College of the Desert (COD) officials under fire for lack of transparency about a planned satellite campus in Palm Springs didn’t help their cause Thursday evening. A 90-minute online community forum to discuss the status of the plans came off as explicitly staged to keep the public at bay.
It was unknown how many people attended the Zoom meeting and what questions they asked about the college’s plans using an online form. Participants were not shown or listed and were not allowed to speak directly to COD representatives. None of the questions addressed the controversy surrounding the satellite campus in the works for more than a decade.
“They were answering all these other questions that none of us could see,” said Bruce Hoban, part of a community watchdog group formed to keep pressure on the college to honor its promise to build in the city. “They could pick and choose what to address.”
While the public was unseen and unheard, eight representatives of COD took turns speaking, including Dr. Martha Garcia, superintendent and president of the college. She used her time to thank the panelists and viewers for attending and encouraged the community to provide input.
“The Board of Trustees and I are committed to ensuring that this project becomes a reality, and we look forward to collaborating with all of you,” she concluded after speaking for roughly one minute.
Others who spoke on behalf of COD detailed plans for the first of two planned phases at a former mall site on 29 acres at the intersection of East Tahquitz Canyon Way and South Farrell Drive. While they addressed what would be included in “Phase 1,” when it would be built, and how much it would cost, many details were missing.
Mitch Fine, a partner with the architecture firm WRNS Studio, told viewers that 3D renderings of the finished buildings are not yet ready, and the firm doesn’t know the general shape, size, and height, nor what the structural materials will be.
When asked broadly about what the architecture firm is using as an inspiration for the design of the campus, Fine answered, “I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves.”
Bond Program Manager Mac McGinnis addressed the budget, saying that the cost for the entire campus is about $345 million, with 81% ($280 million) going just toward Phase 1. So far, he said, they have spent about $30 million.
The initial phase will include a 97,000-square-foot “accelerator” building containing the architecture, digital media, hospitality, and culinary programs, some administrative offices, a student commons, and a student health center.
Concerning the second phase, COD Interim Executive Vice President Christina Tafoya said, “We don’t have details or any information on future phases.”
Hoban had hoped COD officials would answer his questions about a feasibility study, but they did not.
“This whole project was stopped last November because they said they didn’t have that study when it was on their website the whole time,” he said by phone following the meeting. “But then they said it just needed to be updated, and we’d see the updated results this June. But they’ve never addressed those results.”
Additional details may be announced by the end of the year. Fine said there would be much more to share after the schematic design phase, scheduled to begin next month and finish sometime in December.
City leaders and residents such as Hoban have waited patiently for a groundbreaking since initial bonds were approved in 2004.
Land in the north end of town was donated to the college in 2010, but the college abandoned plans to build on it when a key partner backed out. COD subsequently purchased the mall in 2018 and razed it in 2019, only to stand accused in 2021 of abandoning plans here altogether as part of a political power play.
When Hoban heard the COD representatives deflect answers and tell residents how early they were in the design phase Thursday evening, it didn’t sit right with him.
“It’s like watching a car collision,” he said.
More information: For those unable to attend the meeting, it was recorded and is available on the college’s YouTube page. Tafoya also encouraged the community to fill out a brief 10-question survey to give their input on the presentation and future plans.