Empire Strikes Back
Marin Blocks Lucas' Plans for Poorhouse
George Lucas’ wealthy neighbors want to stop him from building middle-class housing because they’re worried what will happen to their property values.
As a real estate developer in the San Francisco Bay Area, billionaire filmmaker George Lucas hasn’t had much success lately. Last year, his pitch for a museum in the Presidio, the national park at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, went to Chicago following a swell of opposition. Two years before that, plans for a massive movie production studio in Marin County, where Lucas owns thousands of acres and where Lucasfilm was based for decades, was compared to Hearst Castle, with Lucas its Citizen Kane. Fierce resistance from nearby homeowners and the threat of a lawsuit over potential impact to a watershed led Lucas to scrap the project.
Afterward, a dejected Lucasfilm statement declared that the company would seek support from “communities that see us as a creative asset, not as an evil empire.”
Now, Lucas is trying again, and not in some distant, amicable place, but in the same feisty stretch of Marin where the studio proposal inspired so much “bitterness and anger,” as the Lucasfilm statement put it. On Wednesday, Lucas’ holding company, Skywalker Properties, filed a preliminary proposal with county planners that seems more like a plea for acceptance than a development scheme.
On a 1,000-acre property called the Grady Ranch, he wants to build 224 units of affordable housing for seniors, cops, teachers, and other working people struggling to get by in this famously affluent county, where the median income is nearly $91,000 and where affordable housing is all but nonexistent. Not only that, Lucas has set aside the vast majority of the property as open space—some 800 acres—and he plans to finance the entire thing himself at a cost, according to his lawyer, Gary Giacomini, of “north of $150 million.”
The purpose of this, Giacomini said, is threefold. By paying for it himself, Lucas can avoid the regulation-laden grants that typically fund affordable-housing projects. He can ensure that the categories of people he wants to see living there—teachers and seniors, for instance—will always have a place.
“If you have federal or state money, you can’t do that,” Giacomini said. “You can’t discriminate.” Underlying that, he said, is an altruistic drive to provide housing for Marin’s non-millionaire class.
“There’s nowhere a local teacher or nurse can live,” Giacomini recalled Lucas saying.
But it’s not as if all county residents take the same view. Mary Stompe, executive director of the nonprofit that would develop and manage Lucas’ project, said there’s been a “very, very vocal” opposition to affordable-housing projects in Marin County over the last half-decade. There’s a concern, she said, about increased traffic, and about the possibility that lower-income people will drag property values and increase crime.
“People tend to point to a few bad eggs,” she said. The result is a rental market in which one-bedrooms go for $2,000 per month and the vacancy rate hovers around 2 percent. The waiting list for an affordable unit through the county is 10 years, she said.
“Since people found out about this project, our phones are ringing off the hook,” Stompe said. “People are telling me, ‘Please add me to the list.’”
On the tidy suburban side streets of Lucas Valley, the small, unincorporated community surrounded by the majestic hills where Lucas’ project would be built, people seemed exasperated, both by the news of another Lucas development and by the way they expected their fellow residents to respond.
“We’ll see if people get ferociously angry against low-cost housing,” said Jennifer Knoll, a stay-at-home mother, 20-year resident of the valley and wife of a Lucasfilm employee. “How can you do that?”
Greg Stilson, a 49-year-old portfolio manager, had an answer. “People are nervous—they’re afraid of something that might endanger the largest investment they will ever make,” he said. “What happens to the homeowners is not as much of a concern to [Lucas].”
A man who wouldn’t give his name for fear of being dragged into the political turmoil that deemed certain to follow, wasn’t so diplomatic.
“Asshole,” he barked at the mention of Lucas’ name. He didn’t believe that Lucas would undertake an affordable-housing project without a bottom line in mind, nor did he like Lucas’ style, or the style of his entourage. Also, he doesn’t want Lucas messing with those majestic hills at all.
“I’d like to see nothing done,” he said. Though the man was nervous about advocating against the project, he added, “I’d be willing to put in some time and effort to stop this thing.”
Giacomini anticipates a fight. But then again, he added, this is Marin, and if a development includes more than one house, he always anticipates a fight. So why will this one go forward?
“There’s going to be an awful lot of support,” Giacomini said. “There’ll be a face. It’ll be seniors and teachers. It’ll be hard to attack it.”