Tag Archives: Ashton Lyle

Ashton Lyle: Flannery Associates and Tech’s Utopia Obsession

Portrait of Ashton Lyle
Ashton Lyle, BenIndy contributor.

By Ashton Lyle, November 6, 2023

Much has been made of the Flannery Associates’ five-year-long, $1 billion purchase of a combined 50,000 acres in Solano County. The audacity of the investors’ stunt seems to have captured the imagination of many paying attention to the intersection of California’s housing problem, the tech barons who dominate California politics, and the convoluted state of America’s local democracy.

To the credit of the small group of “visionaries” who make up the Flannery Associates, they have correctly identified a lack of housing supply as one of the Bay Area’s primary problems. California’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation Plan found that the region needs 187,990 additional affordable units to meet demand, of which only 15.7% are planned. Flannery Associates believe they have the solution, a city planned by elites and constructed from scratch, deep in Solano County’s golden hills.

There is a belief, propagated by Silicon Valley elites, that ingenuity and purposeful design are all that stand between us and a brighter future. The Flannery Associates represent this class of tech utopians whose infamous desire to “move fast and break things” continues to impact the lives of Bay Area residents while denying locals the opportunity to contribute to decision-making. In a state where conservatism has struggled to become a relevant political force in recent decades, this strain of tech-libertarianism has emerged as one of the strongest challenges to local democracy and California’s liberal consensus.

These tech elite seem to believe that Californians cannot choose for themselves how to develop their communities; instead, they will design and build the future for us. Their utopian ambition is increasingly common amongst the tech-baron class and seems to have only intensified as growing wealth inequality transforms the state. Tech and its most prominent advocates promise to bypass political processes, enacting significant change at the expense of voters’ input. This approach of asking forgiveness rather than permission is a tech favorite (used most memorably by ride-sharing companies and AirBnb).

We’ve seen the Flannery Associates begin to enact these ideas through the 5-year effort to purchase massive amounts of land without public comment or discussion. This land grab was executed through a process so secret that it inspired independent investigations by the FBI, Treasury Department, and Department of Defense. 

A common complaint registered at this point is that our government, with its overly complicated processes and regulations, is simply too inefficient and cumbersome to enact the wishes of any group of citizens. Bold action is needed to fix the housing crisis, and Flannery Associates is certainly a group with the power to do so. 

California faces a number of existential problems, including wealth inequality, the effects of climate change (especially wildfires), and a housing crisis that leaves at least 20% of our Bay Area neighbors in poverty and 30,000 unhoused. The answer, however, is not to be found in the designs of any one group or individual. It is the process of democracy itself which allows the community to make its own decisions, and to build the future we decide together.

While old institutions undoubtedly suffer from bloat and stagnation, new ones, especially those championed by tech elites, are at risk of capture by moneyed interests. The hubris of a few rich men cannot be allowed to outweigh the needs of the Bay Area’s communities. Flannery Associates is just another in a long line of companies that have avoided the input of everyday people, a failure that indicates that they don’t believe they can convince a majority. If the tech barons truly believe they have the best ideas, they should face the judgment of the democratic process.

Tech continues to look for the easy way out, and they should face ridicule for doing so. These CEOs, venture capitalists, and Wall Street investors are not brave disruptors of broken institutions, but dreamers who don’t have the backbone to converse with the people they claim to champion. The democratic process is not an obstacle to progress but how we decide the best path forward, and those who aim to circumnavigate it are only concerned that their vision of the future won’t be realized exactly as they see fit.


Ashton Lyle: Save Friday, September 8 from 6–8 pm for Benicia Public Library’s future

As the culture wars find a new front in public libraries, Benicia Public Library’s strategic plan presentation this Friday represents more than just a look into our library’s future

By Ashton Lyle, September 5, 2023

Portrait of Ashton Lyle
Ashton Lyle, BenIndy contributor.

During my first year of college, my friend offered me a tour of her hometown, a small community in the Boston suburbs. While exploring downtown, she pointed out a small, nondescript building that had been the nation’s first public library. Founded by Benjamin Franklin in a town named for him, this library broke with the tradition of previous lending collections, which had subscription rates equivalent to $575 today. Instead, access was free to the community. 

The public library model pioneered in Franklin, Massachusetts expanded across the country, and libraries rapidly became essential public spaces, serving as community gathering points that hosted meetings, town events, and literary discussions. The Benicia Public Library, which helped introduce me to a love of learning as an elementary school student through its summer reading program, continues in this tradition and was fundamental to my intellectual development, especially when coupled with the libraries at my elementary, middle, and high schools.

Today, these same institutions are regularly under attack, both in Benicia and nationwide. The state of Georgia just applied its “divisive concepts” law for the first time, firing a longtime teacher for reading “My Shadow is Purple” to her class, a children’s book about “being true to oneself and moving beyond the gender binary.” And in Benicia, proponents of anti-trans bigotry have spoken before the school board with all the faux intellectualism typical of the “do your own research” crowd. 

These attacks have converged around school libraries which, despite their importance in educational outcomes, are now at continual risk of restriction and censorship. This is an especially concerning development because of the strong correlation between strong library programs and student success, even after correcting for parent education and income levels. Interestingly, studies find it is staffing levels, rather than the size of a library’s collection, that determine students’ success.

This finding reflects the changing nature of the contemporary library. The library, once focused largely on lending and storing books, has adapted to the internet age, refocusing its mission to become an essential training resource for media literacy, academic research, and critical thinking. In an age where a nearly infinite amount of written material is instantly accessible to students at an increasingly young age, libraries play an essential role in teaching young people how to process and prioritize information. 

Today, libraries are the primary means by which we teach students to vet the truth and relevance of something they’ve read. School libraries regularly provide students with formal training on how to responsibly use online resources, providing fundamental approaches to gathering quality information that is missing from many segments of our population. They also lead by example, providing young people with reading material that is accurate and well-contextualized, thereby familiarizing them with factual texts and well-informed opinions. In contrast to the internet, which provides stimuli in the most engaging package possible, a library contains information that is organized, research-backed, and vetted for extreme content. Learning to tell the difference between fact and fiction is increasingly difficult to teach, but libraries do it more successfully than any other resource I’ve seen.

Equally important to consider is that attempting to limit the information in school libraries, where it can be contextualized by librarians and expanded upon by other texts, does not eliminate a young person’s desire for this information. By removing texts and topics from the professionally curated and regulated space of a public library, “activists” such as Mom’s for Liberty force young people to seek insight through more accessible means, like the internet, where information is wholly unregulated, regularly untruthful, and usually decontextualized. Real harm takes place when naive children, desperate for guidance, stumble across content that exposes ignorant, explicit, or hateful beliefs. Algorithmic incentives to prioritize engaging content can lead teens to view self-harm, dangerous, or extremist content at a very impressionable age, potentially trapping them in silos of thought from which it can be difficult to extract oneself. 

Attempting to pull books off shelves condemns our young people to explore the world of information alone, without guidance and without guardrails. It leaves them un-inoculated against illiberal thought, prejudice, and other harms. Ultimately the censorship approach harms children’s development, produces adults less interested and able to participate in civil society, and further weakens our democratic institutions. This has been evidenced in civil societies across regions and cultures; there is nothing innate in America that will prevent it from happening here. Only a wholesale rejection of reactionary tendencies amongst our neighbors can stop the slow slide to autocracy.

Libraries are essential to giving young people the tools, information, and desire to maintain and expand America’s civil society. This is why I encourage all residents to participate in the upcoming discussion regarding the future of the library. On Friday, September 8th from 6 – 8 pm, the BPL is holding a meeting that discusses future planned initiatives. Help keep our library relevant and our society free. 

RSVP here. 


Ashton Lyle: In Benicia, city-wide events rekindle community connections even amidst digital division

But they won’t survive without your attendance and support

By Ashton Lyle, July 31, 2023

Portrait of Ashton Lyle
Ashton Lyle, BenIndy contributor.

Benicia’s annual 3rd of July parade is a treasured tradition for my family and many others in town. I remember fondly the many times I walked in the parade (beginning as a seven-year-old with the Benicia Stingrays), and later, the occasions I wandered main street festivities with friends. This year I again found myself strolling First Street, but for the first time, instead of watching the participants, I was concentrated on the sizable crowd gathered downtown and reveling in the beauty of Benicia’s community.

This is an increasingly rare opportunity for me, and not just because, like many others my age, I am increasingly separated from the town’s physical community. Alarmingly, this separation from one’s community is systemic, driven by a decline in community events like our cherished parade. The digital world has continued to encompass more of our lives and America’s towns have necessarily mirrored the expanding proportion of time we live and socialize online. The togetherness of community-wide events has begun to fade from contemporary life, and, in turn, our public interactions have naturally evolved to fit the controversy-focused digital medium they take place on.

Perhaps this explains how much of our relations with other Americans are characterized by discontent. As Americans have grown to become increasingly disconnected from the physicality of the humanity which surrounds us, we’ve grown increasingly polarized in our social and political worldviews. Add to this the public nature of digital communication, and it’s no surprise that acrimonious interactions have become a more visible part of daily life.

The injection of hostility into our relationships with our neighbors is an especially concerning development for the suburbs, where the nature of demarcated living only amplifies the human tendency to show elevated aggression towards strangers. Privacy and the near-total sanctity of one’s home, once reserved for the rural few, have become the standard of American life. Whereas multi-unit housing and city life, broadly constructed, requires constant concessions to the humanity of those around us, in the form of noises, smells, or even time (for example, spent waiting for a shared laundry machine to open), the suburban homeowner is the de-facto ruler of their private domain.

The shift towards understanding the ideal life as an increasingly individualized and private, separated from communal living, is now a cultural norm reflected in our public lives. While it forms a core tenant of the imagined “American Dream,” the perception of self-reliance is disconnected from the reality of living in a community, as each facet of suburban life, from its roads to its schools, is determined through collaborative community (i.e., political) processes. Even as our entertainment media and political discourse highlight independence and self-sufficiency as a value of the highest order, the reality of any number of anti-social tendencies in our society, from polarized discourse to indiscriminate violence, is indicative of the need to reconnect with those with whom we are building a shared future.

The need for community returns me to the 3rd of July parade. The parade, and events like it, are a beautiful reminder that the bitterness and alienation present in the online nature of contemporary life don’t need to transfer into real-life interactions. I’m heartened by the reminder that the discourse of Twitter, CNN, and even blockbuster films is still distinct from how Americans actually interact with each other and how Benicia residents can come together.

During such a controversial age, fostering a growing sense of community in Benicia is essential. I have written in previous columns about the material changes which could keep people in town, namely more housing and social opportunities to keep the existing community together while allowing for new, sustainable growth. But there is, of course, more to be done.

Community-wide events can only thrive with the broad support of residents and are therefore constantly under threat of disappearance. As the City of Benicia struggles to balance its budget, citizens now more than ever must manifest the necessity of city-wide events through their attendance. We can take our friends and families to one of the notable events hosted by the Parks and Recreation Department, for example, Movies Under the Stars. Shared community spaces, like the garden downtown, could be expanded to include new locations in other neighborhoods and the block parties I remember from years past, organized by good-hearted neighbors, can be resurrected. We can support the events of Benicia Main Street, such as the weekly Farmer’s Markets and the recent Waterfront Festival.

All these events work to bring the Benicia community into more frequent contact with each other, allaying the worst aspects of our increasingly digital existence. In a country increasingly defined by its discontent towards one another, pulling our community together, with space for difference and new voices, is a stand against the forces of division.


Ashton Lyle: Giving future generations a reason to stay in Benicia requires careful planning

Benicia can provide future generations with what they need to thrive – without losing its identity

By Ashton Lyle, June 28, 2023

Portrait of Ashton Lyle
Ashton Lyle, BenIndy contributor.

My cousin just graduated in her small town, complete with a ceremony reminiscent of my own experience at Benicia High School. Her school, with only 63 graduates, exists firmly outside the suburban identity of Benicia – but all the same, as I watched these newly minted young adults striding confidently across the gymnasium floor, I was left considering the shared nature of our small-town identity.

A small town’s character is bound up in its most community-minded individuals, the folks who organize around important collective desires. Whether in California or not, these leaders tend to be parents, motivated by the intense desire to provide opportunities for their children. Such is the case in Benicia, a town whose identity is deeply tied to the high quality of education provided to its children. 

Education is why my parents moved to Benicia, bringing me to my new home in the golden hills for the first time as a five-year-old. This is a common experience amongst young families in Benicia, who are making sacrifices of all types to find homes and enroll their children into the regionally acclaimed schools. This intense drive to provide for children’s success is admirable.

Quality primary education naturally leads to higher education, and in America, university-level instruction often takes one away from one’s hometown. Meaning that for me and many other young people raised here, the reason why I arrived in Benicia became the reason I left. Like many others across the region, this city is designed to send its children away.

This is the story of my upbringing and of many others in the community. Even after I finished my education and returned to the Bay Area, I did not come home. Why was that, and what does it say about the continuity of Benicia’s community?

First, leaving one’s hometown is a privilege not guaranteed by growing up with access to good schools. Many of my classmates have not left their own hometowns, largely for economic reasons, a common experience as between 30% and 50% of young people live with their parents. There is a vicious cycle of stagnation everywhere in America, epitomized by the inability to afford the move to better opportunities, which is difficult to leave behind without generational wealth.

Of course, choosing to continue living in one’s hometown as a young person is a perfectly acceptable choice, especially because Benicia and its surrounding communities have many positive aspects. In addition to the incredible weather, culture, and people, the Bay Area is also notable for its jobs, a consideration that is especially important for young people looking to build financial independence. Even better, these jobs are the type of employment that allows for a future unburdened by concerns about making rent and servicing debt. 

Benicia can evolve to keep its young people while still providing them with the economic possibilities they need to thrive. The town will never be for everyone; some will always be drawn to the big city, and others to rural tranquility. However, I know many of Benicia’s parents want to keep their children close, and it’s worth considering what policy choices could help keep families and the broader community together over the long term.

 Where Benicia falls short in comparison to its neighbors is its ability to offer the same opportunities – in business, leisure, and otherwise – which allow for easy connection to other early-career workers. The problem facing current residents is how to provide essential social and economic possibilities for young people while maintaining Benicia’s identity. 

This intersects in complex ways with the rise of remote work. As office work has become less frequent for many in the professional class since COVID, the value of housing has risen in the areas surrounding major cities, including Benicia. While I believe we need to increase the town’s housing stock, it is also true that in order to compete for the attention of young people looking to make a home within neighboring towns, Benicia must work to maximize what makes it so special. 

Increasing transit routes and service frequency in Benicia could help residents – especially young adults – find and access better social and professional opportunities. | Image by BB&B Business Group.

I see two main areas that would provide increased opportunities for young adults while improving the city’s livability. One is Benicia’s connection and ease of transit to neighboring cities that provide services and experiences incompatible with the nature of small-town life. For example, Vallejo contains many shops and amenities from a movie theatre to big-box retailers that are currently infeasible or out of step with the size of Benicia. This means transit connections should continue to be built out, for example, by further exploring the potential for a 9th St. ferry, building increased bus connections, and allocating funds to better maintain our roads. 

The other avenue would be to double down on what makes Benicia great to begin with – our downtown. The walkable, mixed-used character of downtown, with its intoxicating mix of neighborliness, town events, art galleries, and small businesses, draws visitors and residents alike to the area. The city is looking into expanding mixed-used zoning to areas like the Eastern Gateway, an amendment that I am happy to see passed, as it not only invites the business and social spaces which attract young people but will also expand our tax base. These sustainable developments, which could expand eventually to include the Raley’s and Safeway shopping centers, build on Benicia’s historic character while providing more opportunities for business and community growth.

These new additions can continue the tradition of Benicia’s small-business-focused downtown, while also being free to experiment with new types of buildings and businesses which are better suited to the contemporary remote work city. Co-working spaces, formal and otherwise, would bring people to the Eastern Gateway, incentivizing more services within the new “midtown,” providing an alternative focal point to 1st Street. This would help alleviate some of the parking issues facing Benicia’s downtown, however, the development is also only a short drive away, meaning workers drawn to the area would still be likely to patronize existing businesses and keep the community thriving. By providing additional locations for remote work and social gatherings in town, these new areas incentivize young workers to spend their time in and amongst the community, making our town more engaging for both current and future residents.

Benicia’s First Street already has some stretches that reflect mixed-use development, featuring buildings with ground-floor commercial spaces (usually retail, restaurants and other small businesses) topped by upper-floor residences. | Image uncredited.

The last few years have signaled the start of a new status quo in the nature of small-town life, both built by and increasingly unbound from the concept of a traditional California suburb. Planning a Benicia better suited for the age of remote work and open to increased social and business opportunities is the key to providing a lifetime of opportunities for its children and residents of all ages, allowing the community to stay and grow together.

Author’s Note: In the spirit of full transparency, I am related to the recently appointed Planning Commissioner for the City of Benicia. That said, the opinions expressed in this piece are fully my own, they were not unduly influenced by our relationship, and should not be taken to represent his or anyone else’s opinion.