Legendary filmmaker George Lucas’ latest weapon isn’t a sleek lightsaber or a blast of Force lightning, but rather, affordable housing. For over 20 years, Lucas has been trying to convince his neighbors in a wealthy valley of Marin County, California to get on board with his plan to build a 300,000 square foot movie studio that he estimates would bring in hundreds of jobs. He’s even throwing in 50 to 70 million dollars worth of work to restore a stream in the area. That was the plan anyway, until Lucas finally decided to fold after two decades of fighting. Since his neighbors seemed to prefer residential use for the land, Lucas has decided to sell the property to an affordable housing developer.
“The level of bitterness and anger expressed by the homeowners in Lucas Valley has convinced us that, even if we were to spend more time and acquire the necessary approvals, we would not be able to maintain a constructive relationship with our neighbors…We plan to sell the Grady property expecting that the land will revert back to its original use for residential housing. We hope we will be able to find a developer who will be interested in low income housing since it is scarce in Marin. If everyone feels that housing is less impactful on the land, then we are hoping that people who need it the most will benefit,” said Skywalker Properties in a released statement.
That press release reads more like sour grapes than a gracious gesture to help out Marin County’s less well-off population, but if it comes to fruition, it could genuinely make a positive difference in people’s lives, as opposed to just being a steel-framed middle finger to current residents.
“If affordable housing is eventually included in a future development proposal, it would help us meet our housing goals,” said Brian Crawford, director of the Marin County Community Development Agency in an interview with the Marin Independent Journal.
This is turning gentrification on its head. Instead of Starbucks-sipping corporate hippies with graduate degrees creeping into historically low-income and working class neighborhoods, we have a population of fixed-income seniors and working families bombarding a wealthy neighborhood flush with open space and NIMBYism.
Then of course, the age-old question asked at every local meeting about development since the beginning of time, ‘Affordable to whom?’ According to the 2010 census, Marin County’s median household income is $89,268. To put that in perspective, the national median household income in 2010 was $54,442. What is affordable in Marin County is a tad different than what would be considered affordable in say Harlem, Baltimore or Miami’s Liberty City.
Dr. Thomas Peters, the president of the Marin Community Foundation-the organization that is partnering with Lucas on this affordable housing project told theGrio in an exclusive interview that he has complete faith in Lucas and his intentions even if the press release was dripping with bitterness.
“After so many years of fighting, a little frustration and anger is to be expected, but his track record speaks for itself. He’s been responsible in every way,” said Peters referencing Lucas’s other real estate developments in which he followed through on his promises of open space and environmental impacts.
Peters said the project, which is only a week old and does not have any renderings or even a developer yet, would likely cater to Marin County’s federally defined affordable definition of roughly $40,000 for a single family and $70,000-80,000 for a family of four.
The Marin Community Foundation, according to Peters, has a long track record of successfully placing lower income families and individuals within communities of much greater means.
“That’s typically what we do here. The developers know how to incorporate beautifully designed structures that are sensitive to the community’s needs,” said Peters. “Plus, these are not people dropped in from Mars. They are working families and seniors who are good neighbors.”
As for the Lucas Valley Homeowner’s Estate Association, which has been a major thorn in Lucas’s side, they said the plans took them by surprise. “We are glad we don’t have to worry about the potential impacts we were worried about,” said the organizations president Liz Dale to the Associated Press.
If Lucas’s affordable housing project is realized, it will likely be a year to two years before a shovel is in the ground, even though he has provided all of his costly environmental, engineering and water studies to the Marin Community Foundation as a head start.
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