Grady Ranch is still a bad idea

Stop Sign

Stop Sign by thecrazyfilmgirl, on Flickr

Last Thursday, the IJ published an editorial defending the Grady Ranch affordable housing project from critics. If we don’t know what the project will look like, asks the editorial board, how can we criticize? Perhaps it will include a bike lane and sidewalks all the way to 101. Perhaps there will be a place for Marin Transit to run a shuttle, never mind the cost. And perhaps there will be a small grocery store so residents will be able to do at least one errand without getting in the car.

While it’s true that we don’t know how the project will look, the arguments in defense of the project don’t address the fundamental flaw of “affordable” sprawl: the burden of car-dependence on residents, and the burden of maintenance on the County.

Grady Ranch isn’t “a rare opportunity to help meet Marin’s need for affordable housing.” To the contrary, it would doom hundreds of low-income people to an expensive existence of car-dependance. The whole point of creating a walkable, bikeable mix of jobs and housing, which the IJ dismisses so easily, is to free people from the burden of car ownership. A car should be an option for those who want it, not a necessity for those who can’t afford it. Why we would want to give our poor another burden they cannot carry is beyond me.

If car ownership will be residents’ burden, services and infrastructure will be the County’s. MCF, as a nonprofit, doesn’t pay any taxes on any of its land or developments, meaning new residents won’t have to pay. And, even if supervisors could foist the cost of extending services and infrastructure onto developers, that still leaves ongoing costs. Infrastructure needs maintenance and services have payrolls. Will Lucas, or MCF, or “possible grant providers” be willing to pay that expense for the next 50 years? Somehow, I don’t think even George Lucas would be that generous.

These problems and the others I raised before need to be addressed in the first draft of the plan, not later. We cannot give MCF and Lucas “the opportunity to come up with a detailed plan before going on the attack.” Supervisors, citizens, and the two Grady Ranch partners must answer these problems now.

Besides, even if Grady Ranch is an irredeemable project, that doesn’t mean the end result can’t be less terrible. Given how bad the project is just on its face, we need to start to shape it before they’ve put time into a detailed plan. If the county pushes forward, this may be the only chance we’ll get.

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.

An Extraneous Park

The park’s rendering. Photo by Jessica Mullins of San Anselmo-Fairfax Patch

On Saturday, the San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce announced that George Lucas had given some downtown land 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 Patch, 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, told Patch, “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, Lucas recently pulled out of his Grady Ranch film studio project 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 families to do most or all of their shopping downtown, boosting sales tax for the town.

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 a parking lot, giving uninterrupted views from the 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 it 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 our town, 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.

Mid-Week Links: Afternoon on the Bay

late afternoon above Richardson Bay, Sausalito, CA

by Stephen Hill

Marin County

  • Neighbors to the proposed Grady Ranch development have appealed the county’s approval of the project. The Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association alleges Grady Ranch would cause too much noise, light pollution, and be a general nuisance. (News Pointer)
  • The San Rafael Airport Rec Center project could run afoul of new California regulations on development near airports.  Though the project fit the old standards, a consultant has been hired to ensure it meets the new ones as well. (IJ)
  • Now that nobody is running for Ross Town Council, it’s up to potential candidates to file for a write-in candidacy.  If there’s an insufficient number of write-in candidates, the three positions will be appointees. (Ross Valley Reporter)
  • Sausalito wants to ease the problem of bike tourists getting stuck in town by setting up a ferry reservation system for cyclists, a far more efficient method than the current first-come-first-served method.  Expanding San Francisco’s bikeshare system to town may also help the more casual riders that don’t want to cross the bridge. (IJ)
  • San Anselmo’s moribund nightlife will get a boost this summer, as two wine bars are slated to open downtown – a near-first for the town. (Patch)
  • Novato’s revenues are better than expected, to the tune of $600,000.  Though the city is still in austerity mode, an expected transfer of $300,000 from the rainy day fund has been canceled. (Advance)
  • Southern Marin’s bikepaths got a $118,000 infusion of maintenance money from TAM.  Though chump change compared to road maintenance, the grant is a welcome recognition of the paths’ importance. (Marinscope)

The Greater Marin

  • San Francisco’s performance parking experiment is finally yielding positive results, with spots opening up around high-priced areas and filling up in cheaper areas. (New York Times)
  • Meanwhile, New York City is suffering thanks to its onerous parking minimums, which drive up the cost of housing in an already expensive city.  Though the practice of banishing parking minimums in favor of parking maximums is recommended in the draft Plan Bay Area, Marin’s transit districts would be wise to take heed. (Streetsblog)
  • Then again, pushing for strictly infill development and densification by loosening regulation won’t solve our housing problem given the pace of infill development, the extraordinary costs of consolidating properties, and political wrangling necessary to actually build the thing.  (Old Urbanist)
  • A 2001 study argues that transit-oriented development is not a traffic cure-all, as much of the benefits of TOD comes from densification and better location than simply better travel modes. (Half-Mile Circles)
  • If we want biking to take off, we must take it seriously as a form of transportation first and recreation second, something Americans typically don’t do. (RPUS)

Mid-Week Links: Get a Car

There’s a major threat to walkable living, transit, biking, and even our highways brewing in the House of Representatives in the form of a terribly written transportation reauthorization bill, HR 7.  Although we know Congresswoman Woolsey is firmly against the plan as written, it’s important to keep in mind what is happening on Capitol Hill.

Marin County

  • Novato cracked down on unsafe driving this past weekend, resulting in 44 citations.  It’s a good move for a city that has seen a number of pedestrian accidents in the past few months. (IJ)
  • County planners have approved the Grady Ranch development in Lucas Valley and, unless opponents appeal to the Board of Supervisors, the project will go ahead as planned. (IJ)
  • West Marin may help the county satisfy some of its affordable housing requirements by allowing ranches and farms to build workforce and owner housing on-site, cutting down driving commutes into the region. (IJ)
  • SMART ceremonially broke ground on its transit system, marking the beginning of real construction and the culmination of years of work. (Patch)
  • San Rafael’s Ritter Center expansion is on hold pending an appeal by Gerstle Park residents. The expansion would be a medical center housed in a temporary building, though Ritter says they will look for a new when it lease expires in 2015. (IJ)
  • West End is apparently a quirky place for the young and hip to shop in San Rafael, not to say that it doesn’t have challenges: auto-oriented businesses on the north side of Fourth, the half-dead Yardbirds strip mall, too-wide streets, lack of continuity with downtown, and an anti-development bias keep the neighborhood from really thriving. (Reporter, New Pointer)
  • Albert Park and the San Rafael Pacifics are go thanks to a judge’s ruling against Gerstle Park opponents of the planned baseball field who had sought to block the team. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • MTC has rejected political appeals of projects that do not meet its required cost-benefit floor, putting common sense above more narrow local interest. (TransForm)
  • Intuition is correct: parking minimums encourage driving, and I think it’s high time for Marin to abandon the unscientific minimums posthaste.  (The Atlantic Cities)
  • The Americas Cup has downsized its plans for San Francisco and will not renovate Piers 30 and 32 after all thanks to regulatory issues.  Still, the Cup is a great excuse for the City to invest in its waterfront and should be a strong incentive for Sausalito to do the same. (SFist, SPUR)
  • Bicyclists like the same routes drivers do, and for the same reasons. I suspect that making it safer for bikers to use main roads would do more for cycling mode share than shunting them onto side roads.  In other words, bike lanes belong just where planners may not want to put them: Sir Francis Drake, Delong, and Fourth Street. (The City Fix)
  • Luxury car drivers, take note: you may be driving like a jerk and not even notice it. (SFist)
  • In case you missed Smart Growth America’s webinar on sustainable communities, they have their materials up for perusal. (SGA)

Mid-Week Links: Not Quite Paradise

TiburonMarin

  • Traffic along Tiburon’s main road is getting worse, but its bus line is one of the least-used routes in the Marin Transit system.  TAM, MT, and the town think improving school-time bus service may do the same trick it did in Fairfax, although they’re exploring other options as well. (IJ)
  • The historic building that housed Amazing Grace Music, the old instrument shop in the Redhill Avenue median, is gone. The San Anselmo landmark business has moved up the street thanks to George Lucas, who funded the project and lives a block away. (IJ)
  • Fairfax has its gateway supermarket back, now that the Good Earth has opened on the east edge of town. The corner has undergone a major transformation over the past few years, and the store looks set to become even more of an anchor for the town. Not to say that everyone’s happy – a local merchant dialed 911 to complain about a lack of parking. (Patch)
  • Neighbors were up in arms over CVS’s plans for a lit sign in Tiburon, but it turns out businesses are already flaunting local regulations. (IJ, Mill Valley Herald)
  • MALT’s housing-oriented cousin, CLAM, has a new director with an eye towards smart growth and the particular human/nature balance that marks West Marin’s villages. (IJ)
  • The Marin Board of Supervisors were busy this week dissolving the county redevelopment agency, reallocating funds for road repair, rescinding the priority development zone for homes around San Quentin, and bolstering their rainy day fund. (Patch, IJ)

Bay Area

  • The Metropolitan Transportation Commission wants high school interns this summer, and is actually willing to pay them. I’d be all over this were I 18 again. (Patch)
  • Parking in San Francisco could get even more expensive if SFMTA extends parking hours to Saturday evenings and Sundays.  That GGT ride just keeps looking more and more attractive. (SFist)
  • SMART’s rolling stock is on track for a 2013 delivery, and it turns out they’re not the only customer.  Toronto will purchase the same vehicles from manufacturer Nippon-Sharryo, and SMART, as a partial designer of the heavy DMUs, is getting a cut of the profits. (Press Democrat)
  • Rohnert Park’s SMART station has officially been relocated to the city’s center, much to the joy of all parties. Rohnert Park plans on building a downtown based around the station. (NBBJ, Press Democrat)

The Greater Marin

  • Raleigh, NC, is pushing the envelope when it comes to getting people to walk. But it’s not the city doing the push – it’s people who care enough about Raleigh to do what needs to be done, and sometimes that’s just signage. (BBC)
  • Google has been instrumental in bringing transit data into the digital age with its GTFS protocol, allowing people to plan trips using transit instead of just cars.  Golden Gate Transit and Marin Transit are not currently participants, but are actively working on getting online. (Xconomy)
  • Nashville has gone for the gold and released a new downtown zoning code that essentially does away with much of the zoning.  No more parking minimums, no more prescribed uses, no more setback requirements. (Old Urbanist)
  • Norfolk, VA’s The Tide light rail is going like gangbusters, beating ridership expectations in only six months. It faced much the same criticism as SMART, although the two systems will be rather different, and only time will tell how our rail system pans out. (Virginian-Pilot)
  • Building good bike infrastructure means more than painting sharrows, as Marin loves to do, and sometimes it means giving bicyclists their own traffic signal. (SanFranciscoize)
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