Tag Archives: Solano County CA

Dear Flannery Assoc. & California Forever: New Cities Won’t Solve the Housing Crisis

Why Don’t We Just Build New Cities?

California Forever was founded in 2017 and is led by CEO Jan Sramek. Its primary investors are tech billionaires, including Marc Andreessen, Patrick and John Collison, Chris Dixon, John Doerr, Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, Reid Hoffman, Michael Moritz, Laurene Powell Jobs, and the investment firm Andreessen Horowitz. | Image from californiaforever.com.

Yearning for a blank slate crosses the ideological spectrum—but sooner or later, new places will face the same old problems.

The first urbanists were recorded in the pages of Genesis: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” But God struck down the Tower of Babel and cursed his people to rely on Google Translate forever.

Despite this false start, the dream of building a great new city continues to this day, even in developed nations like the United States, where we already have a lot of them. We start new companies, new schools, new neighborhoods all the time. Why not a new San Francisco, Boston, or Miami? The yearning for a blank slate crosses the ideological spectrum, touching socialists, antidevelopment activists, curious policy makers, and, most recently, Silicon Valley investors attempting to build a city from scratch—among them Marc Andreessen, Patrick and John Collison, Michael Moritz, Nat Friedman, and Laurene Powell Jobs (who is also the founder of Emerson Collective, which is the majority owner of The Atlantic).

From left, Michael Moritz, Reid Hoffman, Marc Andreessen and Chris Dixon, four prominent Silicon Valley investors, have backed Flannery Associates. | Bloomberg; The New York Times; Clara Mokri for The New York Times; Getty Images; Reuters.

And they’re not just dreaming big or tweeting. As The New York Timesreported in August, they’re backing California Forever, the parent company of Flannery Associates, which has acquired nearly 60,000 acres in Solano County, California, between San Francisco and Sacramento. That’s a lot of land—roughly twice the size of San Francisco or Boston, and slightly larger than Seattle. Housing developments crop up all the time, of course, and suburbs glom on to existing metropolitan areas. California Forever has something else in mind: a top-down community with brand-new infrastructure, where tens of thousands would live and, most important for the company’s vision, also work and play. It’s not your grandfather’s suburban development.

“We’ve gotten into a situation where it’s completely acceptable to talk about inventing general artificial intelligence, and that’s something we’ve accepted is going to happen, but it’s not possible to build a new town where people can buy homes,” Jan Sramek, the founder and CEO of California Forever, told me. (The comparison reveals more about his social environment than anything else; it is not commonly accepted that AGI is “going to happen.”)

But building a new city is hard, and this most recent push to do so—unlike with recent gains in AI—doesn’t reflect an exciting breakthrough in America’s technological, political, or financial capacity. Rather, it reflects an abiding frustration with the ridiculously sluggish process of building housing in America’s most productive cities and suburbs. The dream of a new San Francisco is, then, rooted in the nightmare that the old one may be past saving.

Details about the new proposed city in Solano County are hard to come by, but sketches on California Forever’s website portray an idyllic town, foregrounded by open space and densely built with multiple housing types. Windmills turn in the background. The website reads: “Our vision for walkable neighborhoods, clean energy, sustainable infrastructure, good jobs and a healthy environment is not about reinventing the wheel, but rather going back to the basics that were once the norm across America.”

Image from californiaforever.com.

California Forever’s project has a lot going for it: The lack of urban or suburban development in the region means an absence of traditional groups that might fight against neighborhood change. Because California Forever has acquired so much acreage, local officials have a strong incentive to work with Sramek to prevent collapsing land values if his project fails. And Sramek is already considering ways to sweeten the deal for existing residents; he says one idea is “setting up a fund that would provide down-payment assistance for buying homes in the new community, which would only be accessible to current residents of Solano County.”

But financing urban infrastructure is exceedingly expensive. “Organic” cities, in which firms and workers agglomerate and then begin to demand that governments finance infrastructure, have a preassembled tax base. If you try to build the infrastructure first, paying for it becomes tricky.

Alain Bertaud, a former principal urban planner at the World Bank and an expert on urban development, told me: “A new city, especially a large one … has a problem of cash flow.” The city can’t raise taxes to build schools and hire teachers, for instance, but it needs to build schools and hire teachers before parents are willing to move—and be taxed—there. “If you look back to [recent] history … the only large new cities were new capitals like Brasilia, Chandigarh, Canberra, [where] the cash flow is not a problem [because] you have the taxpayers of the entire country paying for the cost.”

Thinking of cities as mere infrastructure is a categorical mistake. New York City is not the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge; London is not the tube; and Levittown, New York—America’s quintessential “first” suburb—is not its single-family homes. Infrastructure follows people, not the other way around. “You don’t go to a new city because the sewer system is fantastically efficient,” Bertaud said.

In general, the superstar cities we have today were not preselected from above; they were chosen by millions of workers in search of economic opportunity: Los Angeles (oil); San Francisco (gold); Boston (a port, academia); Seattle (lumber, aircraft, tech); New York City (a port, finance). Granted, workers tend to follow firms that follow transportation networks, which themselves are sometimes functions of state investments, but the principle is sound: Cities are people.

When people are choosing where to live, that decision is almost wholly dominated by job availability. What that means is people attract people. It’s a virtuous cycle in which people who move have kids and want teachers and day-care providers and taxi drivers and nurses, and those people want restaurant workers and iPhone-repair specialists, and so on. (Within a job market or when choosing between two equally promising job markets, people do of course consider the quality of life.)

But what if Sramek and his backers aren’t really building a new city after all, just a commuter suburb far away from the inner core? That’s what the pro-housing activist Jordan Grimes thinks is happening; he told the San Francisco Chronicle the project was “sprawl with a prettier face and prettier name.” Solano’s population has a lot of commuters already. Census data from 2016 to 2020 indicated that of the roughly 207,000 workers who lived in Solano, more than 40 percent commuted to another county. Compare that with San Francisco, where of its nearly 510,000 workers, a bit more than 20 percent commuted to another county.

I asked Sramek: Is he truly looking to build a city with its own job market, where residents will be responsible for policing, fire services, parks and recreation, wastewater, libraries? Or is he looking to develop housing, with some space for retail, restaurants, and other cultural amenities? “This is one of those issues that’s very open for community input,” he told me. “We do think that eventually this would become an incorporated city that does provide many of those services.”

Cows graze on land purchased by the Flannery Associates with California Forever in hopes of building a new city between Suisun City and Rio Vista. | Chris Riley / Vallejo Times-Herald.

Sramek isn’t a developer, and his investors are not the sort of people who hope that their hundreds of millions of dollars go into the construction of a few thousand single-family homes. Someone close to the project, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it freely, told me the aspiration is to prove to the rest of the world what’s possible in America: We can build an attractive, dense, and climate-friendly metropolis, and we can do it quickly. The source also suggested that a big Silicon Valley player might one day move its offices to the area. (I reached out to Andreessen, Patrick Collison, Friedman, and Powell Jobs. They declined to comment.)

Either way, new city or new sprawl, this project is going to run headfirst into the politics of development. Right now, the land is zoned largely for agricultural use. The county holds that changing the current designation to accommodate high-density urban infrastructure will require a ballot measure. Sramek told me he might try to put the question to voters as early as November 2024, but victory is far from assured.

According to some local officials, Flannery Associates alienated the local community by refusing to announce its intentions before it began acquiring land. (Sramek argues that doing so would have made land values skyrocket.) Congressional representatives alerted the Treasury Department, worried that foreign investors were buying up real estate for nefarious purposes. They noted that an Air Force base is nearby. “I will tell you they have poisoned the well,” John Garamendi, who represents a large part of Solano County, told me. “There’s no goodwill. Five years of total secrecy? Five years of not communicating with [local officials]?”

The process of building a city, difficult as it is, seems remotely rational only because trying to build within cities drives people mad.

Sramek and his director of planning, Gabriel Metcalf, who once ran the influential San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, say the idea for a new city came to them after deciding that working on incremental reforms would never yield the housing needed to make a dent in the overall shortage. As of now, the country needs more housing than almost anyone can imagine, a formidable challenge even if America’s political and legal systems were focused on meeting it—which, unfortunately, most of them are not. Instead of directing a building boom, states still devolve permitting decisions down to the hyperlocal level, where the default is to ban smaller, more affordable homes and where opposition from just a few people can quash desperately needed construction.

“It’s always hard to come to an existing place and try to change it very profoundly,” Sramek told me, when I asked him why he wasn’t focused on building in established cities.

“I spent my whole career on the infill side,” Metcalf told me. (Infill development is building on underutilized land within existing development patterns, such as turning a parking lot into a few townhomes.) “I believe in that completely, but we are only delivering a small fraction of what we need … Whether it’s trying to build a high-speed rail line or renewable-energy transmission line or high-density infill housing, there is a vetocracy in place that across America makes it incredibly difficult and slow to build the things we need to build.” (Funnily enough, that vetocracy includes one of the investors in the Solano County project: Andreessen. I reported last year that he co-signed a letter with his wife opposing new development in the wealthy town of Atherton.)

The socialist writer Nathan J. Robinson has also issued a call to build new cities, and he, too, seems to have given up on the idea of reforming existing places: “​​The exciting thing about building new cities from scratch is that it allows you to avoid the mistakes that are made in the ‘organic’ (i.e., market-built) city … A new city can avoid all of the disastrous errors that gave us the ugly suburban wastelands that constitute so much of contemporary ‘development.’”

American cities and suburbs have earned Sramek’s fatalism. And certainly, building a walkable, thriving new town in Solano County would be positive for anyone who found a home they loved there. But Sramek and his backers want to set an example, and good examples should be replicable. This one isn’t. Sites like Solano County—near bustling job centers that lack residential development—are few and far between.

Two types of places need a development boom: those that already have lots of people living in them, like Boston or Miami, and those that are growing quickly, like Georgetown, Texas, near Austin. To the extent they’re failing to build, it’s not because they lack inspiration. They’re failing because the politics are genuinely thorny. Many people oppose new development on ideological grounds, or because they think it’s a nuisance, or because they deny the existence of a housing shortage at all, or even because they believe it interferes with other priorities.

A new city, moreover, won’t necessarily escape these antidevelopment pressures in the future. It might expand for a while, but it will eventually face the same old problem: residents who don’t want change. Even in Manhattan, a place where residents are surrounded by high-density housing and cultural amenities that come from density, people regularly oppose new housing, new transit, and even new dumpsters.

Solving the housing crisis doesn’t require inventing new places for people to go; it requires big cities to embrace growth, as they did in the past, and smaller cities to accept change. Again, cities are people, and people are moving to Maricopa, Arizona, in the suburbs of Phoenix, and Santa Cruz, California, south of San Jose. These places may not feel ready to accommodate newcomers, but some will have to rise to the occasion.

What America needs isn’t proof that it can build new cities, but that it can fix its existing ones.

Jerusalem Demsas is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

This and more stories on the Flannery land grab: https://beniciaindependent.com/tags/flannery-associates/

Developer Behind Imagined New Solano County City Says Billionaire Group Wants to Build a ‘City of Yesterday’

California Forever was founded in 2017 and is led by CEO Jan Sramek. Its primary investors are tech billionaires, including Marc Andreessen, Patrick and John Collison, Chris Dixon, John Doerr, Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, Reid Hoffman, Michael Moritz, Laurene Powell Jobs, and the investment firm Andreessen Horowitz. | Image from californiaforever.com

SFist, by Jay Barman, September 25, 2023

Confirming fears by planning experts that the billionaire group behind an imagined, utopian city built on arid agricultural land in Solano County will be retrograde in concept, visionary developer Jan Sramek said as much in an interview with KQED today.

Sramek went on KQED’s Forum Monday along with Fairfield mayor and original critic of the project Catherine Moy, and Chronicle writer J.K. Dineen. And he spent much of the broadcast defending the idea that this new city is something that Bay Area and Solano County residents will want, and that it will be “affordable by design.” Sramek also revealed a few key bits of new information, including the fact that the group doesn’t intend to quickly try to get the city incorporated — though this could be all talk.

“This could remain in unincorporated Solano County for a long time,” Sramek said. “We think government is fine as it is in Solano County. The county does a great job of running the county … And then at some point, it would be a decision of the voters in this new community whether they want to incorporate.”

Sramek also said that the majority of the first homes built would be row houses, perhaps built by small-scale firms, and made to be affordable for middle-class families.

“We think that there’s so much wisdom in how we built cities and towns over the last hundreds of thousands of years [sic] in some places. And so from the beginning, we’ve believed that you go back to go forward… The plans that people put forward will be very inspired by those great old American neighborhoods that someone who was born 100 years ago will recognize… We want to build a city of yesterday,” Sramek says.

He suggests that row houses “are some of the most under-appreciated types of types of buildings,” and can be built “much more cheaply” than dense, mid-rise condo complexes, at least so long as the land is cheap enough. But is that really true?

Fairfield Mayor Catherine Moy said that the secretiveness with which the group behind the project, Flannery Associates — or maybe now known by the project name as California Forever — conducted themselves for years hasn’t won them any friends in local government. Moy also suggests that “there’s something else going on here,” given that the group has plans to develop 60,000 acres, or a space twice as large as Fairfield itself, which has over 120,000 residents.

And, Moy adds, “There are other areas that this group could develop in and do a lot of good for humanity, including our downtown. Putting a city in an area that is 98% [agricultural] is not a good idea. We are running out of [agricultural] land. We don’t need to develop it.”

Sramek insists that, despite so much out-migration from California in recent years, he’s “gone out and found a group of people who want to double down in California, who believe in the state, who believe in the optimism and the dynamism, and who want to use their resources to build something great in California.”

But doesn’t this all sound a bit like Disney’s Celebration, Florida?

The Chronicle’s urban design critic John King has already critiqued the early rollout of the California Forever proposal, even though it contains no concrete plans.

“Besides the utter lack of specificity in terms of what the conversation will actually be about, here’s the most insulting aspect of California Forever 1.0: It claims to be the natural outgrowth of Bay Area planning tradition,” King writes. “It does this by exhuming a pair of pre-1970 government documents… and says, ‘Let’s dust off those plans, and breathe new life into them’… Or maybe not: Among other things, the 1960 plan calls for a new bridge from San Francisco to Sausalito by way of Angel Island. Plus new suburbs in West Marin and filling in up to 325 miles of the existing bay for development purposes.”

It was about unhindered sprawl, in other words, and did not focus on urban centers and existing transit corridors. “It’s so sad and disappointing,” said Greenbelt Alliance executive director Amanda Brown-Stevens, speaking to the Chronicle. “They’re looking to the past, all the failed approaches that put us in this situation, and doubling down.”

This and more stories on the Flannery land grab: https://beniciaindependent.com/tags/flannery-associates/

What survey results reveal about tech moguls’ bid to build utopian city in Solano

[Note from BenIndy: There is no shortage of coverage regarding Flannery Associates’ strides (and stumbles) since the group announced, finally, its grand vision for eastern Solano County. The BenIndy is focusing on making sure local responses reach your inboxes (vs. broad coverage), but there are some great articles linked below so you can continue exploring on your own. One item of note – Flannery says they’re “working collaboratively with county officials and a team of experts” in this next, slightly less secret phase.  Our first question is this: which county officials? Our second and third questions: who is in this team of experts, and which disciplines, special interests and agendas do they represent? There are some clues on the californiaforever.com website that we hope to dig into soon.]

What survey results reveal about effort to build new city on Solano Co. farmland

The firm that purchased nearly $1 billion worth of Solano County farmland is sharing its vision to build a city and how some people feel about it. | Video from ABC7 Bay Area.

ABC7 Bay Area News,  by Stephanie Sierra, October 11, 2023

The investment firm that’s purchased nearly $1 billion worth of Solano County farmland is sharing its vision to build a city and how some people feel about it.

After years of speculation as to what Flannery Associates would do with more than 55,000 acres acquired since 2018, the I-Team got an exclusive first look at how some constituents feel about it change coming to the county.

According to the firm, over the past two years, residents have been surveyed and interviewed about a wide range of topics – including proposed ballot measures discussing things like clean energy, sustainable infrastructure and affordable housing.

The following data comes from two scientific polls conducted in July and August this summer that combined contacted around 1,400 residents via landline, cell phone, or online in multiple languages.

The key findings from the July poll show voters are dissatisfied with the direction of Solano County and with the direction of things in their area. According to those surveyed, 39% said they’re mixed, 29% said they believe the county is headed in the wrong direction, only 21% said the county is headed in the right direction, 11% of others don’t know.

The survey also found voters are worried about affordability for the next generation. An overwhelming 81% of parents say they believe most kids in the county will not be able to afford to live in their current neighborhood when they grow up. Only 13% said they will and 6% said they don’t know.

Among other things, voters indicated the county needs big changes to bring in more jobs, revenue, and improve quality of life. And when it comes to the issues most important when voting for county officials — crime, homelessness, and cost of housing topped the list.

While the survey results show an overwhelming level of support for change, local officials say they still have concerns.

“I just don’t think building a city the way they intend to is feasible,” Catherine Moy, the mayor of Fairfield told ABC7 on Sunday. “Lack of water, infrastructure, plus how will it be powered?”

Flannery says eastern Solano County would maintain significant agricultural operations. But, the firm says they’re interested in exploring new models that would combine solar farms with agriculture by having sheep graze under the solar panels.

“That’s a problem or it could be a problem with the Air Base because of the reflection, but there are new solar panels that you can use on bases and some do,” said Moy.

“We know that PG&E does not have the power grid to hold up a new city, they can’t even open up some of our new car dealerships.”

The August poll found Solano County voters are more likely to support a project that brings in good permanent jobs, protects the environment, and delivers revenue for safety and education.

According to the firm, the polls have a margin of error of approximately 3.5% to 4% in 95 out of 100 cases. The firm added their project would protect and support Travis Air Force Base – respecting the county’s general plan and the area that has a security buffer to protect operations around the base.

The survey also revealed potential future projects that received support from those surveyed – including a new trade school, shortened commutes with reduced traffic congestion, millions of new olive trees and a new oak forest. Plus, thousands of acres of projects that restore ecological habitats and help keep the Delta and the Bay healthy and resilient against climate change.

Flannery says they’re working collaboratively with county officials and a team of experts who are committed to solving northern California’s most important challenges.

This and four more stories on the Flannery land grab: https://beniciaindependent.com/tags/flannery-associates/

Solano County’s top official releases statement on Flannery land grab for new city

Solano County Administrator responds to California Forever Purchases

Cows graze on land purchased by the Flannery Associates with California Forever in hopes of building a new city between Suisun City and Rio Vista. | (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)

Vallejo Times-Herald, by Nick McConnell, September 6, 2023

The Solano County Administrator’s Office responded with a Wednesday news release concerning the purchase of over 50,000 acres of Solano County farmland near Travis Air Force Base by California Forever, the parent company of Flannery Associates.

The release identifies the administrator’s office as “the government agency with land use authority over this region.” Solano County has been in communication with state and federal representatives about the extent of Flannery holdings since 2018.

“Communications with Flannery have been limited despite the county’s efforts to understand their intentions for the use of the land they had been acquiring,” according to the release.

The county has informed Flannery since it started making the purchases that the land acquired is limited to agricultural use under the current regulations.

“To be clear,” the release reads, “if the recent reports in the media are true, along with the assertions made on California Forever’s website, the concept of creating a new urban center in Solano County raises some complex issues.”

According to the administrator’s office, urban development in that area would need to be put to a vote on the ballot and be approved by a majority of Solano County voters.

“For decades, Solano County residents have consistently decided at the ballot box that preservation of agricultural land is a priority,” the administrator’s office said.

A cornerstone of land use policy in Solano County has been the protection of Travis Air Force Base from any encroachment that could threaten the base.

The release notes that Solano County has not yet received any project information or proposals from the company at this time.

We will continue to keep the community informed as new information becomes available,” the release said. “It is the County’s hope to have frank discussions with California Forever regarding Solano County’s long-standing land use policies and their expressed vision.”

This and four more stories on the Flannery land grab: https://beniciaindependent.com/tags/flannery-associates/