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Desert, Anywhere: The Problem with Yucca Valley

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This story was published by KCET five years ago. The problems since then  have only exacerbated. The town has grown beyond its limits.

 

KCET Social Focus By Chris Clarke

Desert, Anywhere: The Problem with Yucca Valley

Two new traffic lights are going in on the main road leading to our place. Outside of East California, that wouldn’t be big news. Here in the Morongo Basin, it’s historic. The two signals are the first ever on Yucca Trail, a major two-lane alternative to busy Route 62 between Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree, where the road becomes Alta Loma. There’s not nearly enough traffic on the road to justify the expense, but the city of Yucca Valley has high hopes that it will be able to make itself indistinguishable from any other crowded, uninteresting cluster of stripmalls in the state.

The lights going in at Yucca Trail’s intersections with Joshua and Palomar have taken a few weeks to install so far, and they come with increased capacity at the intersections, which until now had been four-way stops. Turn lanes have been added, a flurry of roadbed construction that caused traffic bottlenecks at each intersection. Sometimes things got so bad that as many as three cars would be backed up in each direction. It was a nightmare, trust me. The construction backups added as much as forty seconds to typical travel time along the six-mile stretch of road between Yucca Valley’s core and Joshua Tree.

The proximate cause of these long-overdue improvements is the looming Walmart SuperStore on Route 62 at Avalon. A patch of open desert studded with mature Joshua trees when we moved here a year ago, the building’s now near complete, and the Joshua trees consigned to a long withering death in their transplant locations. The new Walmart will replace the old Walmart, which was less than a mile away.

There isn’t exactly a crowd of new retailers hoping to snap up the old Walmart space. That building will likely go vacant for a long time, joining a few dozen other shuttered commercial properties. When the Walmart Superstore opens, which is expected to happen in June, the boundaries of Yucca Valley’s sprawl will have pushed slightly outward, and so will the boundaries of the seedy, vacant center of town, only a mile behind.

Yucca Valley, in short, is like the short-sighted urban planner’s version of the creosote rings that used to live where the Walmart Superstore is rising. It expands around a dead center.

Cities don’t usually spring up without a reason, especially in the desert. Needles is where it is because the Santa Fe Railroad crossed the Colorado not far away. Barstow sprang up where a couple of historic wagon trails crossed the Mojave River. Twentynine Palms grew around the Marine Corps base.

Yucca Valley grew because a few real estate speculators thought it might make them some money.

Yucca Valley started out as a hamlet called “Lone Star,” a waystation for watering horses and mules between Banning and the Twentynine Palms mining district. A few homesteaders settled in the west end of the Morongo Basin, their numbers growing after World War I veterans whose lungs had been damaged in gas attacks discovered the area’s clean air helped them heal. In the late 1950s, members of Los Angeles society not particularly drawn to the pool party lifestyle of Palm Springs discovered the Morongo Basin, and desert subdivisions began to attach themselves to Route 62.

That’s a fine recipe for a small city, a low-rent Sedona or Telluride, and you can still see the roots of that neglected future Yucca Valley in the scattering of shops around Route 62 and Pioneertown Road, in Yucca Valley’s Old Town. It’s not a recipe for the 40-square-mile scattering of strip malls that Yucca Valley became.

It’s not just the Walmart. (It never is.) The stretch of Route 62 that runs the few miles between Old Town and the new Walmart is chockablock with seedy-looking convenience stores, a fair representation of downscale fast food chains, buildings that once housed larger chain stores, payday loan businesses and nail shops. Two gigantic national chain drugstores each occupy a corner of a block of land that trembles before the developers’ machinery. Only the reluctance to lend money to obviously doomed enterprises bankers seem to have developed since 2008 has kept the land unbuilt so far.

The boosters think positive nonetheless. A vacant lot behind one of those drugstores bears a cheerful looking sign advertising the businesses the developer would like to think will occupy the site as if they’re already up and running. One of the businesses advertised on that putative commercial space now occupied by a prematurely bulldozed desert is a Vietnamese restaurant.

I confess to having mixed feelings about that one. It would be nice to have a Vietnamese restaurant that close. And despite my ambivalence, which I think is shared by some of my neighbors who head into Yucca to buy supplies and then leave as quickly as possible, there is nothing about Yucca Valley that would suggest the town could ever support the amount of business development the boosters dream of.

In order for a city’s economy to prosper, it has to offer something to the outside world. Aside from one obvious nearby attraction — more about that below — Yucca doesn’t offer much. It’s 25 miles from the popular off-road vehicle area at Johnson Valley, but Landers and Lucerne Valley are closer. Yucca Valley offers off-base housing for military and civilian staff working at the Twentynine Palms marine base, but housing in Twentynine is about 25 miles closer.

KCET Full Story, this Link.
Above KCET photo: Raymond Yue/Flickr/Creative Commons License  

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