George Lucas's Lesson to NIMBYs: Careful What You Wish For

The filmmaker lost a long-running zoning battle with his California neighbors. Now they may get something they want even less than a movie studio in their back yard: low-income housing.

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George Lucas spent a quarter of a century trying to expand the production studios his film company has long kept in Marin County, over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco in an area of mostly rural land and high-priced housing. In the interim, he made the Indiana Jones franchise, a couple of one-off '80s classics, and three more Star Wars films, but during all that time he could never quite overcome the more mundane politics of building in the exurbs. This spring, after years of opposition from neighbors (who can’t in fact see his property from their front yards) and the fear of yet more delays, Lucas abruptly gave up on plans for a third studio on a rolling plot called Grady Ranch.

"As he said to me, 'my job is making movies, not engaging in yet another decade of planning dispute,'" says Thomas Peters, the president and CEO of the Marin Community Foundation.

Skywalker Properties abandoned the plans in an acerbic two-page letter [PDF] to its neighbors: "Marin is a bedroom community and is committed to building subdivisions, not business," it read. ("It was, by his own admission, a bit edgy," Peters says.) The letter concluded by suggesting that if people felt the land was best suited for more housing, Lucas would aim to sell it to a developer who would at least create the kind of housing Marin really needs: not more million-dollar homes, but low-income residences.

Now, it remains to be seen if neighbors who long fought a movie studio in their midst have the stomach to publicly make the same case about low-income housing, particularly in a county where 60 percent of the jobs – in teaching, in-home health care, restaurants and other service-sector fields – go to people who commute in from even farther out because they can’t afford to live there.

"I made a point of waiting a day or two, to let the dust settle," Peters recalls of reading the letter. "And then I checked out the question at hand, which was: Was that a remark mostly aimed as a kind of stick in the eye to the neighbors? Or is that sincere interest? And happily enough, it has been absolutely, without equivocation, been clear that he was sincere in making that statement."

The plan, now in its early stages, is for Lucas to transfer the property to the Marin Community Foundation, which will work with a nonprofit developer to build the housing, as it has with similar low-income projects throughout the area. (Peters prefers the term "workforce housing" given the stigma attached to its more common moniker. To illustrate the perception he is up against, one wealthy neighbor cried to the New York Times that Lucas was "inciting class warfare" by inviting poor people to move in.)

Grady Ranch encompasses 1,000 acres, although Lucas had already turned 800 of them over for permanent protection as part of the public open-space district. Most of the land he's bought here has been similarly set aside for posterity, with Lucasfilm occupying and building on only about 3 percent of the local land Lucas has acquired. Grady Ranch is located off the U.S. 101 highway that runs just inland from the California coast, on Lucas Valley Road (no relation). It’s a curving road of 25 mile-per-hour speed limits, rolling hills, oak trees and, closer to the ocean, redwoods.

"People come from around the Bay Area, around the world to take this drive," Peters says. "It’s just absolutely breathtaking."

In part, Lucas's latest proposal challenges the notion that we just don’t build low-income housing in such places – that we should put it, instead, on the land no one else wants. Lots of wealthy people, after all, would pay market rate to live here.

"I hear every line of objection, and that would be one of them," Peters says. "There are many strands. Some people do take that point of view. And it’s made a little comical just by the fact that, well, they don’t own the land. They’re not even in the running for owning the land."

Peters would like to put about 300 apartment units on the property, which would again take up only a small portion of the remaining 200 acres. Given all the protected space around Lucas's properties here, it’s unlikely any of the neighbors would even be able to see such a development. Most of the Marin Community Foundation’s other housing projects have been developed along transit corridors. But because this location is more remote, Peters envisions that, at first, this site may be best suited for low-income elderly. Marin also has the highest proportion of aging residents of any county in California.

Peters is quick to add, too, that in Marin County a family of four earning nearly $90,000 a year is eligible for housing assistance (for further perspective on the local housing market: "I forget that you have to translate here that a million-dollar house is not a mansion, by a long shot. They’re very comfortable homes.") And so the popular imagination – "you’re going to bring drug dealers" was another complaint in the Times – is at odds with the reality of what affordable housing really means in this economy, and who needs help obtaining it.

To Peters, these 300 or so units would go a small but important way toward addressing the housing imbalance of a county inaccessible to just about all but the very well-off. And it’s the best remaining resolution to a disappointing standoff that might have otherwise brought the county more tax revenue, jobs and economic development.

"For some people, the ideal and best solution is that there be exactly nothing that happens on that land, and it stays just the way it is," Peters says. "But, granting that some people would have that view, in my own estimation – and obviously in Mr. Lucas’ as well – this is the best and highest use."

With what he calls "realistic optimism," Peters hopes that development could begin on the property within two years, if everything goes well on the planning and permitting front.

"Mr. Lucas would probably just be smiling in a sage nodding of the head when I talk of 'two years,'" Peters adds.

It took Lucas, after all, a good decade just to build the two studios he does have in Marin County, which is to say nothing of all the years it took him to build nothing on Grady Ranch.

Top image: Land in Marin County (Radoslaw Lecyk/Shutterstock.com)

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.