Grady Ranch Is All Wrong

A great place for some infill development. Photo by Skywalker Properties.

A great place for some infill development. Photo by Skywalker Properties.

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 depreciation, gas, maintenance, insurance, and parking costs all eating up scads of money. On a population level, you can add in the cost of pollution, as well as 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.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

7 Responses to Grady Ranch Is All Wrong

  1. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog San Francisco

  2. David M. says:

    Well said, David. There are few places in the county worse for low income housing than way out at the end of Lucas Valley. George Lucas is just being spiteful, which is beyond pathetic. The county was perfectly willing to help get him quickly through the approval process for his studio, but he’d rather stick it to the tiny handful of neighbors who opposed his studio idea (really, it’s one guy with whom Lucas has been battling back and forth for years).

    And shame on the Marin Community Foundation. What are they thinking? How does it help low income families to live as far away from services and transportation options as possible? How does it help them to be burdened with the expense of buying, operating and maintaining a car? Hopefully, this dies quickly and affordable housing (which I agree is sorely needed) is built somewhere much more appropriate.

  3. Sprague says:

    This piece is very well written. I’m only vaguely familiar with the location but I agree with your points. There are many places in Marin where affordable housing makes (much more) sense. Unfortunately, many of those locations also encounter fierce opposition from neighbors (like, I believe, the proposed development in Mill Valley near the corner of Camino Alto and Miller). If Lucas’ proposal is really about affordable housing, perhaps a land swap or some other arrangement would make for a much better project.

    • Sprague says:

      Correction: The proposed Mill Valley development is at Camino Alto and East Blithedale (perhaps, by now, this proposed project has already been denied).

  4. Wanderer says:

    So exactly where are the urban Marin neighborhoods that are going to state support of building affordable housing where they are? Don’t all speak at once. There’s always a reason to say NIMBY.

  5. Pingback: Grady Ranch is still a bad idea « The Greater Marin

  6. Lynn says:

    I disagree, change has to begin somewhere, and this is a great start. Nothing worthwhile that was ever achieved came by the easy way. Mr. Lucas has his heart in the right place.

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