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.

Mid-Week Links: Oops

las gallinas creek, marin county

las gallinas creek, marin county by on2wheelz, on Flickr

Marin and Beyond

  • SMART is owning up to its failures at Gallinas Creek, admitting that it misinterpreted its own guidelines for construction work and violating state and federal protected species and habitat laws in the process. The agency is now seeking the proper permits to continue construction work. (IJ)
  • The Marin Board of Supervisors approved a sprawl development just past Santa Venetia, allowing ten homes to be built far from just about anything. (IJ)
  • That GGT/MT contract isn’t quite as finished as we’d hoped. While staff tried to finalize language, Marin Transit raised concerns that it doesn’t give MT the flexibility to choose which routes GGT would operate, leading to an impasse. (IJ)
  • India issued, then rescinded, an arrest warrant for Vijay Mallya, owner of Marinscope newspapers. His airline, Kingfisher, bounced $1.9 million worth of checks; the warrant was withdrawn when Kingfisher agreed to pay the outstanding bills. (IJ)
  • Every time you use a Clipper card, a computer records that data, and that data can be subpoenaed. There’s also a smartphone app that allows a Clipper card to be read and travel history retrieved. (Bay Citizen)
  • The Federal Housing Administration has loosened restrictions on financing for mixed-use development. Under old rules, which I discussed a while ago, FHA wouldn’t fund developments with more than 25% commercial space. Under new rules, that goes up to 50%. (Streetsblog)
  • Though some Marinites call anything above 4 units per acre “extremely high density housing“, a development in Los Angeles shows that even 40 units per acre can be suburban and walkable. (Greater Greater Washington)
  • And…: American AgCredit plans to build a new office park in Sonoma County, thankfully near a planned SMART station. (NBBJ) … Our Presidential election season utterly ignores car-free issues. (Greater Greater Washington) … MCBC is hosting a family bike workshop this Saturday at 10am in Larkspur. You should definitely be there. (IJ) … Fairfax’s Biketoberfest was a roaring success, as always. (Patch)

The Toll

This week, our transportation system killed three people and wounded 14 others.

  • A man killed himself when he crashed his SUV into a tree in Santa Rosa on Thursday. Police aren’t sure why he lost control of the vehicle, and his name hasn’t been released. (PD)
  • Joseph Von Merta was killed by a driver in Santa Rosa, the ninth pedestrian to die in the city this year. He was hit while crossing the road early Monday morning, and died Wednesday night. The driver, Emanuel Morales-Rodriguez, suffered minor injuries, and fault has not been determined. Von Merta was 57. (PD)
  • A driver died in a single-car crash in Windsor early Sunday morning while she exited Highway 101. Sheryl Greenlee may have suffered a medical emergency that killed her and caused the crash, but the investigation is ongoing. Greenlee was 43. (PD)
  • A driver lost control of their vehicle near Marinwood and spun out on wet pavement. The result was an 11-car crash and eight injured people, six of which had to go to the hospital. (Patch)
  • Cassandre Jade seems to have seriously injured herself in Lucas Valley. She drove off the road and into a creek before dawn on Thursday and was only extricated four hours later. (IJ)
  • Three people were injured in a three-car collision in Healdsburg. (PD) … A bicyclist was seriously injured by a driver in Santa Rosa on Saturday. (PD) … A car flipped on Highway 101 in San Rafael on Wednesday morning. No injury or other information was released. (IJ)

Mid-Week Links: Build It and They Will Come

mill valley

Marin County

Well it looks like the other news organizations passed right on by the development news this week, and there’s no transit news to speak of. I suppose, then, these are the highlights from this week’s IJ.

  • The Grady Ranch debacle has reached New Yorker’s ears. The game of telephone, of course, has done wonders for our county’s image as an insular enclave for the granola-munching wealthy. Back in Marin, there is still debate as to whether opponents abused the system or not, or even whether they should be to blame. (NYT, IJ)
  • In the fallout of Grady Ranch, county staff want to create a panel to cut red tape and streamline permitting, and the supervisors seem to be on board. The results likely won’t mean much for developers in incorporated areas, who often need council approval to open a sandwich shop. (IJ)
  • Fully 85% of Marin’s land is protected from development, according to a new Greenbelt Alliance study, the most in any Bay Area county. Only 12.7% of our land is urbanized, and only 0.7% is at risk of development. (IJ)
  • Michael Rock, town manager and public works director of Fairfax, has resigned in order to pursue a position in what I can only presume is the far less interesting Lomita, CA. His last day as manager will be the June 22 budget meeting. (IJ, Fairfax)
  • Sausalito will not rezone a small area of old town for housing development after all. The two parcels in question could have accommodated 18 units of affordable housing but will continue in their role as offices. (IJ)
  • Under pressure from the feds, Novato’s remaining pot dispensary will close, leaving only one dispensary operating in the county. (IJ)
  • The $950 million Highway 101 widening project chugs forward, but the last $177 million hasn’t been found. At least CalTrans still has $20.5 million to repave 8.5 miles of the freeway from Vista Point to Lucky Drive. (Press-Democrat, IJ)
  • A San Rafael native has been enlivening the streetscape of Washington, DC, by playing the violin to passersby from his rowhome’s balcony. (Patch)
  • And…: Fifteen office buildings totalling about 710,000 square are up for sale in Marin. (IJ) … Terrorism, not the threat of bridge collapse, is the reason you can’t walk across the Bridge on its 75th. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • MTC and ABAG have approved Plan Bay Area. It now goes out for environmental review before final approval in April. (SF Chronicle)
  • The San Francisco Bay Area has a surplus of capital looking for new tech start-ups but restrictive housing policies drive up rents, which drive up wages, which inflates start-ups’ costs of doing business, which drives down the number of new start-ups to invest in, and that’s bad for everyone.  (Forbes via Planetizen)
  • The State Senate will vote today on the three-foot passing law, requiring drivers pass bikers with at least three feet of clearance. (Cyclelicious)
  • The neighborhood planning battles of Seattle bear a striking resemblance to the planning issues faced by Marin’s small towns. (Crosscut)
  • Young people are moving away from the car. Has the driver’s seat lost its old magic? (Washington Post)
  • BART’s long-term plans include express trains, better stations, and shorter headways. (Examiner)

Mid-Week Links: End of the Line

Marin County Line

photo by Mark Garbowski

Marin County

San Anselmo’s Easy Street Cafe will close this Sunday after struggling with the economy and the Redhill Shopping Center remodel.  There is still hope that it will reopen somewhere else, though the odds seem slim.  With this institution’s closure, speculation is running rampant that the shopping center is turning into a regular chain-dominated strip mall.  So far, eight businesses have moved out or been evicted.  You can find their letter on the Pacific Sun. On a personal note, I am quite saddened by the loss.  It’s my favorite breakfast spot in Marin and I haven’t found anyplace better in DC. Since I can’t make it to the closing, eat some bangers and scrambled eggs for me and I’ll buy you a beer at the next happy hour. (IJ, Pacific Sun)

  • Just as regulatory hurdles were cleared, Lucasfilm formerly withdrew its Grady Ranch proposal, beginning a mad scramble around the North Bay to woo what a few Marin activists said would constitute the Hollywoodization of Lucas Valley. (IJ, San Rafael Patch)
  • For Earth Day, San Rafael promoted recycling, energy efficiency, and electric cars, but remains entirely silent on walking or biking.  Perhaps next year they’ll install a bike rack or two downtown? (IJ)
  • Travel on the Golden Gate Bridge is going to be terrible next week.  Not only is Doyle Drive closing, but Occupy SF plans to close the bridge on Tuesday. (SFist)
  • SMART is exploring a station near the Sonoma County Airport, which would be at their planned maintenance facility on Airport Boulevard.  Details are still sketchy, to say the least, but it would certainly make the airport a more attractive option for Marinites. (Press-Democrat)
  • SMART has approved a more sustainable pension plan for future employees than what it has now, remedying one of the Grand Jury’s principal gripes about the system. (Press-Democrat)
  • The Board of Supervisors has formally requested an audit of Plan Bay Area growth projections, saying that the job growth numbers just don’t seem realistic. (IJ)
  • Larkspur and MTC are looking for a few good souls to fill out their boards.  MTC has four vacancies on their Policy Advisory Council, while Larkspur has openings on the Planning Commission, Parks & Rec Commission, and the Heritage Preservation Board. Take a look to see if you want get involved. (IJ, PR Newswire)

The Greater Marin

  • When you make a great place you’re making great people habitat, and that’s good for the environment and all the natural habitat we need to protect.  New Urbanism is a New Environmentalism. (NRDC Switchboard)
  • The headaches caused by private bus companies in San Francisco are starting to get noticed, and the city may start to regulate. (SFBG)
  • Electric bikes can dramatically expand the reach and audience of bicycling.  In spread-out and hilly Marin, the electric assist can be a life-saver for the unfit. (Clarendon Patch)
  • Sonoma County faces a $120 million road maintenance backlog and only $4.5 million per year to fix it.  Though the county is looking for new revenues, perhaps it could spend less money on widening 101 instead. (Press-Democrat)
  • California will soon get $100 million in new electric car charging infrastructure, part of a settlement with energy companies related to the state’s 2001 energy crisis.  (Chronicle)

Mid-Week Links: Keep Moving

As Marin ages – it’s already the oldest in the Bay Area – keeping people active and involved in their communities means making the bus system work for them.  As commenter Dan Lyke often points out, GGT has done a terrible job of making itself friendly to the disabled and handicapped, and I suspect the elderly, when giving up their cars, will be in the same boat.  Improving transit service isn’t just for young urbanites like me, or the poor, but is imperative to keeping our seniors moving.

Marin County

  • A police crackdown on crime around San Rafael’s Bettini Transit Center was quite a success, resulting in 79 arrests and a marked decrease in common criminality in the area. Transit-oriented development and traffic-calming measures would help put more people on the street and keep this kind of crime from reappearing. (IJ)
  • While supporters of Lucasfilm’s Grady Ranch development rallied in county board chambers, others wondered what it would take for affordable housing to grow there, as Lucas plans to sell the property for just that purpose. (IJ)
  • A pedestrian/bicycle bridge across San Rafael Creek at Grand Avenue is in the works at city hall, though funding has yet to be secured. (Patch)
  • And…: Is an 1890s-era house in Larkspur worth saving? (IJ) … Apparently it costs $200,000 to be late with a home remodeling project in Belvedere. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Golden Gate Park was partially closed to cars last Sunday, giving residents a chance to just enjoy the park without the fear of getting hit by a car. Come out to the Mission on May 6 for more! They promise no stabbings. (SanFranciscoize, Mission Mission)
  • If you didn’t already know, Muni buses now sport cameras to record parking violations or cars driving in the bus-only lanes. Though great for bus riders and Muni’s budget, drivers need to be on the lookout. (Muni Diaries)
  • Car-dependence in Concord has claimed many lives in car crashes, but the deaths of a father and his 9-year-old daughter have shone a spotlight on the dangers of such design. The father and daughter were riding bikes on the sidewalk when they were struck by a 17-year-old driving an SUV. (Bay Citizen)

The Limit of Marin’s NIMBYism

Nope!

I try not to use that term lightly.  NIMBY (standing for Not In My Back Yard) is a pretty loaded pejorative, connoting a sense of entitlement to an unchanging landscape, and an irrational opposition to the project at hand.

With Grady Ranch, I think that’s exactly what we had.

If you follow Marin’s development news, even in passing, you’ll know that George Lucas’s Skywalker Properties pulled out of an ambitious project over neighborhood opposition.  The Grady Ranch proposal was to be studio and production space on Lucas Valley Road, though all the buildings were to be shielded from view from the road.  It would have included a huge amount of land preservation and a good deal of creek restoration work.  The Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Assocation (LVE) vehemently opposed the project, however, on environmental, quality-of-life, and other grounds.  After the County Supervisors were poised to approve the project when federal and state officials voiced concern over its environmental ramifications.  This, and the likelihood of continuing neighborhood opposition, caused Skywalker Properties to drop its proposal.

In a clearly bitter letter, the company wrote [PDF], “Marin is… committed to building subdivisions, not business.”  The company plans to sell the land for affordable housing because, “[i]f everyone feels housing is less impactful on the land, then we hope that those who need it the most will benefit.”

After the company announced it will abandon its plans, Marin’s supervisors went into crisis mode.  They offered to help defend any effort to delay the project, to approve the proposal as-is, and more, but as of Sunday night all signs indicated that the project was dead.

The whole sequence of events has left Marinites aghast.  Hundreds of potential jobs were lost.  Marin’s most prominent resident and strong county benefactor had been rebuffed.  We still remember the sting of loss when much of Lucas’ operation moved to the Presidio.

Encouraging to activists like me was how quickly the political channel has changed.  We aren’t talking about ABAG and housing quotas anymore.  The dialogue has swung away from, “We can’t possibly grow,” to the exact opposite.  Keep Marin Working, a business advocacy umbrella group, wrote in an op-ed, “Unless we take immediate steps to make Marin more business friendly, the Lucasfilm decision could be a preview of coming attractions.”  An IJ editorial wrote, “Lucas is frustrated and has had enough. It’s hard to blame him.”  The Board of Supervisors wrote [PDF] that they were “deeply disappointed” over the news.  Outrage over the news reached beyond the newspaper page, though I suspect we won’t see its fullness until Tuesday morning, when supporters invited by Supervisor Judy Arnold will speak their mind in support of the project at a supervisorial meeting.

I can identify three lessons from the wreckage of Grady Ranch.

First, NIMBYism is just as repugnant to Marinites as it is to developers.  The county’s residents do want jobs and development, as long as they don’t conflict with our environmental goals of open space protection or threaten town character.  Grady Ranch was environmentally friendly and kept with the rural feel of Lucas Valley.  Though it was a greenfield development some ways from transit, it maintained open space and bolstered the environmental value of the land.  People noticed.

Second, policymakers need to limit the number of procedural hurdles a project needs to jump through, as a neighborhood will always put up more.  Our boards and councils must always be cognizant of the potential for well-educated, well-heeled residents to abuse the system, and we should seek to limit their capacity to do so.  Grady Ranch took 16 years get to the finish line because of neighborhood intransigence and died because what seemed like the end really wouldn’t be.

Third, supporters need to be vocal.  The Board of Supervisors would have approved Grady Ranch unanimously if given the chance, and that is thanks in part to vocal local support.  This was thanks to George Lucas’ strong track record of development and community service.  Any other developer needs to do the same, showing that it invests in Marin and cares about its future, not just profiteering.  Supporters need to get the word out there – in editorials, letters, and in council and board meetings.  One ought never concede the conversation to conservatives through silence.

Alas, Grady Ranch may be fully dead.  Lucasfilm needs the space for filming now and will look elsewhere if they think there will be any further delays.  However, supporters of a strong and dynamic Marin should seize on Grady Ranch as a turning point, and look to the fights ahead: Mill Valley’s Blithedale Terrace development, SMART station area plans, and Plan Bay Area.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,021 other followers