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. | Jim Wilson / The New York Times.By Elizabeth Patterson, September 12, 2023
What is good about the billionaires’ new town in bucolic Solano? For one it makes us think about what we value. For another it makes us ponder the role of local government and policies.
To the billionaires who pride themselves on moving fast and breaking things, I would say they certainly are going to be successful in breaking things. Those “things” are valued by many. The list is long including rare one-of-a-kind Jepsen Prairie, the Delta Heritage Area (first on the West Coast thanks to Congressmember John Garamendi), ranching, US Air Force safety and security, water (lack of), and agricultural economy. All of these will be affected, ruined, wrecked, and lost – the cost of destruction is breathtaking.
But that is not the worst part. The systemic disinvestment in existing urban communities is amplified by these billionaires. I would not say the techies have ruined San Francisco which might be why they don’t live there – or maybe I will. Look at the mess of people living on the streets and campers. Do you think the wage gap might have something to do with why people can’t afford to live in the city? Or how about the cost of land driven by these tech investors (see YIMBY) and thus making affordable housing difficult. Or how about not paying their fair share using public infrastructure. In short, vast fortunes in the hands of the few, whether earned through inheritance, commerce, or crime, continue to grow at the expense of the rest of us but especially the poor.
A few years ago, when I was working in state government, I was assigned to the Governors’ Delta Blue Ribbon Task Force to provide information about land use. Much of the focus of the task force was on the Delta science of ecosystems and water management. Land use planning was included. I provided short lessons on planning principles, challenges, and policies. I was asked to write a white paper (in the Delta archives) on how land use planning happens. In a word, government policies have very little to do what ultimately happens. The Brookings Institute documented that about 78 to 80% of public and private money is spent on new development. Take a pause and think about that. In other words, investment by the private sector and government is for suburbs and new development infrastructure. Is it any wonder that cities, towns and old suburbs are falling apart.
It is a vicious cycle. Lack of investment in the city. The city deteriorates, people move out to the newer developed areas, city property declines in value, home ownership declines and less taxes are generated and less disposable income is available and so retail and commercial businesses leave.
This is why the best and brightest urban economists talk about reinvesting in existing cities and not expanding beyond the footprint. By investing in the existing developed areas, economic value is added, and the quality of life that people value is maintained. This is the proven way to keep communities thriving and serving residents and businesses. Using those investment dollars for new, shiny development does not help.
My recommendations to the billionaires: Heed the America the Beautiful Initiative: “The America the Beautiful initiative reflects an inherently pragmatic approach that puts people at the center and outlines an inclusive and collaborative vision where locally led efforts to conserve, steward, and restore lands and waters will help us reach our shared goals.” The federal government has a $1 billion America the Beautiful Challenge to leverage federal conservation and restoration investments with private and philanthropic contributions to accelerate land, water, and wildlife conservation efforts across the country. These grants support projects that conserve, restore and connect habitats for wildlife while improving community resilience and access to nature.
Donate the land to the Solano Land Trust giving Solano the certainty that what we value most – the open spaces, agriculture and water management will be forever. Instead of spending gobs of money on consultants, advertising, wooing decision makers and officials, build wanted and needed multifamily homes in Fairfield, Vallejo and Benicia. We have sites that can use the ministerial approval process.
Plant trees. Not on soil that doesn’t grow trees but in our cities that need shaded sidewalks and cleaner air. Trees do both.
And last. With the wealth gap now growing as wide as it was a century ago, it’s no surprise that many consider today a modern gilded age. Peter Cohen from the Council of Community Housing Organizations explained it: “When you’re dealing with this total concentration of wealth and this absurd slosh of real-estate money, you’re not dealing with housing that’s serving a growing population. You’re dealing with housing as a real-estate commodity for speculation.”
The “Tech Titans” billionaires have begun to resemble historical robber-barons of the Gilded Age, or powerful industrialists that monopolized massive industries via trusts, exploited workers, and endorsed unethical business practices. “While businesses during the gilded age had a much larger influence in their industries and in politics than the current massive corporations that come to mind, I do not think it would be unreasonable to say there is continuity between the gilded age and now,” said AP US History student Jeremy Li (23’).
In conclusion, what we are witnessing in this new town project is the transfer of responsibility for public goods and services from democratic institutions to the wealthy, to be administered by an executive class. In the billionaire society, the exercise of social responsibilities is no longer debated in terms of whether billionaires should or shouldn’t be responsible for more than their own business interests. Instead, it is about how they can use their wealth to reinforce a politico-economic system that enables such a small number of people to accumulate obscene amounts of wealth.
Elizabeth Patterson, AICP
Benicia Mayor (2007-2020)
Retired state environmental scientist