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Near Palm Springs, a

Little City Thinks Big
   March 31, 2006


As you head north out of Palm Springs, Calif., late on a sunny afternoon, the rumpled brown foothills a dozen miles away cast long shadows. The houses sprinkled on those hills, part of the rapidly growing city of Desert Hot Springs, look as if they were taking a nap in the folds of a cozy old blanket.


When you get to Desert Hot Springs, the view from on high isn't too bad, either.

Thousands of windmills stand sentry in the foreground, slowly generating electricity by catching the persistent desert wind. Mount San Jacinto looms over Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, and after magnificent orange sunsets, the lights in Palm Springs begin to twinkle.

That panorama, access to aquifers of pristine spring water and temperatures that are slightly cooler than those in Palm Springs, its famous resort city neighbor, have made Desert Hot Springs a boomtown. Its year-round population has more than tripled in the last 25 years, to about 19,400 today.

Teresa Thompson, a spokeswoman for Desert Hot Springs, said there were plans to build 13,000 houses in the next decade, to be sold at a wide range of prices. Second-home buyers, real estate agents say, can afford bigger and better houses in Desert Hot Springs than in Palm Springs.

Donna Peace, an agent for Zephyr Realty, sold a four-bedroom house in Desert Hot Springs three years ago for $165,000. Ms. Peace recently put the same house on the market for $362,000. But $362,000, she said, would probably buy only a fixer-upper in Palm Springs.

Ms. Peace's office is in Palm Springs, but she said she spends twice as much time showing houses in Desert Hot Springs. After showing a house in Palm Springs, she often takes customers on a detour to Desert Hot Springs. Then, she says, she often declares, "Look at what your money can buy here." About 20 percent of residents, Mayor Alex Bias said, are part-timers.


Desert Hot Springs has struggled to catch up with its growth, and the city, which emerged from a three-year bankruptcy in 2004, is trying to change its reputation as a dusty desert outpost.

Palm Drive, the main north-south thoroughfare, is not lined with upscale shops. But Ms. Thompson said that a shopping center called the Village, which is expected to attract high-level shops, is to be built to meet those needs. Construction is expected to begin this year.

The city has no golf course or movie theater within its limits, and none are planned; the closest are in Palm Springs. "There's not a lot to do here," Mayor Bias said. "So that becomes our biggest challenge."

Work is to begin next year on widening two overpasses leading to Interstate 10, the freeway that connects Desert Hot Springs with Los Angeles, 110 miles to the west, to create better traffic flow. Completion is expected in 2009. Mayor Bias said he was confident that better access would lead to more retail opportunities and to a bigger tax base.

"It still has the remnants of a sleepy town, but it's probably not going to be sleepy for too long," said Mary Ann Hooper. Ms. Hooper, a former Los Angeles resident who lives in nearby Sky Valley and who just bought property in Desert Hot Springs, said she intended to build a two-bedroom house.

The Scene

Desert Hot Springs is not a town for shoppers. The nearest mall is in Palm Desert, 20 miles away. "Even a movie theater would be nice," said Steve Ciccarelli, who spends about six months a year in Desert Hot Springs and the rest in Minnesota.

The city has about 10 restaurants, the most notable of which is the Capri, a family-owned Italian restaurant on Palm Drive that has been in business for about 30 years. (But Palm Springs and its restaurants and nightlife are only 15 minutes away, and there does not seem to be a rush hour.)

Even on weekends, there is not much traffic on Palm Drive. Residents have playfully labeled Mountain View Road, which has even less traffic, as a bypass. Propped next to one of the new homes in town is a sheet of plywood with "Hey! Slow down!" spray-painted on it. "It's not a town for hoopla," Ms. Hooper said.

Much of what hoopla there is in Desert Hot Springs is created by desert life. Roadrunners gallivant among the cactuses in housing developments. Hummingbirds flit among the desert flowers. Tiny green lizards and desert squirrels skitter between the rocks and the hardy creosote bushes.


The view is a major selling point, and so is the weather, for most of the year. The heat can become fierce in summer, with temperatures sometimes climbing over 110 degrees. But a string of recent March days offered high temperatures in the 80's with no precipitation.

If you need to get out of your house and away from its air-conditioning in the summer swelter, there's always the option of adding a swimming pool. Ms. Hooper's house is to have a middle courtyard with a pool. And there's always a drive to a mall.

Desert Hot Springs gets an hour more sunlight in the afternoons than does Palm Springs, which sits near the foot of Mount San Jacinto. Desert Hot Springs is also windier than Palm Springs, and so it is five to eight degrees cooler.

Palm Springs is also more crowded. Erv Olssen of Seattle bought a Spanish custom-built home in Desert Hot Springs a little more than a year ago after becoming weary of Palm Springs's congestion. "I didn't like the valley floor," said Mr. Olssen, who lives in Desert Hot Springs for about half the year. "There seemed to be a lot of pollution, things like that."

The water is sublime. Municipal water comes from an aquifer and has been pure enough in the past to win awards. Spa resorts in town have access to hot mineral springs, and several developers are planning to tap into the hot-water aquifer, a huge asset.

"People love this heat, and they love this mineral water," Ms. Peace said.


Property crimes such as burglaries have been persistent, but Walter McKinney, the police chief, said that steps are being taken to help limit them. Chief McKinney said that the city plans to offer to monitor burglar alarms in new housing developments, and that the plan will eventually include every residence in town.

For years, Chief McKinney said, Desert Hot Springs had a reputation as a place where the state sent parolees. But, he said, the issue has diminished.

The Real Estate Market

Desert Hot Springs is a good place to build one house — or several. Mr. Olssen owns a two-acre plot on which he plans to build four houses. The price of land has risen dramatically. A plot that sold for $20,000 five years ago now sells for $75,000. "I just can't believe the prices," Mr. Olssen said.

The prices in Desert Hot Springs are far less intimidating than those in Palm Springs — or, for that matter, other nearby municipalities, including Rancho Mirage, southeast of Palm Springs.

Lay of the Land
Published: March 31, 2006

POPULATION 19,386; another 5,000 to 6,000 are part-time residents, Mayor Alex Bias said.

SIZE 23.3 square miles.

LOCATION: The Coachella Valley of Southern California, 12 miles north of Palm Springs, 110 miles east of Los Angeles and 140 miles by car northeast of San Diego.

WHO'S BUYING: Mostly residents of California coastal cities — Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego — who have become tired of congestion. The town also attracts many former residents of Palm Springs. "Snowbirds," those who want to flee from cold Northern winters, are moving to the area, and many are staying for good.

GETTING THERE: Palm Springs International Airport, which offers nonstop flights to many major cities, is 12 miles away. Interstate 10 is about five miles south of town. Los Angeles and San Diego are each about two hours away — depending, of course, on traffic.

WHILE YOU'RE LOOKING: There are several spa resorts in town. Miracle Springs Resort & Spa (10625 Palm Drive, 800-400-4414; has eight natural hot mineral water pools. Rooms are $109 to $599. Living Waters Spa (13340 Mountain View Road, 760-329-9988; is a nine-room clothing-optional European-style resort with a retro 1960's d้cor. Rooms are $140 to $190.