It will be a spectacle fit for the movies, but few in Lucas Valley will see it.
The latest outpost in filmmaker George Lucas' entertainment frontier will transform the old Grady Ranch into a three-story digital technology fortress flanked by two towers rising amid 187 acres of open space.
On a campus largely hidden from view, a 263,197-square-foot building with a footprint as big as two football fields will feature just about everything 340 movie-making employees, actors and guests will need. Plans include 51,000 square feet of film stages, 27,918 square feet of screening rooms, a 4,381-square-foot cafe, a 1,151-square-foot kitchen, 19 units providing 11,228 square feet of guest quarters, a general store, a gym and a day care center.
The building will top underground parking for 202 cars and 24 bicycles.
Outside, plans include nine bridges spanning creeks, as well as a cave to age casks of wine from the filmmaker's vineyards. Excavated material will be used to build a knoll hiding the project from neighbors, and to shore up, raise and restore Miller, Grady and Landmark creeks.
The plan is less intensive and more environmentally friendly than a program already approved by county officials, so it is all but assured of getting the green light after hearings next year.
Aides say Lucas, who came up with the concept and design, was inspired by the Mission-style buildings at St. Vincent's School for Boys.
Others, pointing to plans for two 85-foot towers, see similarities to Casa Grande, the main house at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Lucas, with a keen eye for elegant architecture, featured Victorian, art deco and craftsman styles at his 2,500-acre Skywalker Ranch not far away. The campus Lucas built at the nearby Big Rock Ranch in 2002 is in Frank Lloyd Wright's "prairie" style.
The size of the latest structure in Lucas' string of high-tech entertainment production facilities in Marin is crucial, according to the plan, in order to consolidate detached buildings that were previously approved, as well as to house production stages up to 55 feet high.
"These productions stages would be used at times for the production of sequences that require techniques possible only in such a large space," an environmental analysis says. "Costume storage, makeup rooms and dressing rooms would be located adjacent to the production stages at the rear of the building," not far from the set shop, equipment storage and outdoor state facilities.
Like other wings of his sprawling entertainment universe in Marin, the stunning, state-of-the-art digital filmmaking enterprise at Grady Ranch would be largely screened from passers-by and neighbors and off-limits to the public. Lucas donated 800 acres of Grady Ranch to the county Open Space District, and has protected more than 5,000 acres at his nearby Big Rock, Loma Alta, McGuire and Skywalker ranches as open space with conservation easements.
Lucas' latest plan for Grady will have less of an impact than a project approved for the site by county officials in 1996. Revisions Lucas has in mind will be kinder to the environs than the earlier project, according to an analysis by Ascent Environmental Inc. of Sacramento.
"Overall, there is less impact and additional benefits," said Rachel Warner, county environmental coordinator. She noted the current plan involves a smaller building footprint, less construction and less grading, as well as the added benefits of creek restoration, bridge installation and improved fire access, among other improvements.
Eliminated from the project are plans for a separate day care and recreational building, seven guest cottages, and fencing that could obstruct wildlife movement. The main building "foot print" is reduced from 190,000 square feet to 123,000 square feet. Grading would be scaled back, and 411 trees would be removed, rather than 2,374 trees.
Additions to the plan include five more small bridges so vehicles would not travel though creeks. Several tributaries would be realigned. Some 68,000 cubic yards of excavated material would be used to "raise creek channel beds to historic levels" and fill deep crevices and other impediments to fish migration. Overhead utility lines along 3,600 square feet of property frontage along Lucas Valley Road would be buried underground. Fire road improvements would be made.
New energy conservation attributes include a geothermal heat system, solar thermal and solar photovoltaic solar panels, low-flow and high-efficiency fixtures and automatic daylight controls along with "dark-sky friendly practices" at night. Finally, a wine cave is part of the plan in order to store barrels of wine from grapes grown on other Lucasfilm properties.
Private planning consultants working on the project remained mum, referring requests for comment to Lucasfilm, where publicist Emilie Nicks provided a brief email statement:
"Grady Ranch will be a cutting-edge digital media production facility for both movies and television. As we complete this final phase of the approved master plan, we remain committed to continuing our extensive history of preservation and of bringing long-term benefits to the Marin community. In addition to meeting all the requirements outlined in the approved master plan, we've also made significant, positive improvements to the Grady Ranch Precise Development Plan, above and beyond what was required."
A Lucasfilm website about the project, www.gradyranch.com, notes many benefits of the development of Grady and Big Rock ranches. "Most notable among these benefits was the protection of an extraordinary amount of open space — 3,283 acres ... parts of which were originally zoned for development with numerous housing developments," the site says. "Other master plan benefits and conditions include traffic mitigations along Lucas Valley Road locations, enabling the 11-mile multiuse trail easement (part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail system) that runs through Grady, Big Rock, Maguire and Loma Alta ranches, and stream restoration."
The website adds that as far as the Grady project, "we've reduced the overall footprint ... planted additional trees to make the building less visible from the road and reduced the amount of grading. Also included is a more robust restoration plan that results in removal of steelhead passage barriers ... reduced sediment inputs to Miller Creek, reduced flood risk, increased available groundwater storage and restoration to the pre-grazing conditions of the valley and creeks."
The Grady project is part of a master plan unanimously approved by county supervisors who gave Lucas permission to build facilities totaling about 456,000 square feet at the Grady Ranch and about 185,000 square feet at the nearby Big Rock Ranch. Lucas finished construction of the Big Rock complex in 2002.
Kinsey weighs in
"It's less intense," Supervisor Steve Kinsey said of the latest Lucas project. "It's less everything," added Kinsey, who noted, however, that reviewing it cost more. The Ascent Environmental "supplemental" master plan report cost Lucas $358,000, and Kinsey wondered whether all the exhaustive detail was necessary.
But Nona Dennis, vice president of the Marin Conservation League, indicated some details are troubling, calling the project "massive for the site." Although the time for argument about use of the land passed several decades ago, and most of the land will remain open space, she noted the project "continues to be industrial use in a residential area — a long-standing issue between the Marin Conservation League and George Lucas."
Further, Dennis said the proposal now involves "a large amount of recontouring of land cloaked as 'stream restoration.'"
The project will "allow office and industrial uses in an area zoned for housing and agriculture," the league's website complains. The league's "current concerns focus more on the massive reshaping of the landscape and Miller Creek to accommodate the structures, landscaping, and access," and noted "the Grady Ranch facility rebuilds the landscape to fit the structures."
But Warner, the county's environmental coordinator, said recontouring the land as proposed has merit. "Overall, I think it's a very environmentally beneficial part of the proposal," she said. "Raising the bed elevation of Miller Creek and its tributaries using fill material ... is intended to improve the natural process and functions of the creek, eliminate fish passage barriers, reactivate floodplain area and increase aquifer storage while minimizing channel erosion and sediment."
She noted a county consulting hydrologist called the creek plan "scientifically rigorous, demonstrating a clear understanding of stream processes."
The county Planning Commission will reflect on the new project Dec. 12 when it discusses the Ascent Environmental report and determines whether more analysis is needed. The commission will consider merits of new aspects of the project in February.