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George Lucas' Donation Will be an Extraneous Park

The Chamber of Commerce's idea for a downtown park looks great on paper, but dig deeper and there are some serious problems.

Last month, the to them. The vacant building would be torn down and a park, complete with statues of Yoda and Indiana Jones, would be erected in its place.

Perhaps I’m a curmudgeon to think so, but this doesn’t seem like the best idea.

The Rundown

George Lucas owns 535 San Anselmo Avenue, a one-story, roughly 6,000 square-foot building with three retail spaces (parcel number 007-213-24, if you care about such things). The 1970s-era building opens onto the police parking lot in the rear and lies adjacent to Town Hall. According to , Lucas was approached by the San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce to donate the land and building, together worth about $2 million, for a park.

Lucas agreed, and now planning is on the way to transfer the land, demolish the buildings, and build a new park in downtown. The chamber is thrilled. Its president, Connie Rogers, , “This is going to be great for the city. It will increase revenues for the merchants and bring people to the town center.”

For those of you who don’t know, George Lucas is a San Anselmo local. He’s been heavily involved with town improvements, and you can see the results along Miracle Mile in front of United Markets. The recent demolition of the very old Amazing Grace Music building and the renovated replacement just up the median is his handiwork.

In a much more high-profile case, in Lucas Valley over neighborhood opposition, vowing to put affordable housing at the location instead.

More Green Isn’t Always Good

Though a park, without considering the context, can be a good thing, if we pull back our view from the site and look at all the networks in the area, it doesn’t make sense.

First, we have the parcel’s current use, as retail. San Anselmo lives on sales tax, and a large part of that comes from downtown merchants. Though a park may attract more people to downtown, it’s likely they will mostly be geeky tourists and those of a sort that see the World’s Largest Fork. The park would ride on the cachet of Lucasfilm’s characters, and it’s doubtful the tourists would generate enough revenue to offset the loss from what would be there otherwise. That space will not remain vacant forever, and when it is filled it will be more valuable as productive land than as value-enhancing park space. Creek Park and Town Hall’s front lawn are our green spaces, and they have served well as the town’s living heart.

Even more valuable would be to demolish and rebuild as a two-story structure with housing above. The second floor could provide four to six units, depending on size, and would lock in another four to six households to do most or all of their shopping downtown, boosting sales tax for the town. This wouldn't be unprecedented - there are about 15 such above-store apartments on San Anselmo Avenue already.

If the units are studios or one-bedrooms, both of which are in short supply in Marin, they would likely be starter units for 20-somethings that want to live in town, or empty nest units for people that want to downsize out of their family home, meaning they would add value to the school district without adding children to the district. That brings us to San Anselmo as part of the regional housing market. George Lucas wants to build houses in Grady Ranch; why not focus on building them in the center of our towns instead, in places like 535 San Anselmo?

From an urban perspective, the buildings at 535 are important for the town center’s “urban room”. They’re part of the wall of interesting shops and businesses that line San Anselmo Avenue. Think about that curve in the road by Hilda’s Coffee and the feeling of security and home you get standing there. How different that is from the feeling we get on South San Anselmo Avenue! That difference is what separates a true downtown from just another commercial strip.

Demolishing 535 would open up the room to the police parking lot, giving uninterrupted views from Coffee Roasters to Library Place and the fences behind. Though good landscaping in the park could minimize that damage, a too-open street with views of noninteractive buildings and a parking lot deadens the streetscape. Unless something else is built behind the park to interact with and block the views, the park would likely be a loss to San Anselmo Avenue’s streetscape.

Downtown is also part of the Ross Valley Flood Protection District, and our urban core could get a major overhaul. Though it’s still in preliminary phases, the plan calls for the shops that extend over the creek, behind the Coffee Roasters, to be demolished. This would mean a new extension of Creek Park, which would render the Lucasfilm Park extraneous. Alternatively, it could mean a complete reshaping of downtown; let’s build a park if someplace needs to be demolished to keep the town safe, not just because the Chamber of Commerce thinks it’s a good idea.

This park should not go through. Despite the positives it may bring, the potential downside of a missing tooth is too great for San Anselmo to ignore. If the Chamber wants to boost business downtown, it should not do so by demolishing shops for open space. It should do so by strengthening our center and getting people to live downtown. Our merchants, and the character of San Anselmo, thrives on residents, not visitors.

A park to attract visitors instead of shops to attract shoppers would move us into a more fickle, less stable situation, and that’s a bad idea.

A version of this piece originally appeared in The Greater Marin.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

David Edmondson July 16, 2012 at 08:15 PM
2+ years for a 2-story building? I should hope not. We're both concerned about parks, but Creek Park and the Town Hall lawn are both well-used and well-loved. Creek Park will likely be expanded out of necessity in the near future. I'm just as concerned about quality of life as I am about revenue, but I take issue with the idea that more green is always better. It needs to be done intelligently with full knowledge of the consequences: opening up a view to a parking lot, lost revenue, lost opportunity for downtown housing. If the park will be that much better to offset those losses - either because there isn't much lost or because there's a lot gained - then build it. I'm still not convinced.
Life in the Bubble July 16, 2012 at 09:57 PM
Two years is a reasonable figure for construction on mixed use occupancies. Demolition, site prep and any soil stabilization for starters. Factor in asbestos/lead/toxics mitigation prior to demolition- a reality on old buildings (up to several weeks). Then raised foundation work to protect occupancies from most flooding, increased fire safety requirements for mixed used occupancies, ADA requirements, etc. SA requires dedicated parking for all residences, so a parking lot/garage has to be included in the plan (One dedicated parking space per bedroom, plus visitor spaces just ate your commercial space). Plus any weather/permit/political/funding delays. And neighborhood lawsuits as they may arise. The "view of a parking lot" argument is ridiculous since there are no formal plans yet. There are countless ways of mitigating the issue from fences to walls to landscape. "Lost revenue" isn't really a valid argument either since the building is vacant and hasn't had a steady tenant in years. Then there is the funding issue. Who is going to pay for it? Housing is a legit issue, but 3-5 units wouldn't even scratch the surface of our needs for affordable housing. All of this is beside the point, since the building isn't for sale. SA has someone willing to donate property for a centrally located park for the benefit of its citizens. This is an unheard of opportunity and boon to the residents of San Anselmo.
Michael July 16, 2012 at 09:58 PM
right on George and bring on more parks. I too believe that people who do not live here should not have much of a say although I give Dave credit for stirring the pot of interest and input :). I am sick of the focus on continued development and growth. Haven't we yet learned that the never ending "continue to grow" building model is not sustainable? Listening to a developer paint their story is akin to listening to a politician making their campaign promises. But there are apparently fools everywhere (think of those who voted for the non-smart SMART train while listening to the developers spin). Make it a park, thank George Lucas and move on.
David Edmondson July 17, 2012 at 04:27 AM
@Life Fair criticisms. I checked into the zoning requirements for parking. Studios and one-bedrooms need one on-site space each, 2 bedrooms need 1.5 spaces each, and 3+ need two each, but no visitor space is required. Luckily, if I'm reading it right, the town code allows off-site parking within 150 feet of the development (see 10-3.506). Spaces in the city lots should be made available for the tenants to rent for the same cost as would come into the space were it occupied 24/7. Thankfully, the 2+ year timeline you gave would still only have about 6 months of actual construction and disruption. Housing is a real need, and it gets better with incremental change. Anything big shouldn't go in downtown, but that doesn't mean we stop thinking about the small stuff in favor of only the big. Regarding the views, you'll notice that I wrote, "good landscaping in the park could minimize that damage." I can imagine a number of ways in which that view could be blocked, but the greater openness would still remain to some degree. It's a loss that does need to be mitigated and kept in mind as the park is designed.
John Fuller July 17, 2012 at 03:51 PM
Yes Michael. And Dave Edmonson fancies himself some sort of an urban planning guru, seeks work from developers and is a wannabe politician. We should take whatever he says with a grain of salt.

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