Gardens on El Paseo

San Rafael near Catalina Way
Palm Desert, CA

Submitted by: Val Moses

A retail center with great gardens and innovative environmental features.

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Why It Works

The goal of the Gardens on El Paseo was to revitalize the local economy by giving tourists and residents of Palm Desert a vibrant, upscale retail environment in a unique, outdoor garden setting. The six-acre site is centrally located along El Paseo, a street lined with small boutique shops and commercial offices in the heart of the city.

The central half-acre garden features a native palm grove and desert arroyo garden reminiscent of the natural landscapes found throughout the surrounding Coachella Valley, where natural stone and plant materials form a lush garden of palms, shade trees and succulents. Local horticultural students use the garden to cultivate rare or endangered desert annuals in a flora showcase that can be seen from the street.

The design mitigates the effect of the sun with trellises over several paseos (tight high-walled passageways) and native desert plantings in open-space areas. The desert garden serves as a water retention area for storm-water runoff and on-site water treatment. Palms reduce heat from sunlight and the pavers, which are set in sand, may be watered down in the mornings for slow, cooling evaporation throughout the day. Indigenous, water-efficient landscape materials reduce water consumption and create a lush environment.

What Makes Gardens on El Paseo a Great Place?

It has become the heart of the city's retail district. It connects to its surroundings by emulating the desert landscape. It is accessible by car and by pedestrian. Its pathway materials are native stone and concrete.

Vehicles are kept away from the space and it is fully pedestrian-friendly. It is kept clean and free of litter and it is patrolled by security guards.

One of the intentions of this project was to create a space that would be comfortable for people year-round, and the gardens are indeed used year-round.

It tends to appeal to upscale residents and tourists, but it has become a meeting place for locals of all age groups and income levels.

History & Background

The project got its start as result of a decline in retail sales in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which made it hard for the city to keep up with public infrastructure and social services needs of its steadily growing population. Although city officials wanted to create a year-round shopping destination to generate revenue, financing could not be secured because summer temperatures usually kept shoppers away. It wasn’t until a developer and design team figured out how to create a place that would be environmentally friendly and comfortable in all seasons – with gardens, courtyards and shaded promenades –that Gardens on El Paseo became a reality.

The team consisted of the developer, Madison Marquette; the architect, Altoon + Porter Architects LLP, and the landscape architect, Design Workshop, Inc. They worked together to create site plans that were reviewed by city representatives and key neighborhood groups to confirm the project’s goals and objectives. Among its key objectives were the desire to make a sustainable landscape, a place that people can visit year-round and a space that can host special community events.

Contact Info:

Jim MacRae, Design Workshop: (303) 623-5186

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