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.