Palm Desert moves forward with $4M Lupine Plaza despite opposition from some businesses

Sherry Barkas
Palm Springs Desert Sun
A screenshot of a rendering of the design concept for Lupine Plaza in Palm Desert, shown to the City Council on Thursday, April 14, 2022, by MIG Inc.

Palm Desert is taking the next steps toward permanently closing a portion of Lupine Lane off El Paseo, creating a pedestrian plaza where people can gather for drinks, food and special events, at an estimated cost up to $4 million for design and construction.

The approval for Lupine Plaza comes despite opposition voiced by businesses that will be impacted by the street closure, through a petition with 70 signatures submitted to the council earlier this week.

The council approved using general fund reserve money for Lupine Plaza, but also requested that staff explore grant opportunities.

Mayor Pro Tem Sabby Jonathan said he supported moving forward with Lupine Plaza, but questioned the high-cost range of $3.3 million to $4 million, and asked for assurance that the council wasn’t “signing the check” Thursday night.

“I am astounded by the cost of almost $500 a square foot for something that’s not even vertical. It’s basically a type of street park,” Jonathan said, and asked staff to explain why it costs more than a building.

The project includes high-quality materials that would be in line with the aesthetic of El Paseo, which is home to high-end retailers, restaurants and galleries, said Deborah Glickman, management analyst for the city’s economic development department.

Lupine Plaza amenities include shade trees, benches or seating wall, movable seating, “fun seating,” landscaping, gateway arch, public art, bicycle facilities and more based on input from council members, businesses and residents.

Project designer MIG Inc. is also accounting for inflation in the cost estimate, Glickman said, making the cost higher than it may end up being.

“The idea was to look at what it could be as we move through the project,” she said.

Thursday’s actions by council allow staff to issue requests for proposals for an environmental impact analysis, construction drawings, engineering services, traffic study and all other services associated with the final design and construction of Lupine Plaza, Glickman said.

The project will need to come back to the council at various steps along the way, Glickman said, including for final consideration of cost.

Morgan Hudson, left, and her mom Vinette Morris order take out while sitting at Lupine Plaza, a closed section of Lupine Lane at El Paseo which provides outdoor seating for the public in Palm Desert, Calif., on Friday, October 16, 2020, and throughout the pandemic.

Created as a gathering space during the pandemic

A temporary Lupine Plaza was created in September 2020 to create a place people could gather and eat when restaurants were closed under a state mandate to help slow the spread of COVID-19, except for delivery and takeout.

It was dismantled in December 2020, but council members said it was successful and wanted to make it permanent, replacing the rented furniture and fake grass for something that was a better fit with El Paseo’s high-end retailers, with permanent seating, tables, umbrellas, misters and other amenities.

In September, the council approved hiring MIG Inc. for $70,000 to draft a design concept for Lupine Plaza.

MIG returned in April with a concept design based on input from merchants and residents, and received council approval to move forward with the project, based on support from the El Paseo Business Improvement District and residents who have voiced support.

Four others, most of them with CODA Gallery, voiced their opposition, stating that while popular at first, the temporary Lupine Plaza didn’t remain that way. Those who used it also left trash everywhere, the opposers said, and umbrellas were often knocked over by the wind.

Access in and out of their businesses, especially by delivery trucks if the street is permanently closed, was also an issue for opponents.

Council members voted to create the plaza in phases. The initial phase would run between El Paseo and the entrance to the Coble building parking lot, while staff and MIG work to refine solutions for delivery access for the second phase of construction.

Construction is expected to take up to 31 months.

'This is not the right location'

“There was a lot of community outreach done during the initial process” including community meetings, going door-to-door to talk with the businesses," Glickman said. There were also individual meetings between staff, project designer MIG Inc. and a project subcommittee that included city staff, Mayor Jan Harnik and Councilmember Gina Nestande.

“Public input included both excitement and concern over closing the street. People were looking for a new place to rest, have events and have some gatherings,” Glickman said.

Concerns included public safety, maintenance including regular cleanup, and vagrancy – all issues area business owners said were a result of what happened when the temporary plaza was in place.

A screenshot of a rendering by MIG Inc. that shows the different elements of a design concept for Lupine Plaza in Palm Desert. The "designated loading" area on the south side of the street, just east of the Coble building parking lot, would be for businesses such as Coda Gallery, MIG representative Ryan Kucinski told City Council members on Thursday, April 14, 2022.

The petition submitted to the city on Monday includes signatures of 70 people associated with 39 businesses on El Paseo, including CODA Gallery owners and exhibitors.

“I don’t know of any support for closing Lupine Lane to vehicles,” Samuel Heaton, CODA Gallery director, told council members Thursday.

“We have semi-trucks with 50-foot trailers delivering and picking up sculptures on Lupine Lane that can weigh 1,000 pounds or more,” Heaton said.

Semis could not access Lupine Lane let alone turn around under the current proposal, Heaton said.

“I still don’t understand who’s really served by Lupine Plaza,” Heaton said.

Cathy Green, who works for the owner of El Paseo Square, questioned if there is documentation of the outreach conducted.

Staff and MIG reported that “there was an individual meeting with the owners of El Paseo Square, and that did not happen,” Green said. “I’ve talked to many businesses around the area … and I didn’t find anyone that had any positive feedback. So, I’d be curious who the businesses were that were spoken to.”

Lupine Plaza has been a safety issue for owners of El Paseo Square, home to several eateries including Blaze Pizza and Saks Fifth Avenue OFF Fifth, Green said.

With Lupine closed off, people were using the El Paseo Square parking lot as a thoroughfare from Lupine Lane and San Pablo Avenue, and there were a couple of near accidents with pedestrians, Green said.

The restaurants and other businesses also have large delivery trucks that need full access, she said.

“This is not the right location for this,” Green said. “It’s too detrimental to the businesses in the area to close that street, and it causes a whole host of problems.”

No one else spoke for or against the project on Thursday.

Nestande said she attended community meetings as part of the Lupine Plaza subcommittee, including one at Lupine Plaza.

“We did do community outreach and did have affirmative responses from some of the El Paseo businesses, including (Patrick) Klein of The Gardens on El Paseo,” she said.

Harnik said the outreach meetings brought people who support and opposed Lupine Plaza.

“There were several people who commented and quite favorably on the concept of having a plaza, of having a park in the midst of El Paseo,” Harnik said.

When MIG presented its drawings and proposal to the council in May, the council heard from CODA and other business representatives saying access was impeded. The council asked MIG to address those concerns, which Harnik said has been done.

Desert Sun reporter Sherry Barkas covers the cities of La Quinta, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @TDSsherryBarkas