Tech billionaires ask Californians to give new utopian city their blessing

They paved paradise, put up grocery stores, bars, restaurants, hotels, hospitals ...

Californians wondering why a shady shell company spent time buying up vast acreages of scrubland in Solano County can wonder no more – because a gaggle of tech billionaires are going on a charm offensive to get a city built from scratch.

Until recently, the identity of Flannery Associates was shrouded in mystery. Residents even expressed concerns about foreign espionage because the landgrab, which made some of the sellers millionaires, snaked close to Travis Air Force Base, one of the busiest in the US.

But it's not as sexy as that. It's just rich people doing rich people things led by former Goldman Sachs trader Jan Sramek with investors including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist Michael Moritz, Patrick and John Collison of Stripe, and Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve's widow.

The scheme dates back to 2017 and has since been the subject of speculation and conspiracy. However, the veil is now falling as the billionaires need to woo the community into approving their plans – which is going to be a big ask.

In a bid for a more friendly face, the group channeled their inner Red Hot Chilli Peppers and rebranded to California Forever.

On Wednesday, Sramek spoke at the the Veterans Hall in the city of Rio Vista to share details about the plan and promised to be a "great neighbor" to the county.

According to the Los Angeles Times, he pledged "to create at least 15,000 jobs; $500 million to assist with down payments for housing, scholarships and other benefits for residents; $200 million to revitalize the downtown cores of existing Solano County communities such as Rio Vista, Benicia and Dixon; and commitments to preserve open space, create walkable neighborhoods and improve traffic flow and safety on nearby roadways."

The city itself could be populated by several hundred thousand over 18,000 acres west of Rio Vista, separated by "712 acres of parkland, sports facilities and open space." The idea is that the utopia would be "walkable, socioeconomically integrated and fueled by clean energy" with "tens of thousands of new homes ... crisp new parks, bike lanes, open space and a solar farm."

Sramek said the project would take "tens of billions of dollars" in investment and could "change the conversation" about California, which he argued "has become a punishing place to live because of its sky-high housing and rental prices and soul-crushing commutes, gridlock and sprawl."

"Our proposal is for a walkable, medium density, mixed-use community," said Head of Planning Gabriel Metcalf. "This would be not just housing, but jobs of all different kinds, parks and playgrounds, schools and grocery stores, bars and restaurants, hotels and hospitals. Everything that goes into a complete community."

While it sounds lovely, the public campaign has plenty of hurdles to overcome if construction is to begin by the touted 2026. The land has long been dedicated to agriculture, and not everyone who attended the event was convinced, despite California Forever wheeling out converts to speak in favor.

Annie Vogelphohl, an 81-year-old former estate broker, expressed excitement "at the idea that her grandchildren could one day buy houses in the new city" and Patrice Lewis professed to be "elated" by the prospect, which she hoped would bring economic benefits to her home of nearby Vallejo.

Outside the meeting, however, California's notorious NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) told media that they had concerns over traffic and sprawl, but were not allowed in. Kathleen Threlfall, whose family were among those that refused to sell their land, carried a sign saying "Not Invited."

Joe Feller, former chair of the Solano County chapter of the Sierra Club, said: "We don't think we need housing on agricultural land," adding that behind California Forever's idyllic messaging was merely a desire "to make money."

Rio Vista resident Bill Guggemos called it "pie in the sky stuff." He protested: "They are saying 'Oh my god, there will be affordable housing and it will be all safe and there will be parks and hospital.' That's great but let's talk about the infrastructure, the highways. We are going to be a suburb of that thing – the identity we have now goes bye-bye."

State Senator Bill Dodd also expressed skepticism, saying: "They've certainly put plenty of money and time into their proposal, but there are still huge unresolved issues like traffic, and I'm not sold." He added that he hoped voters would decide "based on facts, not slogans, misdirection and massive campaign spending. We shouldn't gloss over very important public policy considerations that will have generational impacts."

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, the East Solano Homes, Jobs, and Clean Energy Initiative, as it is being called, needs 13,500 signatures to go to ballot and seeks exemption from Solano County's Orderly Growth ordinance, which stipulates that "all urban development take place within the county's seven cities: Vallejo, Fairfield, Rio Vista, Vacaville, Suisun City, Dixon and Benicia." Residents must approve development outside of these areas.

As we see time and time again, billionaires tend to think they can do whatever they want, riding roughshod over communities and the environment, then build bunkers to hide in for when the consequences of their actions catch up with them. California Forever could be in for a rude awakening. ®

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