Durable Growth

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 in context. Image from Google Earth.

Grady Ranch in context. Image from Google Earth.

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, which weakens the unique Marin character as embodied in its 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.

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 on entirely virgin land 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 low-income housing, 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.

Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

4 comments to Grady Ranch is all wrong

  • Tim

    On the other hand, certainly there’s some value in someone sticking it to rich whiny NIMBYs

  • […] Vibrant Bay Area on Why George Lucas’ Car-Dependent Grady Ranch Development is “All Wrong” […]

  • Its Me

    What the good people of Lucas Valley should do, is to get to gather and do a local bond measure, and buy the land and donate it as open space. This was done back in the 60’s in Terra Linda. BTW how many of these NIMBYs commute to San Francisco?

  • davistrain

    Playing “Russian Roulette every time they want to get milk” is a bit of an overstatement, but building a “car-centric” development for folks who need “affordable housing” is very short sighted. Gone are the days when one could buy a serviceable car for a few hundred dollars, fuel it with 25-cents-a-gallon gasoline, keep it running with junkyard parts and not worry about passing a “smog check”.