The sprawling greenery of Palm Desert, Calif., grows in contrast to its bordering desert mountains. As one of the fastest growing cities in the state, Palm Desert is nearly an oasis unto itself, burgeoning into a popular resort getaway for those searching for a scenic retreat.

At the heart of Palm Desert is El Paseo Avenue, which has grown into a world-class shopping destination for residents and tourists alike. This upscale retail thoroughfare, with tenants such as Escada, Polo Ralph Lauren and California Pizza Kitchen, has remained successful despite a block-long development gap. With its already-established urban retail contingent, how would El Paseo Avenue benefit if this gap were filled by a similarly positioned upscale shopping destination?

Cincinnati-based Madison Marquette sought and found the answer to that question in The Gardens on El Paseo, a $50 million, 200,000 sq. ft. retail center that shares the affluent address of El Paseo Avenue. The open-air, seven-building complex is anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue and complemented by 100,000 sq. ft. of specialty retail GLA.

Combing the sand John Boorn, Madison Marquette's CEO, explains that up-and-coming desert demographics made developing somewhere in the Coachella Valley an attractive possibility. Madison Marquette honed in on its El Paseo property after an evaluation of some other possible desert development projects.

"We had been working initially with Sunrise Development, a company that was in the golf course, resort and residential community development business," he says. "We were considering teaming with them on a major resort project that they were going to do in a venture with Mitsubishi, but it didn't happen.

"By that time we had looked at the desert a couple of times, we were pretty aware of what was going on there," he continues. "The demographics and trajectory of the desert community was moving in the right direction. It was becoming less seasonal and younger - a very active, well-sought-after kind of place. After we were made aware of the site, we pursued it actively."

The community's sophistication had to be reflected in The Gardens on El Paseo's tenant mix. The project boasts AnnTaylor, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, DaVinci, Talbot's and Williams-Sonoma, among others. Designed with an open-air garden plaza as its retail centerpiece, the development's shops are turned outward so as to continue the urban retail setting already in place.

Paul Heiss, western region development director for Madison Marquette, explains that the location - formerly a valley condominium community - required specific features for it to blend into its surroundings.

"We very much wanted to support street shopping (on El Paseo)," says Heiss. "However, we also wanted to create a place we felt was lacking in the desert: a community gathering area, central plaza park and convenient, structured parking. Those concepts are not necessarily easy to marry with just buildings on the street."

As a closed section of a high-traffic area, the city of Palm Desert saw that something was lacking in the area as well. Not only did The Gardens on El Paseo fill in a city block, but it also gave the area much-needed parking to support the neighboring street retail.

"The city is a partner in the project, and they were involved with us in the initial planning," explains Boorn. He adds that the company built a 1,000-stall, two-story parking garage for both The Gardens on El Paseo customers and street retail shoppers.

"The city had an interest in trying to create an additional increment of parking in order to support El Paseo retail," he says. "So we built several hundred parking spaces in excess of what was required from a zoning basis, and the city acquired a parking easement in order to make the spaces available for the general public."

Infused with desert elements If The Gardens on El Paseo's parking structure addresses an immediate need for the surrounding street retail (as well as its own), the project's overall design and image reflect a slightly more removed element: that of the surrounding desert. Both Boorn and Heiss have strong architectural backgrounds, and as Heiss points out, designing a project to embody its environment is a top priority of Madison Marquette.

"It's really important in all of our projects," Heiss says. "There's a panache and taste level in the desert that had to be addressed in this project. However, it's also a very casual place, with the outdoor activities of golf, tennis and charity fundraising. That's a very fine line to walk: We didn't want to be stuffy, but we needed to be tastefully elegant in a very desert-authentic kind of way."

Along with Los Angeles-based design team Altoon + Porter, Madison Marquette gave The Gardens on El Paseo a combination of lush landscaping and desert architecture. Fountains and palm trees accent the project's buildings, which are fabricated with stone, wood, plaster, tile and many other elements specific to the area.

Shoppers enter into a motor court and front gateway, decorated by desert rock and exotic plants. Fountains, palm trees, flower gardens and an expansive lawn area dot the project's landscape. In the evenings, the project's date palms are uplit to illuminate the entryway's scalloped trunk and canopy underside.

The main space between El Paseo and internal retail areas are the project's Paseo Corridors, which feature a large canopy of Chilean mesquite trees that provide pedestrians with filtered shade. Some corridor areas are designed with a band of exotic starfish plants that produce large purple flowers, while along the building facades a small planting-pocket houses creeping fig plants.

According to Ron Altoon, partner with Altoon + Porter, Palm Desert residents were searching for a new shopping concept, one that used design to play to their sense of style and taste.

"They are a group that enjoys recreation, and are highly educated and very sophisticated," he says. "Their shopping needs were not being met by the conventional means in the desert. The large-scale shopping centers offered a price point that was different than what they were interested in, and also offered a cultural experience that was somewhat distant from the reason they chose to live in the desert in the first place. And so they were looking for something more tranquil, more comfortable, more at ease, and more akin to the lifestyle that they had selected for themselves."

One of the more centralized aspects of the development is the Grand Lawn, designed as a meeting and gathering place. The lawn is at a lower grade than the bordering storefronts and walkways and features date palms, dalea ground cover, Agave and desert spoon plants, and red, flowering bougainvillea. The Grand Lawn area, set off at its center by a large, elevated water fountain, will accommodate twilight concerts, art exhibits, community meetings and daily activities.

"The Grand Lawn unites the project," Altoon says. "The lawn gives The Gardens on El Paseo a kind of a special gift, while the project itself is doing a lot of work. It holds the street edge, which is good for the retailers, the street and the entire community; it also creates formal paseos that lead you into the heart of the project. And at the center there is this unexpected piece that distinguishes it from anything else in the desert.

"The decision was made to make it an open-air, natural project - not to hide from climate but to work with it," he continues. "In order to do that, the subtleties of architectural design that relate to building in climates like that had to be reflected. The landscape, being both a desertscape and greenscape playing off one another, is intended to remind one about man's presence in the desert. The desert will always be stronger no matter what you do, and therefore it's a way of being respectful."

Woven into city fabric The Gardens on El Paseo's design features are a reflection of how Madison Marquette aims to customize each project to its immediate surrounds - in the desert or otherwise, says Boorn.

"Our attitude about that in every place we develop is to make sure that the projects are not standardized, cookie-cutter, crank-'em-out, template types of projects," he says, adding that it takes a significant amount of customization for a project to marry well with its surroundings.

"We do not have a formula about what we do," he continues. "Our projects all have common themes as it relates to merchandising, but it's the commitment to be part of the culture and community in which they sit that makes them different. So the need to create a special place with The Gardens on El Paseo as an oasis in the desert really sponsored and prompted the design concept."

Altoon argues that The Gardens on El Paseo is an answer to how the regional mall tide is swinging back to customers searching for a downtown, Main Street-like shopping experience. "There is a cultural shift in this country away from the everyday demands of a regional shopping center," he says. "People liked Main Street because it was a place not only for commercial activities but also for civic, cultural and social activities. This project reinforces the sense of Main Street, and I think that's its strongest quality."

Louis Kaufman, senior associate with Altoon + Porter, says in order to achieve this type of civic and social atmosphere within the heart of Palm Desert, both Madison Marquette and Altoon + Porter had to complete The Gardens on El Paseo as an extension of the rest of the city.

"One of the important aspects of this project is that the city was looking for a premier development to fill this gap," he says. "The project acts in a certain way as an amendment to the existing city fabric. That's a fairly different idea about retail centers as we move into the next century."

Knowledge about the market's specialized needs helped give The Gardens on El Paseo a natural home in Palm Desert.

"The nature of creating a special place that fits and responds to a community is, to some degree, a process of discovery," Boorn says. "If our attitude is, 'Well, we've got the answer and we'll just drop it right there,' it's presumptuous certainly, but it's also naive and dangerous. So what we want to do is spend enough time participating not only in the design but in the community and what their needs and wants are."