Phase One, Part One

By Heidi Simmons

For Coachella Valley malls, this year may be the most significant. After decades of stagnation and vacancies, the downtown Palm Springs Desert Fashion Plaza has been reduced to rubble and in short order should rise to new modern heights. The forlorn Palm Springs Mall has life again as the sight for the new College of the Desert West Campus.

Even Palm Desert’s Westfield Mall has revamped its empty space and constructed a new south Grand Entrance with restaurants and H&M. Dick’s Sporting Goods and a World Gym fill the long vacated north anchor.

Not to be lost in the valley’s great mall property resurgence, the Indio Fashion Mall, aka Fiesta Mall, is about to experience the start of its resurrection as well.


The Past

“I loved going to the Indio mall playing arcade games and eating ice cream,” said Veronica Avila, an insurance broker at Avila Insurance Agency, catty-corner to the mall on highway 111. “I was born and raised here. I’d go there all the time with my friends. My dad worked for Allstate Insurance, which was in the Sears. I trained there with him until he opened his own agency.”

Built in 1974, the Indio Fashion Mall thrived with national retailers and popular chain stores. Located at the corner of Hwy 111 and Monroe Street, the 250,000 square foot, single story, enclosed mall, was great shopping and a family gathering place for east valley’s residents.

Sears and Harris were the original anchor stores connected by favorite shops like Miller’s Outpost, House of Fabrics and Foot Locker. David Miller, founder of Miller’s Outpost, owned the mall and made an effort to know his merchants.

But through the 80s and 90s, there was a shift in the valley’s economy and changing demographics. The desert cities between Indio and Palm Springs were starting to build communities that included not only planned housing, but also shopping centers.

With the eastern valley’s growing Hispanic population there were plans to add a food court, renovate and expand the mall, but it never came to fruition. Meanwhile, Palm Desert’s mall gained popularity with its central location and greater number of stores. To compare, Indio’s mall is approximately one-third the size of Westfield.

In 2003, Richard Weintraub bought the Fashion Mall and changed the name to Fiesta Mall hoping to cater to the Hispanic clientele and rebuild a family environment. However, the beloved Sears moved to its current larger space at Palm Desert’s Westfield Mall in 2004. Gottschalks bought Harris in 1988 and closed permanently in 2009. With both anchors gone, and unable to keep up with valley competition, the Fiesta Mall’s retail shops and national chains began to leave.

Today, the mall is mostly empty. There are no brand anchors or national retailers. The dated decor and pastel tiles harken to a world that has long passed. The entire property, inside and out, seems incongruous with the forward momentum of the City of Indio and the greater CV.

“I remember when the mall was packed with families every Sunday,” said Karen Ruiz, owner of M. Ruiz Jewelers, one of only nine businesses to remain in the mall. She and her husband opened their jewelry store in 1985. “It’s terrible right now. Not a day goes by when someone asks ‘What’s happening?’ There is so much potential. We are just trying to hang in there.”

Approaching three decades doing business in the mall, Ruiz and her husband stay in the location for their loyal customers. They try to remain positive and hopeful, but it is easy to hear her concern and fear. Ruiz’s rent was reduced and she was given a month-to-month lease. She can walk away or be kicked-out with only a 30-day notice.

Mall owners and management have not consulted with the merchants, nor have they informed the tenants of any proposed changes. They remain in the dark –- the quiet of the languishing mall — pondering rumors and speculation.

For now, there is no leasing office on sight, not even a working phone number to call. According to Ruiz, a Chinese woman collects the rent. From what she has gathered, the woman apparently is the sister or a relation to the mall’s owner. She appears to not speak English so Ruiz can’t engage her in conversation.

“I can’t tell you what is the plan,” said Dennis Zhang of CBRE Leasing in a phone conversation about the mall’s future. “I cannot say because I do not know. I only write up the lease,” he said making an effort to clearly articulate his words with his thick Chinese accent. The more questions asked, the more he did not know. He said he thought it wasn’t a good time to write a story about the mall but hesitantly added, “Everyone has good intentions.”

The Present

Reo Group Properties, LLC, bought the mall in 2010. Although unconfirmed by Reo, it appears, based on county tax records, that they paid nearly $8.5 million for mall buildings and an adjacent parcel. The company is Chinese owned.

Last year, the organization submitted plans for façade enhancement and landscaping changes to the city’s Planning Commission that included a new name, Indio Plaza “Lo Nuestro.” In November, the plans were approved with only two conditions.

“We asked them to change the name to something everyone could relate to and we asked they change a bright green to a more natural green in their color pallet,” said Gloria Franz, a Planning Commission member. “We were excited to see their plans and are supportive of the changes.” The City of Indio is limited to what they can do since the property is privately owned, but is doing everything in their means to encourage and expedite the improvements.

Leila Namvar, Assistant Planner, has been overseeing the process and working closely with Reo developers. So far, Reo has complied with all the time requirements.

“They have two years to get the building permit and they can file for an extension,” said Namvar. “It’s not uncommon to come back after three years. It takes time to raise the financing.” The entitlement expires November 13, 2015.

But it looks like the changes will begin this week with phase one! Kenny Dickerson is the Design, Pre-leasing and Construction Consultant for Reo. As an invested community member and valley resident, his job is to design, demo and reconstruct the new plans as well as find new tenants.

“I should have the first series of funds — ninety-days of work — by Tuesday,” said Dickerson. “We’ll begin the clean-up, demolition and the structural engineering of the façade and new entries to submit to the city. It’s a mess in there right now, but we will secure the property and clean it up.” The budget for the first phase is $2.9 million. Dickerson will also gut a four thousand square foot space and bring it up to current standards for a new incoming tenant who plans to sell cosmetics.

While talking with Dickerson, he paused to take a call from the Reo attorney. After a minute he said, “I’m in touch with them everyday. This is going to be an amazing project. Our vision is to create a gathering place for locals, kids at COD and festival attendees. We are revitalizing the mall in a powerful way!”

Next week, read about the innovative way Reo is attracting businesses to the mall and their future plans for making a 2,000-seat amphitheater, food court and other improvements — all with energy saving net-zero renovations.