Forget the fluffy drawings of a new city fueled by tech money. Let’s see an actual proposal

Flannery’s elevator pitch…

San Francisco Chronicle, by John King, Sep. 1, 2023

California Forever, a group of Silicon Valley investors who want to build a city in Solano County, launched a website for their project, which included illustrations of their proposed development. | Provided by California Forever

OK, this is something new — an elevator pitch for a whole new city.

That’s apparently what a cadre of Silicon Valley investors naming itself California Forever seeks to build on 55,000 acres in southeast Solano County: an Eden of walkable neighborhoods swathed in farmland and natural spaces, an oasis of sustainable energy and water conservation.

But the website launched Thursday by California Forever offers no real details, such as the projected population or precise location. Instead, there are renderings of cuddly townscapes and soothing talk of building “a remarkable place for Solano residents.” Oh, and an earnest promise to “begin the phase of our work that matters most: our conversation with you.”

Let the eye-rolling commence.

It’s impossible to critique the vision of the investors, because what was unfurled is so innocuous as to be an insult. The images are as placid as a video aimed at infants; just this side of cartoonish, depicting clusters of vaguely sized storybook homes hugging a terrain that looks more like Italy’s Cinque Terre than the wind-battered ranges of Solano County.

Cows rest in the shade of a wind turbine in the farmland southeast of Travis Air Force Base near Fairfield. The windswept locale is far different from the scene shared in renderings for a planned new city by a group dubbed California Forever. | Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle

The website also refers to how this will be a center of “economic opportunity” and “new employers.” Great! But only two of the 12 renderings show people at work, including one where three men install solar panels while the sun sets in the west. Let’s hope they’re being paid overtime.

A spokesperson for California Forever said Friday there’s no secret plan behind those remedies: “We’ll hear what the county wants and what the people are interested in,” explained Brian Brokaw. “The specifics will emerge.”

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.

It does this by exhuming a pair of pre-1970 government documents, including the federal government’s “Future Development of the San Francisco Bay Area, 1960-2020,” 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’s so sad and disappointing,” is how the California Forever mindset was described Friday by Amanda Brown-Stevens, executive director of Greenbelt Alliance. The nonprofit has worked for decades to protect farmland and natural landscapes while steering needed growth into existing communities.

A rendering of a scene in a proposed city planned in Solano County by the group California Forever show workers constructing a home. | Provided by California Forever

Yes, you can make the argument that environmental regulations have been applied in extreme and cynical ways — thwarting the construction of new housing that would have helped prevent the region from becoming a two-tier society where many people can’t afford to live in the communities where they grew up. But to turn back the clock without saying so, just pledging to build “a remarkable place,” is disingenuous and disheartening.

“They’re looking to the past, all the failed approaches that put us in this situation, and doubling down,” Brown-Stevens said.

The lone upside to the elevator pitch is that the people involved are legitimate, with deep pockets and Bay Area roots. The investors include Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, and Laurene Powell Jobs (the only woman among the 10 investors listed on the website, by the way). The consultants have track records in San Francisco and the region. This isn’t a fly-by-night land grab.

But the way to introduce yourself isn’t with soft-focus renderings and rhetoric and the assurance that California Forever’s top executive has a golden retriever named Bruce.

The Bay Area needs housing and jobs. It also needs honest approaches to making this happen. Let’s hope when California Forever 2.0 launches, there is less fluff and more facts.