City to seek input about Bel Air Greens, former COD land at outreach sessions

What to do with two significant pieces of property in Palm Springs will be at the center of discussions that could help shape the future of both housing and open space in the city for decades.

The first discussion is scheduled for April 6 via Zoom. It’s designed to take input on plans to build 70 homes on 35 acres that once housed the Bel Air Greens golf course off El Cielo Road. The second, originally scheduled for April 7 at the James O. Jesse Desert Highland Unity Center, will be rescheduled due to a conflict with a City Council meeting scheduled the same evening. When held, it will provide an opportunity to voice opinions about what should happen on 119 acres in northern Palm Springs once slated for a College of the Desert satellite campus. Neither piece of property is currently zoned to allow home construction, but those in control of the land want to change that.

Both meetings are designed as outreach sessions conducted by city Planning Services Department staff. There will be no final decisions or votes at either.

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During the meetings, city staff will most likely hear comments similar to those made at public meetings and on social media sites for years: Palm Springs lacks housing that’s affordable for working-class families and prides itself on scenic open space enjoyed by residents and visitors that is also critical to habitat. Finding a balance between the two often pits neighbors against each other and places city leaders in the hot seat.

The leaseholder of a former golf course in the city, which is currently designated as open space, wants permission to zone the land for residential use.

In the case of the former golf course, the leaseholder of the land took the first step in building homes on the property five months ago, filing an “Intent to Convert Application” that will be discussed on April 6. That application caused a sense of urgency among members of Oswit Land Trust (OLT), which received a $4 million grant from the Center for Public Lands to help purchase the property from the land owners — five members of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians — in order to include it in the nonprofit’s proposed Mesquite Desert Preserve.

The president of OLT, Jane Garrison, is once again rallying the community to submit comments to the city and attend the meeting. She said this week that OLT has so far not been able to secure a purchase agreement for the former golf course land and believes the fact her organization is limited to paying appraised value for it as a condition of the grant is hampering a deal.

“The lessee knows this,” Garrison said of the grant requirement. “He either just wants to sell for development to make more money than we are willing to pay, or this is an attempt to increase the value of the property if he were to get development entitlements.”

In the case of 119 acres adjacent to the Desert Highland Gateway Estates neighborhood, a developer wants to build more than 850 units of housing there but first needs to purchase the land from College of the Desert (COD). The city purchased the land for $2 million a decade ago and gave it to COD in hopes of seeing a satellite campus constructed. After spending $6 million planning the campus, COD abandoned those plans and purchased 29 acres in the center of the city, where it now plans to build a campus.

More than 850 units of housing, seen here in a preliminary site map, could be built on land formerly eyed for a satellite college campus.

Watermarke Homes, which built 500 homes in the adjoining Mountain Gate community between 2005 and 2008, has submitted a specific plan amendment, zone change, general plan amendment, and architectural review to the city in anticipation of purchasing the land from the college. The sale remains in limbo, however, until the underlying issue of whether housing should be allowed on the land, and whether any of that housing should be required to be below market rate, is decided.

“We have not closed escrow on the property yet,” said Dave Cooper, a Watermarke project manager. “We do have an open escrow, but it is currently on hold for the determination between the city and COD.”

If and when deals are reached between all parties, Watermarke said it would like to build 364 condominiums and 488 single-family homes, with prices ranging from the $300,000s to the $500,000s. Nobody has stepped forward to ask that the property remain open space, but objections were raised about pricing of the homes during a meeting with the Desert Highland Gateway Estates community last November.

“We want home ownership,” Deiter Crawford, vice president of the Desert Highland Gateway Estates Community Action Association, told the developer during the meeting. “…What we want is for people in our community to be homeowners.”

City leaders want the same and have stated they favor requiring some of the planned homes to be below market rate. A similar deal was reached with Watermarke when it built Mountain Gate, and is seen as one way to give value back to residents when and if COD profits off the sale of land it was given for a college campus never built.

More information: Instructions on how to participate in the Bel Air Greens meeting can be found here. Details on the former COD land meeting will be announced shortly.


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