
  • New Police Chief Andrew Mills was sworn in, officially, by Mayor Christy Holstege, saying of the city, “It truly, truly is a spectacular place. But I want you to know that as you can see we stand united in mission and purpose. …The men and women of the Palm Springs Police Department have demonstrated their fidelity to the Constitution by protecting Palm Springs and making it a refuge of justice and safety for all people. …I look forward to joining your ranks.”
  • The Council issued a proclamation honoring Nichi Aviña, a Palm Springs teacher who was recently named a California State Teacher of the Year. Aviña teaches at at Cielo Vista Charter School.

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