California Forever details plan for utopian city in Solano County

Firm backed by Silicon Valley billionaires appeals to voters with ballot initiative

California Forever Details Plan for City in Solano County
California Forever CEO Jan Sramek and U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (left) with renderings of the proposed city (California Forever, Getty)

Silicon Valley billionaires behind a plan to build a ground-up city in Solano County now promise everything short of the moon to voters weighing a proposed ballot initiative.

California Forever, the controversial firm backed by such moguls as Marc Andreessen, Michael Moritz and Laurene Powell Jobs, has unveiled details about the for-profit master development near Travis Air Force Base, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

They include homes for hundreds of thousands of residents, hundreds of millions of dollars to support home purchases and low-income housing and thousands of well-paid jobs and tens of millions in grants for education and training.

Urban goodies also include offices, factories, roads, schools, transit and parks.

The firm, first known as Flannery Associates, based in Folsom, had spent $900 million to secretly buy more than 60,000 acres of farms between Rio Vista and Fairfield. It plans to build a utopian city on the land.

Now it wants to convince 200,000 voters to approve the project in a ballot measure filed last week for November. The initiative would alter the county’s General Plan to allow for building on unincorporated county land, and create a specific plan for the new city.

“Our proposal is for a walkable, medium-density, mixed-use community on 18,000 acres in eastern Solano County,” Gabriel Metcalf, the company’s planning chief, told reporters in Rio Vista near land the group has bought for the project. Metcalf is a former CEO at SPUR, a civic-planning nonprofit formally known as the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association.

California Forever, which wants to draw 400,000 people over the next several decades to what would be the fourth largest city in Solano County, offered a cash deal.

For every 50,000 residents, California Forever pledged to provide $500 million in community benefits. That includes $400 million for down-payment assistance to those buying homes or providing low-income housing, $70 million for scholarships and $30 million for parks, open space, trails and support for agriculture.

California Forever said it hasn’t determined whether the “down payment assistance” in the $400 million “Solano Homes for All” program would be grants or loans.

The proposed initiative also includes a “guarantee” to provide 15,000 jobs that pay at least 125 percent of the prevailing average wage, which varies by job, in the county. Under the initiative, missing that target would mean the city could not grow beyond 50,000 residents.

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Anyé Spivey, California Forever’s director of development planning, highlighted the proposed initiative’s Taxpayer Guarantee that would shield Solano County residents from costs in the new community, including the construction of schools and infrastructure.

California Forever raised hackles in rural Solano County by keeping its plan secret while buying up tens of thousands of acres, then suing dozens of landowners in May for $510 million in damages over claims that through “endless greed” they conspired to jack up the sale prices of their properties, according to the Mercury News.

Asked what assurance he could provide that the company and its backers would remain committed to the project, its CEO said California Forever had not taken on debt to fund the project. He said the plan could forge ahead without county residents approving the initiative by building the project in “small increments.”

“All of it is funded with long-term capital that’s here for decades to stay,” Jan Sramek, the CEO and a former Wall Street trader, said. “We have the capability to withstand any recessions. We might slow down the construction, we might wait, but we are not going away.”

Profits from the new city would come from selling and renting out land the company has bought, he said. California Forever would be the master developer and construct some buildings, with many construction companies building out the rest.

He said homes would include small, self-contained units, apartments, and multi-story, single-family row houses, mixed together rather than being segregated as in many cities.

A grassroots group dubbed Solano Together has formed to fight the ballot initiative. The coalition is led by the Greenbelt Alliance and endorsed by the Sierra Club.

While Solano County needs housing, it should be built in existing cities where infrastructure exists, not on the ranches and farms for cattle and sheep, wheat and barley, according to the group.

U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, a Napa Democrat whose district includes the proposed city, said he wasn’t persuaded about California Forever’s commitment to the project after representatives briefed him last week.

“They’re making promises, very generous promises,” Thompson told the Mercury News. “They couldn’t tell me how these promises would be realized other than telling me, ‘Hey, we’re good people and we’re going to do it.’”

— Dana Bartholomew

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