Tear down the historic Biltmore, the celebrity haunt La Mancha, the artsy Palapas, the oldest remaining Monte Vista hotel. Let's also destroy the architecturally significant Town and Country Center to show the Museum to the Convention Center and that charming Tahquitz block anchored by Anderson Travel to allow a totally out-of-scale and currently trendy Hard Rock Hotel. Incidentally, celebrities like more private, secluded places.
We don't seem to learn that such massive projects just don't much help downtown. Remember how our village was to be saved by a cavernous six-story Maxims hotel, now the Hyatt. Next it was the casino. Sure, the gamblers come and go, but they don't stop downtown. And a high-rise condo ghetto on Fashion Plaza open space will not do it either. But what will?
Which small tourist towns are successful? Each year Condé Nast publishes travelers choices of their favorite towns. Santa Fe and Carmel are always in the top 10 choices next to glamorous big cities in North America. In the Americas, the small-town favorites are Mexico's historic San Miguel de Allende and Oaxaca. What all these small towns have in common is the preservation of their architectural heritage, the lack of tall buildings and minimal signage (attention downtown merchants). That's why they are so popular. Unlike us, they don't destroy their charming uniqueness.
Take the proposed Port Lawrence project, which involved leveling several downtown blocks. Though interesting and hopefully a lure for new Palm Canyon residents, would not a creative combination of restored and new buildings have better preserved our unique character than a homogeneous modern megaproject?
We need to start saving and restoring what remains. New projects should be harmonious with the small-scale eclectic mix of our downtown buildings, which is still recognized by the National Trust of historic Preservation Travel Guide as worth visiting.
Unfortunately, our city leaders have not always been sophisticated enough to recognize what we really have. Instead of involving restoration experts they appointed an Orange County developer of massive generic projects as the official downtown planner. Encouraging big box stores also does not help small shops as illustrated by Peppertree Books closing.
We are beginning to realize that preservation of our beautiful desert landscape attracts tourists but the economic importance of historic preservation and rehabilitation is still not understood. There are many challenges including getting a handle on avaricious absentee landlords but we have never even considered a complete downtown restoration plan including possible matching funds.
So many buildings could shine with sensitive restoration, such as the butchered El Paseo Building. Even the Fashion Plaza could be imaginatively redone without a billion dollars. Eight years ago the then-Neighborhood Coalition commissioned a world-famous designer who, inspired by the historic Desert Inn, proposed an affordable rehabilitation plan. It could be dusted off and have the Plaza functioning fast.
We must change our present vision and appoint proper advisers to improve our historic charm, not destroy it. Let's not get carried away with mixed-use fads and urban renewal oriented Downtown Design Guidelines. True revitalization requires sophisticated creativity which the new council will hopefully demonstrate. The scorched-earth approach will only produce a town neither fish nor fowl.
Frank Tysen is co-owner of Casa Cody B&B Country Inn in Palm Springs.