Planned Palm Springs arena is moving to mid-valley; Agua Caliente tribe no longer involved
A little more than a year after the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the Los Angeles company Oak View Group announced plans for a $250 million sports and entertainment arena in downtown Palm Springs, officials confirmed that the site of the project is moving to the mid-valley — and the tribe is no longer involved.
The 10,000-seat arena is now planned for an unincorporated piece of land just north of the city of Palm Desert, on roughly 43 acres between Interstate 10 and the Classic Club golf course. The new location is a short drive from both the internationally renowned estate Sunnylands Center & Gardens and Agua Caliente's Rancho Mirage casino.
Oak View Group (OVG) is moving ahead on the privately funded arena with a new partner: the H.N. & Frances C. Berger Foundation, a local nonprofit that owns the land and will lease it to OVG. Live Nation Entertainment, a leading global event producer, remains a partner on the project to bring touring artists and live events.
Groundbreaking and construction are scheduled for next year, and the arena is slated to open in the last quarter of 2022.
The Seattle Kraken's American Hockey League team will play in the facility once construction is complete.
In an interview with The Desert Sun, OVG CEO and co-founder Tim Leiweke explained how the company's partnership with Agua Caliente "ultimately unwound" and discussions began with the Berger Foundation, a group that Leiweke said he's known for years. Concerns about parking and traffic also bogged down the Palm Springs plans.
The tribe faced "a moment of truth" when coronavirus first hit in March, Leiweke said. As the virus forced the tribe's casino properties in the Coachella Valley to close alongside other local businesses, the arena project also paused.
Around April, Agua Caliente "came back and just said, 'This is not something we can commit to today. Because of what's going on (with COVID), our priorities have changed,'" Leiweke said. "So, we acknowledged that and said, 'Okay, but we can't sit around and wait because unfortunately for us, we got the clock ticking on an American Hockey League team."
The tribe declined a request for comment Wednesday from The Desert Sun.
Agua Caliente Chairman Jeff Grubbe said in a press release that the tribe "re-evaluated its economic development priorities" and is instead focusing on its new casino in Cathedral City and cultural center in downtown Palm Springs.
"After working together for more than a year to put a joint-venture project together, and then another three months to negotiate a land lease, we couldn’t find that common thread to reach an agreement for the arena project," Grubbe said.
Palm Springs hospitality leaders had hyped up the project for its proximity to the Palm Springs Convention Center, noting an ability to incorporate the arena into potential group meetings. Aftab Dada, chair of the PS Resorts hotel group in Palm Springs, said while the new location will prevent a close collaboration, keeping the project in the desert is a big win for the area. Palm Springs hotels, for example, already fill up for other major desert events like the music festivals and the BNP Paribas tennis tournament.
“As long as the arena is being built in our destination, that’s a plus-plus-plus,” Dada said.
How this changes the arena timeline
The arena was originally expected to open by fall 2021 in time for the hockey season — a timeline that is now extended by a year.
The arena in its new location will still house an American Hockey League team that will be an affiliate of the NHL's Seattle Kraken. While the Kraken, a new NHL expansion team, will begin play in the fall of 2021, the Palm Springs AHL affiliate will not start playing until the 2022-23 season.
Leiweke said that it has not yet been determined what the team will be called or if it will still use "Palm Springs" as part of its name with the arena now being built in an unincorporated part of Riverside County.
He added that he was happy with the enthusiasm shown by desert hockey fans, evidenced by the 2,500 or so deposits that were put down for season tickets.
The details of the project remain much the same as the arena planned for Palm Springs. Most notably, that includes a second sheet of ice which will act as the practice rink for the team and a public skating rink for things like youth hockey and figure skating.
The arena will be built on land previously identified to house a sprawling, 12,000-seat sports complex. That proposed complex, called The Shield, was set to be built by a group called the Coachella Sports and Entertainment Stadium Authority on 125 acres of land owned by the Berger Foundation.
Doug Vance, the foundation's vice president of real estate, said the foundation and group mutually parted ways about four months ago after they couldn't come up with a path forward during two years of negotiations.
The foundation started working with OVG earlier this summer, Vance said, and jumped through a lot of the normal hurdles because the foundation has been preparing it to house a project like the arena since purchasing the land in 2003.
“We’ve done a lot of the pad work and utility work and offsite improvements for streets,” Vance said. “That expedites exactly what Tim (Leiweke) needs to meet his timeframe. We have a shovel-ready pad. ... It’s been over-excavated, re-compacted, certified, grating permits, we’ve been working for years on this development.
"They needed a place where they could have an advantage in speeding up the timeframe and this met all their criteria.”
Parking, traffic concerns impacted Palm Springs plans
The arena was initially planned for a mostly undeveloped section of Agua Caliente tribal land bordering its Palm Springs casino. That area, which was predominantly parking lot space, is slowly returning to its former use. A local landscaping company was re-planting trees there last week after removing them to make way for construction in January.
Leiweke said he understood that the community surrounding the downtown site didn't like the parking options as they were presented; hundreds of people attended a public hearing last December, and many residents gave criticism about the project.
"Did we change our direction that night? No, we had an obligation and a commitment to our partners in Agua Caliente," Leiweke said about the December meeting. "But then when the coronavirus came along, and then when they changed as to their direction and priorities as a tribe, it gave us a chance to take a step back."
Now, all parking for the new arena location will be contained onsite. Access to the facility, right off the highway, will be easier in comparison to weaving through smaller Palm Springs roads and neighborhoods.
The cost of the arena and related parking infrastructure could also be about $10 million less than expected, partly because of a general lull in construction projects during the pandemic and more competitive pricing, Leiweke said.
"I hope people realize we listen, we heard what the community wanted. They wanted us to be self-contained," he said this week.
Ron Willison, who lives in the Palm Springs Deauville, a condominium complex behind the Agua Caliente casino, said Wednesday that the arena was a concern for him and many of his neighbors. Willison said he believes OVG made a wise decision to relocate.
"(Agua Caliente) have always been good neighbors here," Willison said. "I'm thrilled to see what's going up with the museum and the spa, but that was just not a great location."
Ellen Sopkin and her husband own a home on North Vía Miraleste near Alejo in the Movie Colony, and said she “can’t be happier” after hearing news. Concerns over the arena almost made the couple put their home up for sale.
“The streets are way too small for that many cars,” Sopkin said Wednesday. “People are just not that nice when it comes to those events and they’re going to be drinking. You think about that when you leave a game at Dodger Stadium, and that’s quite a neighborhood when you’re trying to get out.”
Another potential issue centered around additional public safety costs associated with arena events. Palm Springs' fire and police departments said last December that they would need nearly $20 million for new equipment and facilities, plus an additional $3.6 million annually to increase staff.
Agua Caliente had ultimate authority for all land-use decisions on its reservation as a sovereign nation, but there was a process for the city to make recommendations. The city made 81 planning recommendations to the project, of which the tribe accepted 69.
Palm Springs Mayor Geoff Kors said Wednesday that while Palm Springs was working with the tribe and OVG to address details like traffic, parking and public safety, it was not involved in the decision to move locations.
"I think there were benefits to having it in downtown Palm Springs and a number of issues that needed to be resolved if it were to be in downtown," he said. "The city has no say in where they decided to build it."
Arena could drive Palm Desert economy
Palm Desert Mayor Gina Nestande said the arena will be an "economic driver" for her mid-valley city, which is home to two university campuses and the McCallum Theatre.
“As people come to this hockey stadium, they’ll also need a hotel to stay in or they’ll go visit a restaurant or any of our fabulous businesses that are located near there,” said Nestande, who was approached by the Berger Foundation as a courtesy in terms of any impact the arena, situated off the I-10 Cook Street exit, might have on the city.
Over the past few years, the city has seen hotels go up in the Cook Street area, including a Fairfield Inn and Hampton Inn & Suites with more planned near the DMV. Cook Street is also home to CSU San Bernardino and UC Riverside campuses.
Since the CSU San Bernardino satellite campus opened in 1986, the city has worked toward making it an independent Cal State university. Nestande sees the arena as another plus in trying to achieve that goal.
“The more we can drive people to come to our area here … the more likely we are to get students to attend Cal State,” Nestande said.
While the new arena is sited less than 10 miles from the McCallum Theatre, which features touring Broadway musicals and other musical artists, Chairman Harold Matzner said he doesn't have concerns about the close proximity.
"They're playing a completely different genre (of music) they have a lot of overhead for, and they're not going to open it for most of the (acts) we have," Matzner said. "I think it's wonderful for the valley. That kind of a facility is part of the valley growing up."
How does this change the review process?
The site of the proposed arena is unincorporated land just south of the Coachella Valley Preserve, and is already part of a prior master plan that Oak View Group officials say previously went through a lengthy environmental review process.
In order to get approval to move forward with the arena, they've submitted an addendum to that plan that will have to be approved by the Board of Supervisors.
Leiweke doesn't expect to run into environmental concerns or have a need for habitat mitigation. "Because of the master plan and all the work that's been done by the Berger Foundation Foundation, the site's clean," he said. "There's no hazard, no cleanup, no remediation of any kind."
OVG also doesn't have to start from scratch on the design of the building, which will be similar to the Palm Springs proposal. That building was going mostly underground to preserve sight lines of the mountains, but due to an existing flood plane at the new location, it will be more elevated.
"The look of the building is very similar to what we already have designed," Leiweke said. "So, we just essentially moved and did adjustments to make it work on the site, but it's going to give us a much quicker process because we're so far down the road with all of our planning and all of our design development."
David Freedman, a member of the Palm Springs Sustainability Commission, played an active role in building environmentally-friendly recommended alternatives for the Palm Springs iteration of the arena. He said the move means there will be a “load of cars that aren’t going to be idling around Palm Springs, looking for a parking space.”
He labeled that fact the “largest environmental win for Palm Springs,” though he cautioned that the greenhouse gas emissions, while moving away from the population center, won’t actually decrease because people will still need to drive there.
The future of the arena's location in Palm Springs first came into question in June, when Leiweke confirmed that plans were on hold amid the pandemic.
Before this week, one of the last official announcements about the project came in February, when the arena's groundbreaking was delayed due to "extenuating circumstances," according to the tribe.
Vance, the Berger Foundation's vice president, noted that without the land and environmental review already in place, it’s likely that Leiweke would’ve had no choice but to take the entire project out of the valley.
“If the Berger Foundation hadn’t prepared the land for something like this, they would have not been able to meet the timeframe and we would have lost them for the project and the valley," Vance said. "To capture them and keep them here, … I was so happy to entertain the idea that’s now come to fruition. The tax revenue that the county and the community and the valley are going to experience are going to be second to none.”
Staff reporters Sherry Barkas, Brian Blueskye and Mark Olalde contributed to this report.