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.”