to previous page
Little City Thinks Big
| March 31,
| By DAVE CALDWELL
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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;
www.miraclesprings.com) has eight natural hot mineral water pools. Rooms
are $109 to $599. Living Waters Spa (13340 Mountain View Road,
760-329-9988; www.livingwatersspa.com) is a nine-room clothing-optional
European-style resort with a retro 1960's d้cor. Rooms are $140 to $190.