The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians plans to build a 10,000 seat arena in downtown Palm Springs. Here is what residents have to say.
“Once we get past (the virus) we’ll make a decision if we’re gonna proceed,” said Tim Leiweke, CEO and co-founder of Oak View Group.
The $250 million sports and entertainment arena planned for downtown Palm Springs is on hold as the coronavirus pandemic continues, Tim Leiweke, CEO and co-founder of Oak View Group, a partner on the project, confirmed to The Desert Sun on Monday. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians first announced its plans for the ambitious project last June.
“Once we get past (the virus) we’ll make a decision if we’re gonna proceed,” Leiweke said. He did not specify when OVG might reevaluate, other than to say “when things begin to open back up.”
“We shouldn’t be the story and we’re not going to be the story,” he added. “We’re gonna let everyone stay focused on the virus. That’s where the priority should be.”
Right before California imposed stay-at-home orders across the state in March, local officials were trying to iron out the many details of the proposed arena. But as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country, with Riverside County alone passing the 10,000-cases mark just last week, arena discussions have taken a back seat.
When asked whether the project was currently on hold or if the tribe was actively working on arena plans, Agua Caliente spokeswoman Kate Anderson said: “It would be accurate to say there are no new updates.”
Palm Springs Assistant City Manager Marcus Fuller said whether or not the project moves forward is “really up to the tribe.”
“This is really a tribal project on their property, with Oak View Group as their partner,” he said. “It’s not really a city project.”
Fuller said he’s spent the past month working on more pressing coronavirus-related topics, like the current city budget, rather than wrangling different pending pieces of the arena plan. “The focus of my attention has been on the city’s budget and related issues,” he said.
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The arena was envisioned last year as a place for both big-name entertainment acts to perform and the home of a Palm Springs American Hockey League team. Roughly 40 hockey games and 30 concerts were planned to be hosted there annually.
One of the last official announcements about the project came in February, when the arena’s groundbreaking was delayed due to “extenuating circumstances.” Tribal officials did not announce a new date, but said in a news release: “We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause and look forward to celebrating with the community in the future.”
Around that same time, city officials were trying to solidify a comprehensive plan for parking to accommodate future visitors at the 10,000-seat arena, a subject that has been sometimes contentious for Palm Springs residents who live near the planned development and fear increased traffic and limited parking availability.
Another potential issue has 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.
According to documents and emails obtained by The Desert Sun through a public records request, Fuller and others were still hoping to make more progress on some of those issues in April. Agua Caliente has ultimate authority for all land-use decisions on its reservation as a sovereign nation, but there is a process for the city to make recommendations.The city previously made 81 planning recommendations to the project, of which the tribe accepted 69.
Fuller wrote in an email exchange with John Bolton, general manager of the planned arena, on April 8: “We are (interested) in the status of OVG’s analysis of the economics of the arena, and analysis on its estimation of public safety costs related to the arena. We will need to review this information such that we can have an informed discussion with the council in the near future.” Bolton responded, saying a related study had been commissioned by OVG and was underway.
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Fuller wrote again on April 14: “I’ve left you a message and emails. What is the status of the arena? If this is to move forward, we need to discuss the pending items regarding public safety costs, traffic/parking mitigation, etc.” The two agreed to set up a call to discuss.
This week, Fuller outlined some of the details involving the arena that he had been helping to coordinate in March and April. In terms of what actions took place after the April call with Bolton, he said, “I may have had a couple of conversations with him about where we’re at and trying to understand next steps, if there are next steps.”
Bolton said in a statement Wednesday: “Given the current unprecedented times, discussions around arena construction timelines continue and we will provide updates when available as we work closely with the City of Palm Springs and Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.”
One specific plan from March, which city and tribal officials envisioned would at least partially assuage parking concerns around the arena, was the design of new diagonal parking spots. A PDF proposal for the design, obtained in the public records request, was submitted by engineering consultant Kimley-Horn earlier this year.
The firm’s plan would convert parallel parking on certain streets into angled parking spots, creating an additional 282 spaces near the arena. Those spots available for arena visitors would be in addition to 650 on-site parking spaces, other nearby tribal parking lots, an adjacent parking garage, and any on and off-street spaces within a quarter to half-mile radius of the arena, the proposal said.
Kimley-Horn estimated the total cost of the design and related works, but not including actual construction, would be $208,682.
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The city’s assistant director of engineering, Joel Montalvo, sent the firm’s proposal in an email to Margaret Park, director of planning and natural resources for Agua Caliente, in early March, asking if the tribe would be willing to help pay for the design. “Once we have confirmation we can take the award to the city council,” he wrote.
Fuller confirmed this week that the city was hoping at the time Agua Caliente might help shoulder the cost. The original concept for those spots came from the tribe, he said, and there has been “unofficial communications” on that topic since.
“With COVID everything kind of ground to a halt for both the city and the tribe,” Fuller said. “So that (the diagonal parking plan) really hasn’t gone anywhere since then. And certainly with our budget cuts we really don’t have a bunch of free money to be able to allocate towards something like that at this point.”
Palm Springs Mayor Rob Moon, Tim Leiweke of Oak View Group and Tod Leiweke, of NHL Seattle, announce an AHL team for Palm Springs on Sept. 30, 2019.
The Desert Sun
A broader “parking management plan” was also in the initial development stage in March, according to documents from the records request. The city sent out requests for proposals to consultants to analyze and identify the city’s on- and off-street parking, especially as it would relate to the arena. Fuller explained that the city was thinking about commissioning its own analysis but never ended up handing out a contract.
“I think we got a handful of proposals but of course, looking at what the price might be on that analysis — it’s several hundred thousand dollars — we’ve kind of put that on hold along with the arena at this point, until everyone figures out what’s going on,” he said.
As for potential public safety costs, Fuller also noted the city has raised that issue in the past.
“To the extent that the arena is going to move forward, it still needs to be addressed in some ways, but even more so now that we’ve got our budget issues with COVID,” he said.
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Constructing an events arena to host thousands of people might seem fraught with public health issues in the age of coronavirus, but Fuller pointed out that Agua Caliente had initially said the structure would take two years to build. By that time, he said, a vaccine will likely have been developed.
“So I don’t know that that’s really an issue, but I think that certainly COVID has really changed everyone’s plans,” he said.
He also reiterated that when and if the arena project is given an official green light again, all technical questions that have been raised thus far, including parking, traffic, public safety and others, will be properly addressed.
“Nothing’s changed with regard to how we’re going to address or accommodate the arena, should it proceed,” he said. “We’re just kind of waiting to see what’s the next step.”
Amanda Ulrich covers Native American issues in Southern California. She is also a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at email@example.com
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