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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.

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 December 12, 2012 at 03:07 AM
Look, the Grady Ranch pullout was a fiasco of epic proportions; I was outraged that the NIMBY forces had been able to score such a victory. It made the New York Times for crissake! Epic fail. My problem is with the alternative. Housing at Grady Ranch is bad bad bad. The studio would've been low-intensity enough that even the bus-commuting employees could get a ride out to the studio if needed. Much of the land would've been saved. This proposal isn't just bad, it's terrible, for all the reasons I've outlined. I love the irony of the situation, but I hate sprawl more. Let's not cut off our nose to spite our face.
Bob Ratto December 12, 2012 at 03:42 AM
David Best piece you have ever written, hands down. While there was a lot going on behind the scenes, you are absolutely correct, this is likely the worst spot you could envision in Marin for such housing. Instead of creek restoration...well you can put your own images in place. Good piece, thanks!
JAN December 12, 2012 at 04:39 AM
Lucas Valley Home Owners were very successful in shutting down George Lucas' project. YIPPEE! You won! Sometimes you really need to be careful for what you wish for. The Grady Ranch project would have helped increase property values in area with little need and brought jobs, payroll taxes and new residents to our community. It will be interesting to watch how this new threat to the Lucas Valley community is handled. This will be a much tougher nut for the Lucas Valley Home Owners to crack. I suspect the project will go through.
Kevin Moore December 12, 2012 at 05:00 AM
I agree with Bob, excellent piece. This project is outside what I would call "the Goldilocks distance from the 101 corridor", which would be "not too close" and "not too far." (I would not want to live next to 101 due to the pollution and noise.) There are two other issues involving the creek. First, the problems with building the digital studio, might still be a problem with the housing project. Also, if you look at the entrance to Grady Ranch using Google Earth, there appears to be no room for a sidewalk on Lucas Valley Road. Question: You said there would be no property taxes for this project. Do "affordable housing units" get a 100% tax break? That would make for an interesting article. Thanks!
Bang Chun December 12, 2012 at 05:00 AM
I think it's fantastic and should be built. When it's completed more should be built farther south. All of the points mentioned in this article are spot on! The only difference between this and other terrible low income housing ideas is that this one is not in Novato where resistance to it would be ignored.
David Edmondson December 12, 2012 at 06:00 AM
Kevin - it's not affordable housing units that get tax breaks, it's nonprofits. If the land or a building is owned by a nonprofit, it's untaxable for property taxes or parcel taxes. Yes, I called the county assessor's office to make sure. As for the sidewalk - well, there's plenty of space within the area to do a sidewalk. The problem isn't space, though, it's distance and walkability. It's 3.4 miles to the freeway along an isolated, unshaded strip of asphalt. That's biking distance, but there aren't any safe biking paths along there. A good measure to take the project from "quite terrible" to "terrible" would be a shaded Class I bike lane on the north side of Lucas Valley Road. At least that would help the existing communities and give people a bike option in addition to the car.
David Edmondson December 12, 2012 at 06:07 AM
BTW, re: nonprofits. Affordable housing built by for-profit companies DO pay taxes. It's why I'm such a booster of inclusionary zoning and taking away some of the more onerous burdens placed on for-profit developers, like density limits (should just be height limits) and parking minimums so developments can still be profitable even with affordable housing as part of the unit mix. And thanks for the feedback!
Will Lamers December 12, 2012 at 05:37 PM
JAN, get your organizations correct. Do not confuse the Lucas Valley homeowners Association (http://www.lvha.org/) with the Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association (http://lvestates.org/). Two different groups, with two different opinions.
Will Lamers December 12, 2012 at 06:00 PM
David - Was it the residents of Lucas Valley, or the residents of Lucas Valley Estates who opposed George Lucas' project? According to the Lucas Valley Homeowners Association website, they are on record with the county as agreeing with the project. As I recall, it was the Lucas Valley **Estates** Homeowners Association who opposed the Skywalker project. As a former resident of Lucas Valley, I would love to have that straightened out.
Will Lamers December 12, 2012 at 06:01 PM
Having grown up in Lucas Valley (not Lucas Valley **Estates**), I am aware of the difficulties of that road. Riding my bike, and later learning to drive on that road was an adventure. I agree that putting the housing out there would create issues, however, I feel that this is simply a case of the the Lucas Valley **Estates** residents getting what they wanted, but not what they expected. When I was growing up in Lucas Valley, what is now Lucas Valley **Estates** was cattle land and horse ranches. Now those who live in the fancy houses that used to be open space want to deny others from being able to do the same. Shame, shame, shame. George is simply allowing the property to be developed as it was originally zoned. That it is a worse use of the space is neither here nor there; the Lucas Valley **Estates** Homeowners Association knew what the land was originally zoned for going in to this. Dn't want housing there? Should have thought about that earlier. Hey, want to stop George and the MCF from building houses above you? Do as the Lucas Valley Homeowners Association (not to be confused with the Lucas Valley **Estates** Homeowners Association) did back when development was planned for the hills above our neighborhood - we bought the land. Do that, and I will applaud you. Otherwise, I find it hard to have compassion....
David Edmondson December 12, 2012 at 06:04 PM
I think it was a narrow subset of Estates residents who opposed the project and not even enough to blanket the whole neighborhood in blame. That's why I said, "Lucas Valley anti-development crowd" rather than paint either the homeowner's association (which was apparently revived by a couple of people just to fight the proposal) or the Estates neighborhood with a single brush. Thanks for ensuring clarity.
Kevin Moore December 12, 2012 at 06:52 PM
Hi David, Good info on non-profits and taxes. I travel out Lucas Valley road often and have looked at the entrance area. From Grady Ranch road to Westgate road, there is almost no room for a sidewalk on Lucas Valley Road. This would need to be walked to get to the nearest bus stop, one mile away. Lucas could build a couple of pedestrian bridges and a path away from the creek. Enter this address in Google Maps to see the area from Street View: 2512 Lucas Valley Road, San Rafael, CA I have no idea who owns the massive estate next to Grady Ranch.
Kevin Moore December 12, 2012 at 07:05 PM
Good info on the two groups. The two areas are very different. The creek was the big issue with the Grady Ranch Studio project. Did anyone in the county look into relocating the studio on that property or doing a land swap for county property? High paying jobs is what this county needs and Lucas could have brought a many of them.
Will Lamers December 12, 2012 at 07:11 PM
Thanks David, that is what I understood also. I just get annoyed when I mention that I grew up in Lucas Valley, the whole valley gets painted as anti-Lucas, rather than the small vocal group. Cheers...
JAN December 12, 2012 at 07:31 PM
My apologies to the Lucas Valley HOA. I didn't know the Lucas Valley "Estates" HOA was a different group. Well, they still carried the day, won the battle and get to enjoy the fruits of their victory. They kicked George Lucas studio off the back of the bus and now can look forward to a whole new group of neighbors. I venture to say they won't have as much luck scuppering this new project. Smart money says that the person who was the prime mover in killing Lucas' project will simple sell and move on. Wait and see.
Jeffrey Gimzek December 13, 2012 at 05:03 AM
These "objections" are meaningless and hypocritical. They apply to ALL development. 90% of Marin is car centric. All the richies get to build giant 4000 sq. ft. mansions in the middle of nowhere and drive their gas guzzling Porsche Cayennes all over, but when poors (which, in Marin, is $50k a year) want to do it "it's unsustainable". Let them all buy subsidized plug-in cars and put in a charging station, or run an electric bus out there. These folks would be middle class anywhere else in the country, and every time I see an affordable housing project proposed here in Marin it's a crap load of griping that only the 3 adjacent neighbors of the richies houses do. Take a look at Marin on google maps, and see all the HUGE MANSIONS all over the so-called woods out on Lucas Valley road. You know what is unsustainable? The American way of life. This land is on high ground. Where do you think all the poors in the Canal and Sausalito and other low-lying areas are going to move to in the next 50 years as the sea takes back large sections of our county? Plus, if this makes that selfish jerkoff Hetfield's property values go down, it's win-win.
JAN December 13, 2012 at 05:44 AM
Looks like the Top 2% will get to mix with the 47% once mentioned by a politician of limited skill and sense.
Bob Hunter December 13, 2012 at 03:47 PM
GGT could easily provide shuttle service from the development to the San Rafael transportation center.
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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