Force of opposition slows Lucasfilm growth

October 24, 1994|By Martha Groves | Martha Groves,Los Angeles Times

George Lucas' high-tech film wizards have brought dinosaurs to life in "Jurassic Park" and enabled Tom Hanks to shake hands with John F. Kennedy in "Forrest Gump."

But the force hasn't exactly been with the "Star Wars" creator in his efforts to work a different sort of miracle in growth-averse Marin County just north of San Francisco -- that of vastly expanding his movie-making empire.

Mr. Lucas has proposed spending $81 million to build state-of-the-art facilities on hilly ranchland adjoining his Skywalker Ranch in San Rafael.

The aim is to cement Lucasfilm Ltd.'s reputation as the premier practitioner of digital film techniques and give the company's burgeoning multimedia software business room to bloom.

Past proposals, dating from 1988, have been stalled by complaints from residents and planning officials. But Lucasfilm officials say the sizzling pace of change in their industry makes the situation urgent.

"The need to build this is inescapable," said Gordon Radley, Lucasfilm president. "Sooner or later, it's all going to be digital."

Already, Mr. Radley said, Mr. Lucas' groundbreaking special effects house -- Industrial Light & Magic, in San Rafael proper -- is turning away clients, despite a recent doubling of the number of high-tech workstations to 160.

The planned facilities would supplement ILM, the world's largest high-tech production center using computer graphics to accomplish special effects for movies.

Mr. Lucas brought his innovative film company to western Marin County in 1985.

Skywalker Ranch, named for rebel hero Luke Skywalker in the "Star Wars" trilogy, encompasses a sumptuously appointed Victorian headquarters mansion, along with other offices, overnight accommodations, a lake, a fire station and a fitness and day-care center for 180 employees.

All structures are hidden from the view of passing motorists on Lucas Valley Road (named not for the movie mogul, but for an early settler).

In documents submitted to county officials last week, Mr. Lucas laid out plans for 640,000 square feet of new offices on the Grady and Big Rock ranches adjoining Skywalker, about 25 miles northwest of San Francisco in rural San Rafael.

The new project would create as many as 640 jobs. Parking would be underground, and Mr. Lucas has even offered to pay for new traffic lights and a freeway ramp off U.S. 101 should traffic planners deem them necessary.

To appease conservationists, Mr. Lucas plans to leave 97 percent of the acreage untouched and to permanently dedicate two smaller ranches across the road as undevelopable open space.

Some residents see the plan as a big improvement over previous proposals, which called for the damming of a creek, the removal of more than 5,000 live oak and bay trees and the relocation of ILM to Grady Ranch.

Lucasfilm officials contend that their project would have no more deleterious effect on the land than would the alternative -- the building of 206 residential units.

But some residents and environmentalists continue to object, out of fear that the project would change the character of their rustic haven by opening the door to commercial ventures and clogging their winding country road.

Without the new facilities, Lucasfilm officials maintain, the company risks losing its lofty position in the entertainment field as a technology pioneer.

Hoping to win over nearby residents and officials, Lucas held an informational party recently at Skywalker Ranch, serving up sandwiches and glimpses into how ILM pulls off its magic film tricks.

Behind all this wooing lies a subtle, rarely stated threat that Lucas might have to take his business elsewhere should this latest expansion effort fail.

For the county, that would mean the loss of high-paying jobs and a prestigious company that pumps tens of millions of dollars into the local economy.

Without county approval in the next year or so, Mr. Radley said, "we'd have to evaluate our options."

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