June 17, 2024

Palm Springs City Council and SunCal Revive Serena Park Housing Development

By Bob Marra

The long-stalled Serena Park project in Palm Springs is poised for a significant revival following the Palm Springs City Council’s approval of substantial amendments to the development agreement. These amendments, proposed by major Irvine-based developer SunCal on behalf of the current owner, PS Country Club LLC, signal a much-needed fresh start for the 126-acre residential community that has faced numerous challenges since its inception.

Background and Project Scope

Initially approved in 2016, the Serena Park project aimed to transform the long-dormant former Palm Springs Country Club golf course into a vibrant residential community. The project site, encompassing 126 acres of land, is located east of Sunrise Way, north of Verona Road, and southwest of the Whitewater River floodplain. The development plan includes a mix of 386 attached and detached residential units, streets, private open spaces, and a public park. Despite the promising vision, the project has been plagued by delays and non-compliance issues, leading the city to declare the owner in default in 2022.

Key Amendments to the Development Agreement

The latest amendments to the development agreement are designed to ensure the project’s timely progression and financial viability. These revisions include:

  • Increased Development Agreement Fee: The development agreement fee has been increased from the remaining balance of $2.5 million to $3.2 million. This fee is structured to be paid in installments between June 2025 and November 2027.
  • Revised Performance Schedule: The new performance schedule outlines specific milestones for recording subdivision maps and developing different phases of the project. These milestones, spanning from June 2025 to November 2027, are intended to ensure that the project progresses in a timely manner. Each phase of the development has clear deadlines to maintain momentum and accountability.
  • Property Maintenance and Security Obligations: Enhanced maintenance and security measures have been introduced to address ongoing issues with property upkeep and safety. These measures include monthly removal of trash and debris, annual application of dust control sealant, installation of surveillance cameras, daily patrols, and the erection of “No Trespassing” signs. These steps are crucial to maintaining the property until construction begins, ensuring a safer and cleaner environment for the community. SunCal agreed to do a better job than its predecessors in communicating with neighbors through community meetings and informative signage.
  • Community Facilities District (CFD) Financing: The city has agreed to cooperate in establishing a CFD or a similar financing mechanism to reimburse the developer for public infrastructure costs and development impact fees. This includes funding for public streets, water facilities, sewer systems, and other essential infrastructure. The CFD financing is designed to support the project’s financial sustainability while ensuring the development of necessary public amenities.
  • Off-Site Improvements: The city received a commitment from SunCal that they will improve Golden Sands Road and install a sidewalk.

Financial and Community Impact

The amendments to the development agreement are not just about timelines and fees; they are a strategic move to align the project with community expectations and secure its financial viability. Mayor Jeffrey Bernstein emphasized the importance of this project for the community, stating, “The Serena Park project is crucial for meeting our housing needs and enhancing our community amenities. These amendments ensure that the project will proceed with clear timelines and robust maintenance commitments, ultimately benefiting the residents of Palm Springs.”

City Manager Scott C. Stiles echoed this sentiment, highlighting the amendments’ strategic significance: “These changes reflect our commitment to holding developers accountable while also facilitating progress. By enhancing the development agreement, we ensure that the Serena Park project will contribute positively to our city’s growth and infrastructure.”

“The proof, obviously, is in the pudding. The first deliverable is going to be how quickly that property gets cleaned up,” said Councilmember Lisa Middleton. “We’ve been down this road before with new ownership coming in, and that can make all the difference.”

Environmental and Planning Considerations

Environmental considerations have been a key aspect of the Serena Park project since its inception. The City Council previously certified the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project in 2016. The recent amendments do not trigger the need for a new EIR or additional environmental documentation which is critical to enable the project to remain environmentally responsible while progressing towards completion.

The Planning Commission, which reviewed the proposed development plan amendments on May 22, 2024, supported the changes and recommended their approval with additional conditions to ensure thorough property maintenance and security. The commission’s recommendations have been incorporated into the amended agreement, further strengthening the project’s foundation.

Community Reactions and Expectations

City council members and some of the residents who made public comments during the meeting expressed concern because they assumed the $3.2-million development fee would not be allocated for the purchase of land to be maintained as open space elsewhere in the city. This was a requirement in the prior agreement but not specifically outlined in the latest version of the deal. City staff removed that requirement in the newly amended agreement to give council members more flexibility with the use of the funds. In turn, the city council members asked for the final agreement to designate the funding for the purchase of open space but without identifying where.

“The proof, obviously, is in the pudding,” Councilmember Lisa Middleton stated. “The first deliverable is going to be how quickly that property gets cleaned up. We’ve been down this road before with new ownership coming in, and that can make all the difference.”

Community members expressed a mix of optimism and cautious anticipation regarding the revival of the Serena Park project. Martha Williams, a longtime resident of Palm Springs, shared her thoughts: “We’ve been waiting for something to happen with this site for years. It’s good to see some concrete steps being taken to finally move forward. This area has a lot of potential, and it’s encouraging to see a clear plan in place.”

Another resident expressed both hope and concern: “While I’m glad there’s a new plan, I just hope the developers stick to this schedule. We’ve had too many false starts. It’s crucial that they follow through this time for the sake of the community.”

The next project milestone is June 2025, when SunCal must create lots ready to be recorded for the first 80 homes and plans for the park. The final milestone is November 2027, when the last phase of the project will be completed.

Vision for the Future

The Serena Park project, with its ambitious scope and strategic location, promises to significantly enhance Palm Springs’ residential landscape. The mix of attached and detached residential units, combined with private open spaces and a public park, aims to create a balanced and vibrant community. The development’s focus on providing essential infrastructure such as public streets, water facilities, and sewer systems ensures that it will be well-equipped to meet the needs of future residents.

The collaboration between the city and the developers facilitated through mechanisms like CFD financing, underscores a shared commitment to the project’s success. By reimbursing the developer for public infrastructure costs and development impact fees, the city is ensuring that the financial burden is shared, making the project more sustainable in the long run.

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