By way of comparison to the currently unfolding plan by a cabal of billionaires to construct a new city out of whole cloth and some farmland in Solano County, Mountain House in San Joaquin County serves as an example of how even in the best of circumstances, the process of placemaking can take a very long time.
We are likely to see in the coming years that all the money in the world can't get you out of pesky legal troubles and regulatory hurdles when it comes to building a new city in California. And from the get-go, as we learned about the plans by Flannery Associates — who are now using the moniker California Forever — people have pointed to the last time anyone tried to do this in Northern California, which is Mountain House.
As SFist pointed out earlier, Mountain House received its county approvals way back in 1994, and it would be 20 years before they got a high school, and nearly 30 — i.e. last year — before they got their first Safeway. The community, planned as a series of self-contained neighborhoods, now has a population of around 27,000 people (24,500 as of the 2020 Census), and it is still considered a census-designated place, not a city.
Mountain House has been governed since 2008 by an elected, five-member community services district board and a general manager, and law enforcement is still handled through a contract with the county sheriff.
The Chronicle took a deeper dive today into how Mountain House has taken shape, and how it has and hasn't succeeded in conforming to the original vision. It was built at a time when more and more workers in the Bay Area were beginning to buy property in San Joaquin County and commute to and from places like Tracy because of its affordability. The original lead developer, Trimark Communities, envisioned 12 separate "villages" of 1,200 units each, each organized around its own retail core and K-8 school, with a Central Community Park wending through several of them.
The first homes sold in 2003, and the town's library and town hall were only just opened in 2021.
Most of the lots that were reserved for retail strips have yet to be developed, as the Chronicle reports, leaving most residents to rely on shopping trips to other cities or to the now nine-month-old Safeway store. Also, there was a promise of commute-free jobs at an in-town office park — but much of what's been built of that office park remains vacant, and for the 27,000 residents there are only about 1,500 jobs currently in Mountain House.
Denser apartment housing that was imagined in the town center has also not been built. And while construction went at a steady clip in the early aughts, things ground to a halt with the Great Recession in 2008. And Mountain House had the distinction of being the "most underwater" place in the country, with 90 percent of the homes there worth less than what their mortgages were for several years.
That has changed, and values have bounced way up — with one $2 million sale being a recent high-water mark. And thousands of units have been built since 2013, though still not as many as are still planned.
Another thing the developers could not have planned is who would want to live there. As the Chronicle notes, Mountain House has attracted a huge population of South Asians, many of whom work in tech. They are attracted to the critical mass of other South Asians who live there, as well as the design of units, many of which have downstairs accessory units great for visiting parents on long stays.
The unnamed town being envisioned by California Forever could be much larger than this — Mountain House covers 4,784 acres, while the Solano town could potentially cover 52,000+ acres with residential and commercial development, as well as parkland.
The group and its visionary, 36-year-old Jan Sramek, are planning to build a sustainable, walkable city, powered by solar and wind energy — and Sramek recently told KQED it will otherwise be a "city of yesterday," with row houses and quaint squares, and homes that will be "affordable by design."
We will all, of course, have to see it to believe it, and the high-speed rail will likely be running all the way from Sacramento to San Diego by the time this place exists, if it ever does.
Photo via Facebook