At Riverside’s old farm-themed motel, shuttered since 2007, the asphalt and concrete have been torn up, the soil newly turned. Are the fall crops going in? Nope.
The folks at work under the unforgiving sun are not farmers but a construction crew.
The Farm House Motel property is set to reopen in spring 2024 as Farm House Collective, an “anti-mall” of food stalls, retail shops and entertainment.
“We saw it sitting vacant,” developer Alyssa Digangi told me. “My family came to the city with an unsolicited proposal to do an eatery, retail and event space with a beer garden.”
Her family’s company, Perris-based Stronghold Engineering, bought the 1-acre property from the city in 2018 for $210,000. The city’s former redevelopment agency had bought it in 2008 when the motel closed. It’s sat vacant all these years.
I’d been curious about the property since first noticing it two years ago. I had pulled into the parking lot next door to eat at Templo del Sol (a fine place, by the way) and was entranced by its neighbor.
What was this charming but decaying old motor court motel behind chain-link fencing? I took a couple of photos as documentation.
Next time I visited, a banner for Farm House Collective had been posted. This seemed promising.
Early in 2023, I was introduced by email to Digangi and we made plans to meet at the site in mid-February for a tour. But with rain in the forecast, and because the site had open trenches, Digangi suggested we wait until after the weather cleared and the site dried out.
What followed, as you may remember, was week after week of rain.
By summer, I’d almost forgotten the whole thing. In August, Digangi and I set a date for a tour. Which we had to cancel, because the forecast called for rain again. Tropical Storm Hilary, in fact.
If you want rain, no need to pray or seed the clouds. Just arrange an outdoor tour with me.
Anyway, six months late, we finally met on Aug. 30. It wasn’t raining. In fact, it was dry and blazing hot.
All the wet stuff delayed construction, which had begun last November. For one 90-day stretch, “we had only 10 productive days of construction,” Digangi said ruefully. “That was a challenge. Everything we had done, almost everything, we had to redo.”
Rain may be good for farmers, but it wasn’t so good for Farm House Collective.
Now it’s a bustling site of activity. New utility lines were installed and overhead lines buried. Fresh foundations were poured for the original buildings, which have been cleaned out and are under repair.
The motel had suffered a fire in the front five units shortly before the purchase. A debris pile to the immediate west, where a motel was being demolished, caught fire, which spread to the Farm House.
And the buildings were graffitied and showed signs of habitation. “There were messes everywhere,” Digangi said.
Is it fair to say the Farm House had become a pig sty?
It was once clean as a whistle. The motel along University Avenue opened in 1953. The rustic motor court with its red-painted wooden buildings also had the figure of a horse posed by a real buggy at the entry.
Travelers were beckoned by a neon sign shaped like a barn that read “Farm House Motel” and promised “refrigerated air.” What’ll they think of next, Pa?
The owners were Isidore and Marie Claire Camou, members of the local Basque community who worked at local dairies and who probably knew a thing or two about farmhouses.
Digangi’s parents, Scott and Beverly Bailey, had their first date next door at Cask ‘n Cleaver when University was in full swing. But the street declined over time.
Digangi and her brother Kyler had lived in bigger cities when they decided to return to their native Riverside and buy homes. But they felt the absence of fun hangouts like they’d known in the urban areas they’d left behind.
When the family noticed the Farm House property sitting behind a fence, something clicked.
The property has been landmarked by the city and its look will remain largely intact, Digangi explained. But the use will be very different, with shops and food stalls in the former 25-unit motel, picnic tables, an Airstream trailer and a stage at the rear.
Digangi promised strings of lights and a garden for ambience and misters for hot days. She didn’t bring up refrigerated air.
Her family is investing “multi-millions” in the project, she said, declining to share the precise number. I imagine it ain’t chicken feed. But the prospects sound good.
“We’re one business away from being fully leased,” Digangi told me. That single vacancy was only because she was deciding between applications for vegan or Mediterranean food.
Locked in is pizza, tacos, sushi, hot chicken, acai bowls, American and Filipino food. (Digangi, who is part Filipino, is particularly proud of that.) A record store, women’s thrifted clothing, home goods and eco-friendly products are among the retail uses.
“They’re all new businesses to Riverside, which is exciting,” Digangi said. “Like maybe their location is Redlands or Rancho (Cucamonga) and now they’ll have a location in Riverside.”
Some familiar old touches will return. The horse figure was acquired from the Camou family and has been freshly painted. The buggy was too decrepit but a new one will be built from scratch.
And the neon sign has been restored to working order. It’s in storage for safekeeping until the site is ready. The sign will be placed at the entrance, this time to beckon motorists looking for a fun place to hang out.
“It says ‘Farm House Motel,’” Digangi said. “We’re going to light up ‘No Vacancy’!”
At the Soup Shoppe, a Riverside favorite since 1977, you sit wherever you like. The policy extends to the restaurant’s farther reaches. In the single-occupancy men’s room, a polite sign on the wall reads: “Please seat yourself.”
David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, delicately. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.