Grady Ranch Is All Wrong

George Lucas' push for housing at Grady Ranch would just be more sprawl. Affordable homes or not, it would lock low-income families into a high-cost car-centered lifestyle and that's bad for everyone.

George Lucas’s great foray into affordable housing is wrong for Marin, wrong for affordable housing, and wrong for the people that would live there. The Grady Ranch development plan needs to be scrapped.

After the collapse of LucasFilm’s Grady Ranch studio proposal, then-owner George Lucas promised to build affordable housing on the site instead. Many observers, including me, saw it as payback to the Lucas Valley anti-development crowd that killed the studio project, but few thought George was serious.

Yet Lucas and his partners at the Marin Community Foundation are charging ahead with 200-300 units of affordable housing anyway. While it does present an opportunity to build affordable homes, the site couldn’t be worse.

Grady Ranch is located out on Lucas Valley Road, far from any downtown, commercial center, or regular transit line. It’s right at the edge of the North San Rafael sprawl line – a car-oriented area even where it’s already built up.

Lucas Valley Road itself is essentially a limited-access rural highway, with cars speeding along at 50 miles per hour. There’s no development on the south side, and the north side only has entrances to the neighborhoods. No buildings actually front the road. Yet, it’s the only access to the Highway 101 transit trunk line, to nearly any commercial or shopping areas, or between neighborhoods.

Development here would be bad by any measure. Car-centric sprawl fills our roads with more traffic, generates more demand for parking, and forces residents to play Russian roulette every time they want to get milk. It takes retail activity away from our town centers, weakening the unique Marin character embodied in downtowns.

The infrastructure, too, is inefficient. Grady Ranch would need to be covered by police service, fire service, sewage, water, electricity, and some modicum of transit, but those costs are based on geography, not population. Serving a square mile with 300 homes is a lot more expensive per home than a square mile with 1,000.

Yet the fact that this will be affordable housing makes the project even more egregious. Driving is expensive, with vehicle depreciation, gas, maintenance, insurance, and parking costs all eating up scads of money. On a population level, one can add in the cost of pollution and injuries and deaths in crashes. A home in Grady Ranch would be affordable, but the cost of actually living there would be quite high.

The nonprofit aspect of the project would mean no taxes could be raised to cover its infrastructure and services. Building affordable housing in a mixed area means they’re covered by preexisting services. Though usage is more intense, there is typically enough spare capacity to take on more residents. Building something beyond current development means new infrastructure and services need to be built specifically for that project but without any existing residents to pay for it. It would be a massive and ongoing drain on county coffers.

This is the worst possible place for affordable housing. Grady Ranch, if it’s not going to be a film studio, needs to remain as open space. An affordable housing project out at the exurban edge of Marin cannot be affordable because car-centric development is fundamentally unaffordable.

I respect the efforts of George Lucas and Marin Community Foundation to find a place for the low-income to live, but Grady Ranch is not it. Lucas and MCF need to look at urban infill sites and focus on building up in those areas that are transit-accessible and walkable, places that are actually affordable. Replicating the discredited drive-‘til-you-qualify dynamic in Marin is not the answer; it’s just recreating the problem.

A version of this post appeared in The Greater Marin.

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David Edmondson December 13, 2012 at 04:10 PM
I wouldn't really call it "easy". Most likely, Marin Transit would extend out the 139 school bus and GGT would extend the 44 bus. If that adds, oh, 10 minutes to the travel time, it means an extra annual cost of about $40,000 per year. Adding a brand new shuttle, if it runs as quickly as the 44 and does 6 round trips per day, would cost about $256,000 per year. If farebox recovery is equivalent to the rest of the system, we could knock about 20% off that.
Robin Brennan December 14, 2012 at 03:02 AM
Sweat Equity homes, Senior Housing, Homes for Foster children in need of quality education and a loving environment all are needed in Marin. Senior housing near Juvenile Hall, JCC and in Fairfax are examples of wonderful housing developments. If people want to convert this property into open space they need to raise the money to buy the land and then give it away to MALT. Nimbys have made many of us ashamed to live in Marin. If I had any money I would be looking for some open space myself and getting away from people who only get involved in issues that impact their commute, their views or their sleep.
T McDermott December 19, 2012 at 04:14 PM
I would be all in favor of this if it wasn't so remote a location. The location puts a strain delayed response time on police, fire, emergency services and increases the liklyhood of car or other traffic accidents, that road just past the present houses is treacherous. George Lucas first use for the land was perfect, so now that the neighborhood (who incidentally didn't mind Metallica noise pollution of dirt bikes, go-carts and electric music in epic proportions) has effectivly put a rock in the stream and Mr. Lucas let his temper got the best of him what now? I don't think low income housing is the answer but I could see an organic farm like the Zen Center at Muir Beach. Marin and the whole Bay Area could benefit from products grown by onsite farmers and producers. There are millions of cheeses, textiles, foods both vegetable and animal that could be nurtured there in a real country setting with style. There is no need for traffic or the constant maintenance that 300 dwellings would create besides the sewage, water, garbage, human footprint. There is a need for healthy creative food production.
T. Ford December 21, 2012 at 04:18 PM
As much as I would hate to reward the " Lucas valley few" who destroyed George's dream with something they might actually accept, I think T. McDermott might be on the right track. Affordable farms ? Affordable housing for urban farmers ? A farming education center for lower income ? A farm co-op administered by a new branch of MALT would be an interesting experiment. Would a farm produce outlet mall work. Who knows till you try? George? Supervisors? Malt? What do ya think?
Will Lamers December 21, 2012 at 06:15 PM
Not knowing George personally I cannot comment on his attitude, but after all the work that he put in to the proposal to try to meet all the demands put on him, my feeling is that he simply gave up. If he does not make movies he does not make money, and if he does not make money then his employees don't make money, and so on down the line. There was no way that the NIMBYs would let him build, so he cut his losses and let the land revert to its original zoning. While all of your ideas are ideal, my guess is that they would all require a modification to the current zoning, which may well be shot down by the NIMBYs.


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