We are learning a couple more details about the plan by a group of mega-wealthy Silicon Valley investors to create a whole new city — or potentially more than one town — in Solano County, and hearing more about the political and legal misery that awaits them.
If it sounds beyond lofty to propose building an entirely new city in the Bay Area, with all the planning, infrastructure, and legal and political morass that it requires before you even break ground, that is because it is. But one highly ambitious 36-year-old entrepreneur has convinced a group of Silicon Valley's wealthiest people to sink nearly $900 million to date on farmland in Solano County, on the promise that they can build a beautiful new, modern, walkable city out of whole cloth and presumably get richer in the process.
Though neither the project's investors nor its visionary, Jan Sramek, have spoken with the press yet, the Chronicle tells us that their representatives met with Congressman Mike Thompson [D-Napa] on Tuesday and laid out some of their grand plans. These include building either one large city, two medium-sized towns, or three small towns across their growing expanse of acreage — even this part of the plan is not finalized.
"They don’t have a plan, they have a vision, an idea," Thompson tells the Chron. "To say that this is going to be a long, long road is probably an understatement."
The bare outline of the plan, and some of its investors, were first revealed last week by the New York Times — and they now say they have kept things secretive in order to keep from having to pay too much for the land they were trying to acquire.
According to Thompson, the group has been meeting weekly for years and "struggled with the idea of having to keep it secret," but did so until they felt they had a critical mass of land assembled.
The New York Times had a follow-up piece Tuesday about the sheer audacity of the project, and they also could not get a comment from Sramek — though a spokesperson said, "We are excited to start working with Solano County residents and elected officials, as well as with Travis Air Force Base."
Longtime Sacramento area developer Mark Friedman didn't mince words in giving his thoughts on the project to the Times. "I hope they succeed, but this just seems like a lot of tech guys with a lot of money and a ton of hubris diving into another business that they can’t possibly understand."
Tech investors tend to like to see returns faster than what is likely to occur here, at least in terms of getting this whole thing approved and then eventually built, with units sold, and with all the other things built that a town needs like schools, government offices, retail, etc.
Looking at just one example, which has been pointed to as the most recent wholly created city in Northern California, we have Mountain House in San Joaquin County, which now has 21,000 residents. Approvals from the county to begin the project of this new community came in 1994. It would be 20 years before it got a high school, and the town's first Safeway just opened in December 2022, 28 years after those approvals. So for much of its existence, residents of Mountain House likely had to drive to nearby Tracy to meet most of their needs.
Getting approvals will itself be a "heavy political load," as land use Attorney Steve Herum told the Chronicle last week. And between local residents and county and state agencies, the pushback could be significant — though the group likely wants to take care of the first steps with ballot measures in 2024, and a campaign to voters selling them on the idea of jobs, new parks, and maybe affordable housing could be on the way.
As the Times notes, citing this Chronicle piece, "Environmental groups have already begun coming out against it, arguing that housing should be built closer to population centers." The unnamed new town, or towns, will have to convince those groups, as well as regulators and lawmakers that they have a plan to deal with sea-level rise and flooding, with a good bit of this land likely at sea level.
And then there will be the farmers who didn't sell and other stakeholders in the area who won't be onboard with the idea of outsiders coming in and urbanizing this rural area. The public meetings alone should be wild.
"What happens in these things is, people show up in red T-shirts yelling that a bunch of rich guys who don’t even live here want to put 20,000 more cars on our roads, and what do we get for it? A couple of parks?” says Democratic consultant David Townsend, speaking to the Times.
Sramek's LinkedIn page indicates no job activity since 2016, when he was co-founder of something called Memo, Inc. The Times piece suggested that billionaire VC Michael Moritz was pitching friends about Sramek's idea as far back as 2017, so that may explain the gap. Interestingly, Sramek lists his location as Fairfield, the nearest established city to much of this unincorporated land the group has purchased. And the image below, his profile image, could be an indicator of the 1930s-style, WPA-esque illustrations that will be in store to help market the idea of this new, massive project.
Funny sidebar, someone on Reddit posted this old ad (below) for a non-existent, once-planned city called Solano, selling investors on the idea of buying land in Solano County back in 1913 after a new electric line had been built — saying it could be the next Richmond, or Los Angeles. "Land values invariably jump along a new electric line!" the ad promises. "And here it is, 40 miles — 2 hours — from San Francisco."
Of course now it's less than an hour from here on a good traffic day, but the sales proposition remains largely similar! (This article also notes a once-proposed new town in northeast Solano County, on the Yolo County line, called Yolano. County supervisors approved it in 1928, but it also was never built.)
Writing on BrokeAss Stuart, Bay Area Memes founder and former Solano County resident Abraham Woodliff wrote this week that while he hopes this planned community could provide a bunch of affordable housing, that possibility seems unlikely — and investors will want to see returns more than they want to solve the housing crisis.
"Something tells me it’s not for the grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, or truck drivers that have historically called Solano County home. I think this 'new Bay Area city' is being built for hybrid tech workers," Woodliff surmises. "[If] you’re working remotely for a company in either [Sacramento or San Francisco], and you only have to commute there two or three times a week, living in a faux-urban walkable environment for the price of a far-flung suburb I can see being pretty attractive to a hybrid worker."
We shall see what the actual plans are when, or if, they ultimately get fleshed out.