By Nels Johnson, Marin Independent Journal
POSTED: 04/14/15, 6:06 PM PDT | UPDATED: 16 HRS AGO
Filmmaker George Lucas has proposed a 224-unit affordable housing complex at Grady Ranch.
Representatives of the “Star Wars” billionaire’s Skywalker Properties, calling plans for rental housing that accommodates seniors and local workers a “magnificent gift” to Marin County, said Lucas intends to pay for the entire project himself, without federal, state or other grant aid.
“The unique thing about this is George is financing it 100 percent,” said Gary Giacomini, former county supervisor and an attorney for Skywalker. The situation will leave Lucas in charge, and not grantmakers, while eliminating red tape associated with subsidized housing, Giacomini noted, saying units can be set aside specifically for teachers, local workers or anyone else who meets income guidelines.
Reaction to the latest plan for Grady Ranch was mixed, with Supervisor Damon Connolly citing worries about “the cumulative impact on the entire area” of a cascade of development proposals that can “literally and figuratively change the landscape in Marinwood and Lucas Valley.”
But Supervisors Judy Arnold and Steve Kinsey sounded optimistic notes, with Kinsey calling it a “wonderful opportunity.” Arnold noted that affordable housing is in short supply in Marin and “in this case we have the opportunity to be more creative.”
A plan that will be submitted to the county Community Development Agency this week calls for 120 two- and three-bedroom workforce residences in one four-story cluster and two two-story clusters on the site, and 104 one- and two-bedroom residences for seniors in a four-story cluster, as well as four parking garages. None would be visible from Lucas Valley Road.
The proposal includes a community center and pool, terraced gardens, an orchard and a “micro farm” or community garden, and a barn. It limits development to a 52-acre tract of the 1,039-acre ranch, 800 acres of which already have been dedicated as open space. Zoning allows as many as 324 dwellings on the site.
The architect for the project is Robert W. Hayes of Sausalito, a designer who won acclaim for his Toussin Senior Apartments affordable complex at 10 Toussin Ave. in Kentfield. The project is being coordinated and managed by PEP Housing of Petaluma, which developed Toussin as well as affordable housing complexes at 13 sites in Petaluma, among other projects.
WHO WOULD QUALIFY?
Mary Stompe of Novato, executive director of PEP Housing for the past decade, said regulatory controls will be filed with the county ensuring affordability of the residences, with targets set so that workforce housing applicants earn less than 80 percent of median income, and senior renters falling somewhere between 30 to 60 percent of the median.
Aside from meeting income level requirements, renters must clear “an extensive background check” that includes a review of criminal and other records, as well as interviews with former landlords, Stompe said, adding her organization maintains a tight grip on tenants.
“We all are very proud to be part of this,” Giacomini said. “This will provide 224 families with places to live, and you’ll drive by and not be able to see anything.”
“It’s a huge public gift and I am confident the public will embrace it,” Stompe added. “We’re providing homes for teachers and others in the county.”
“The standard naysayers will be hanging around, but an awfully lot of people will support it,” Giacomini added. “We will have a healthy public process but it will not be one-sided,” he said. “There will be in-depth scrutiny.”
If all goes well, the development could break ground in 2018 and be completed the next year, Giacomini said.
Thomas Peters, CEO of the Marin Community Foundation, called Lucas’ plan an “extraordinary offer” that underscores the filmmaker’s commitment to the housing needs of the vibrant workforce that drives the region’s vitality.
The latest chapter in the Grady Ranch saga unfolded two years after the foundation bailed out of a plan to join Lucas in developing affordable housing at Grady Ranch. Peters said at the time that after extensive study, the “considerable cost” of a $120 million to $150 million affordable complex of from 200 to 240 “beautiful and environmentally sensitive” dwellings was too daunting despite “the generous land offer by Mr. Lucas.”
When the foundation departed, Angelo Garcia, president of Lucas Real Estate Holdings, pledged to “start immediately to engage in discussions” with developers identified during the foundation study. These included PEP Housing. “George Lucas feels that affordable housing is necessary so that people who are important in this community such as teachers, home health care workers and nurses don’t have to live outside Marin,” Garcia said then.
Brian Crawford, head of the county’s Community Development Agency, noted the site and adjacent areas are targeted for residential development by county land use regulations.
A Lucas studio project was approved by the county in 1996, but when the filmmaker finally decided to proceed four years ago, he consolidated buildings and required new permits. A lawyer for neighbors opposed to the plan threatened to sue and disclosed that state regulatory agencies had concerns about a $70 million creek and watershed improvement planned by Lucas. The filmmaker, then in talks to sell his Lucasfilm enterprise to Disney, walked away, saying he could not afford more delay, and backed development of affordable homes.
Stompe noted the Skywalker Properties housing plan for Grady Ranch does not include a watershed improvement element.