However misguided it may be, the proposal to build a new city out of whole cloth on some agricultural land in Solano County, east of Vallejo, is likely headed to the November ballot, and the signature-gathering effort officially launched Wednesday.
It remains a fairly skeletal, pie-in-the-sky plan, but the group that dubs itself California Forever continues to try to convince Solano County voters that its proposed, yet-unnamed new city west of Rio Vista will be good for everyone. And Wednesday marks the official launch of the group's ballot initiative push, in which they will be trying this year to gather votes to give them an exemption to the county's Orderly Growth ordinance — which requires new development of this scale to occur within the city limits of the county's existing cities.
We first heard in August about a shadowy group that had been using the name Flannery Associates, and had spent several years quietly assembling a massive amount of farmland in Solano County, just east of Travis Air Force Base. Within a few days, the New York Times was on the case and revealed that Flannery was basically a development cabal backed by some of the biggest names in venture capital and Silicon Valley.
The visionary and fundraiser behind the project to build an entirely new city in the Bay Area is a 36-year-old former Goldman Sachs trader Jan Sramek. He has convinced the likes of Laurene Powell Jobs, Reid Hoffman, Marc Andreessen, Michael Moritz, and other billionaires that they shouldn't bother investing in the Bay Area's existing towns and cities, but they should, like some have dreamed of colonizing the moon or the ocean's surface, instead create a whole new city in some imagined, utopian image.
Via some illustrations that harkened back to New Deal-era propaganda, the group showed us a bit of this vision, which seems to be a cross between centuries-old hillside villages in Europe, Celebration, Florida, and modern sprawl. They dubbed themselves California Forever and launched a website in September, and in the last couple months, Sramek has gone about pitching the idea in town-hall meetings across Solano County, to sometimes skeptical audiences.
To get on the November ballot, the group needs a mere 13,500 signatures from registered voters, so that doesn't seem like too heavy of a lift. But will they, with an expansive and flashy ad campaign, then be able to convince enough voters in the county that a group of billionaires knows what's best and this won't be a ginormous boondoggle?
Multiple politicians and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have come out vocally against the plan. And as Bloomberg reports, Congressman John Garamendi (D-Solano/Contra Costa) excoriated Sramek during a meeting on Capitol Hill last week, calling him and his group "despicable" for not dropping a $515 million lawsuit they filed last fall against landowners they purchased land from. (The lawsuit claims the landowners colluded to drive prices up by $170 million, but the group was going around spending a ton of money, nearly $1 billion, assembling their parcels.)
Garamendi has called the proposed city project "a pipe dream," and he says it makes little sense "in the middle of areas surrounded by wind farms, gas fields, endangered species, no water, no sanitation system and no road system let alone a highway system."
In what sounds like an obvious lie, Sramek told the New York Post last week the the group's billionaire backers are "not at all perturbed" by the slew of negative press that has followed this project since it was announced.
And today, we get new and more detailed renderings of what this proposed city of, initially, 50,000 residents may look like. And it is pretty wildly ambitious, with plans for urban-style neighborhoods as dense as some in San Francisco, office and industrial space that would bring in 15,000 new jobs at a minimum, new schools and public transit, and a 700-acre park to serve as a buffer west of Rio Vista.
"We need to rediscover the lost art of building new cities," says California Forever in a newly published article titled "The Urbanist Case for a New Community in Solano County."
Urbanists have been part of the vocal opposition to this project, arguing that the last thing the Bay Area needs is further disinvestment in its cities, and billions of dollars spent using up farmland that lacks any of the needed infrastructure for a project of this scale.
The California Forever website now comes with a bunch of "guarantees" to voters, which include a "guarantee" to "provide right of way for upgrades to Highways 12 and 113, including the Rio Vista and Dixon bypass, and pay more than our proportionate share of cost to do those upgrades." But that's pretty vague given it's one of the largest and most costly problems they will face — bringing adequate highway infrastructure to serve 50,000 new residents, and a planned potential 400,000 new residents.
They also pledge to give $200 million to fund development in other Solano County downtowns, like Fairfield and Vallejo, as a bonus to those communities. And they're pledging to provide $50,000 in downpayment assistance to 6,000 families wanting to move to this new city, if and when it is built.
There are so many ifs, though, still that it's kind of mind-numbing, and it seems unrealistic to think that this project will get all of its approvals, plans, and funding together anytime in the next decade, leaving the building and occupying of this new city to the late 2030s?
By way of example, another new city that was built in recent decades in Northern California, San Joaquin County's Mountain House, got its county approvals in 1994, and they just got their first Safeway grocery store in 2022. It also took 20 years, until 2014, for Mountain House to get a high school.
Despite promises of job creation, there are only about 1,500 jobs so far in Mountain House, for about 27,000 residents, making it more of a bedroom community for nearby cities' workers.
We learn from the new materials released today that the California Forever team doesn't want us to compare them to the car-centric Mountain House, but rather to the more walkable Seaside, California, which was incorporated in 1954 out of what was formerly called East Monterey, and has about 32,000 residents.
The ordinance the group intends to put on the ballot is called the East Solano Homes, Jobs, and Clean Energy Initiative, and it would create an exception to the Orderly Growth initiative that county voters passed in 1984 to protect farmland.
An opposition group has formed called Solano Together, which includes former county supervisor Duane Kromm. As Kromm tells the Chronicle this week, "It’s easy to make promises, it’s a lot harder to make laws."
Kromm adds, "We don’t know what they are after specifically, but these are rich autocrats who think they can buy whatever they want to buy."
Below, via ABC 7, we have video of the press conference that California Forever put on earlier today.