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Silicon Valley Investors Want to Build a New City. Can They Convince Solano County Voters?

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California Forever, the group funded by Silicon Valley investors who want to build a new city in Solano County, held its first town hall meeting in Vallejo on Wed, Nov. 29. (KQED/Adhiti Bandlamudi)

View the full episode transcript.

California Forever, the group of Silicon Valley investors and billionaires who want to build a new city from scratch in Solano County, are on something of a public relations campaign.

The group held its first town hall meeting in Vallejo on Wednesday night. And it will be the first of many — because if they really want to build a new city on the county’s outskirts, they’ll need to win over the hearts and minds of voters first. 


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Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra and welcome to the bay. Local news to keep you rooted. Over the last few months, the Silicon Valley investors and billionaires who want to build a new city in Solano County have been gearing up for something of a public relations tour, an elevator pitch to the public. You see, for years, these Silicon Valley giants had been secretly buying up a bunch of land in Fairfield and Rio Vista. And nobody, not even the U.S. government, knew their identities. But ever since The New York Times revealed who they were and their plans, these investors who formed the group California Forever have some big questions to answer.

 [Solana County voter] I mean, ultimately, they need our approval, right? So I guess in other words, we’re kind of asking what’s in it for us?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: If they want to see their plans through California forever is going to have to win over the hearts and minds of Solano County voters. Today, KQED housing reporter Adhiti Bandlamudi, takes us to Vallejo. And inside the very first town hall between California forever and Solano County residents.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: The meeting was at the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum. To attend the meeting, you basically had to like reserve a seat through Eventbrite. It was 100% free. There were about like 50 people there. It wasn’t a full hall.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Adhiti, who was at this meeting, or specifically representatives of California forever, who was there.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: So there were actually quite a few people from California forever. Not the investors necessarily, but the staff. The main person who is like the face of this project, who was the only one who would talk on the record, was Jan Sramek, who’s the California forever’s CEO? Jan Sramek  is really interesting. He was born in the Czech Republic. He was educated at the University of Cambridge and then like London School of Economics. It was trading for Goldman Sachs when he was like 22. He definitely has a lot of sway. And that Sway has gotten him a lot of investment from billionaires like LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Stripe co-founders Patrick and John Collison. Andreessen Horowitz, founder Marc Andreessen and partner Chris Dixon.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: So he definitely has a lot of influence. And this idea of building a city from scratch, this is really his idea, right? It is. Basically, the idea is pretty simple Build a walkable city where you can walk down the street and, you know, grab a cup of coffee, go to your work, and your work isn’t super far away. You know, in Solano County, a lot of the residents there travel two hours into the city or down to the peninsula or the South Bay. What Jan Sramek and the people at California forever are saying is, what if that wasn’t the case? What if we could also build the local economy out in farmland that we feel could be better used to serve the public?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, already this first meeting, as we were just saying, was in Vallejo, which, to be clear, is actually like nearly an hour away from the land that California forever plans or hopes to develop. So why does California forever seem to want Vallejo’s blessing in this as well?

Adhiti Bandlamudi: They’re going not only to Vallejo, but like, you know, Fairfield and Rio Vista. And the reason why is that the entire county has to vote to approve this project. And so they really can’t just to concentrate their efforts to where it really will be. They have to get everybody’s buy in. Audie, what did California forever share with Solano County residents at this meeting about their plans so far? The meeting started by basically introducing who is backing this. Where is this money coming from? And while the names of, you know, LinkedIn executives and Stripe executives are very interesting and impressive to a certain demographic in the Bay Area, to some people, they don’t really mean much. They just mean money.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: What they did talk about is water rights, where they’re getting water from. So they answered that they actually have their own water source and that’s going to be fine. They won’t have to siphon it off from another city transportation. The project is close to Highway 12, which is super heavily congested. It’s also one of the deadliest highways. And they talked about plans to potentially widen it or make it, you know, beneficial for all of Solano County while also being beneficial for California forever. They talked about the kind of housing that they want to build, not specifically, but more generally, talking about how, you know, they want to provide housing for all residents of many different income brackets.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: They talked a very big picture and made a lot of promises. And I think there were some people in the community who saw that and said, well, okay, I’m going to look further into this later on. And there were other people who heard that and said, this is really shady. They’re not telling us anything. What’s the deal here?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra Well, I mean, on that note, what was your sense of how people were responding to this presentation by California forever? Just generally, what how would you maybe characterize the mood?

Adhiti Bandlamudi: The mood was very skeptical. Anyone who was like supporting the project did so quietly. The California forever. People who are who are presenting this idea are very confident in their plan and they’re trying to sell it. Right. They’re trying to say like, hey, this is good for you, this is good for everyone. But that confident attitude was taken as arrogant and forceful by some in the audience.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: You know, the beginning of the meeting was informational and it was pretty tame. Then people were getting upset and they started yelling out questions and it got a little bit contentious. I could see Jan  becoming, like, visibly aggravated.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: I heard a lot of people at the meeting saying that, you know, look, we’re already competing for resources with other cities like water and electricity and even jobs. So why are you going to add a new city if things are already bad for us here? There were other people who are sort of like, why did you have a submit questions ahead of time if you really wanted to talk to us, like let’s talk now. You’re making all these big promises, but there’s no proven track record of what it’s actually going to do.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: So what happens when this fails? Like, are you going to leave us high and dry? I could feel these, like, old seeds of, like, maybe like betrayal or like just being promised big things too many times and those big promises not coming to fruition and people feeling like, you know, we’ve seen this song and dance before and we’re not having it.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up, we hear from residents about what they think of the plan and we hear directly from California forever. Stay with us.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I know you had a chance to speak to some of the people who went to the meeting to hear a little bit more about their perspectives. Tell me more about what those conversations were like.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: The first person I talked to was Paula Conley. And tell me how you’re feeling today.

Paula Conley: Well, I’m a native Vallejoen, and I’m very proud of our city, and it’s had a lot of disadvantages.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: She actually was holding a sign. It was a little cardboard sign. And I think it said something like, leave Solano County forever. Paula had a lot of concerns. One of them was mainly about California forever’s attitude about the project.

Paula Conley: But what bothers me is the incredible hubris of billionaires who think because they have money, they know everything and they can just come in.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: You know, Paula was also really concerned about what happens if this fails. I mean, in Paula’s mind, just sort of like what happens when this fails. And she was kind of like, if this isn’t going to do anything for my town, why should I even support it?

Paula Conley: So we have a beautiful area. It’s not to say we don’t need development, but we have lots of towns struggling. And if you’ve got the money, help the people who are here. You’re talking about helping people. There’s people right here that need the help.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Did you talk with anyone who’s more open to this idea? Potentially.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: You know, I met Patrice Lewis. I actually saw her talking to one of the California Forever people. And she had like this notebook.

Patrice Lewis: A project like this is crucial and it’s going to be vital to Vallejo. And I’m just looking at how it’s going to be an event below because that’s my major concern here. So I’ve seen some things on the news.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: She kind of was like, either I can come to these meetings and engage in the process and try to tell them what I want or get left out entirely.

Patrice Lewis: I don’t know if I want to do anyway. They have the money. They already purchased the land. You know, I don’t want to go on to get along, but definitely be, you know, a voice in the room and be able to sit and listen and have a conversation so my city can get something. But also, like add to whatever the plan is going to be and to know what it looks like and not just be like totally against it, I guess.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: Yeah, Patrice is definitely one of those people who is sort of like optimistic that maybe things are going to happen, but also cautious and, you know, maybe a little bit realistic that like, they may not listen, but I have to do the best that I can.

Sam Houston: My name is Sam Houston. Like the city. Oh, wow. Yeah.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: Yeah. Yeah. And where do you live?

Sam Houston: I live here in Vallejo.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: So there was one person who I talked to. His name is Sam Houston. How long have you all lived in Vallejo?

Sam Houston: I’ve lived in Vallejo for five years.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: Right now, his wife and him, they commute to San Francisco and spend two hours in traffic.

Sam Houston: Before that, I lived in Richmond and then lived in San Francisco. We’ve just kind of been progressively pushed out because of rent.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: And I think they’ve been wondering if Solano County is a place where they can put down roots and they haven’t figured that out yet. You know.

Sam Houston: My wife and I are building a family now, and so also thinking about the future. Like, where can people that live here, where can they work? Is there opportunity? Is there like a path to success for people here if there are really great jobs in this new city? How can people.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: California forever makes a good pitch for someone like him. So Sam said that he is actually going to attend some more meetings and he’s going to keep an open mind about what this project could do for him.

Sam Houston: I’m open minded. I think part of the challenge for for the company is that they did acquire all this land in secret, and I understand why they did do it in secret. But it’s just hard to build trust by doing what they did, I guess. So they’re just kind of starting on the back foot, so to speak.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Adhiti if the whole point of this meeting was to really engage with the community, I’m curious how representatives of California forever responded to some of what was said at the meeting, particularly this idea that, you know, have the Silicon Valley outsiders coming into a community they know absolutely nothing about and that there is some fear there.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: Yeah. So the last person I talked to that night was Jan Sramek. I asked him like, how how did you respond? Like it seemed like people were really upset about this project. And he responded with this glowing confidence.

Jan Sramek: I’m excited that we are out in the community talking to people. I mean, obviously there are other people in the room who have strong opinions, but we think it’s important that they hear the story from us. And then some of them are…

Adhiti Bandlamudi: Basically was feeling really confident that he can win people over, that this project is a net good. And he also mentioned that, you know, while there are some loud opponents of the project, he said most people came up to him and said, actually, I’m pretty open minded about this and I think I could be on board with this kind of thing.

Jan Sramek: So many people came and said, you know, I know that some people are against it and very vocal about we are in favor of the project and we actually kind of feel stifled by the loud opposition to the project, which is making it difficult.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: And I asked him to you know, look, I have heard from multiple people who say like, you’re an outsider and you’re coming in and like, you don’t know the history of this place. And he sort of said like, you know, actually for the past several years, like I’ve been doing a lot of research on Solano County and Vallejo and all of the cities. And I know more than you think I know.

Jan Sramek: There is a lot that we understand about the county and we didn’t invest money here lately. And so before we ever started investing, we did a lot of research on the county. We read a lot of historical documents. We’ve spoken to little people. We’ve done a lot of surveys. And so, actually, we do know more about the county than almost any other developer that would come in here.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: There were people who are sort of like, this is not a good plan. While we agree that this kind of plan might be good for some people, we don’t like how you’re going about it and we don’t like what you’re about. And his response to that is. Fine. Then give me an alternative.

Jan Sramek: There are very serious issues in Solano County that have been going on for a long time. And so overall, it’s a it’s a wonderful place to live. It’s in a great location. There’s there’s a lot of really great people and great communities. But there have been ongoing issues with housing affordability, with the lack of good paying local jobs. And so every time someone says, I don’t like your project, we say, okay, what’s your proposal for fixing these issues? Because it’s really easy to be a critic. It’s really hard to build something in the world today.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I want to talk about what is ahead already. This is, of course, the first of a handful of town halls that California forever is hosting around the county. So what is the goal here?

Adhiti Bandlamudi: So there are five more stops all over the county, and the goal is to basically prime people for what’s to come ahead. Solano County has this policy that whenever they change the zoning in a particular district to build this kind of like dense urban development, that the voters need to approve it first. And voters are basically going to get a chance to decide whether they want to relax some of the restrictions on zoning that would make way for a dense urban project like this. There are a lot of steps before we’re actually going to see any like housing getting constructed here. So we have a long way to go.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, my last question for you already. I mean, there are fights about housing all over California all the time, but there is something that feels very different about this particular project, not just the fact that these are like tech billionaires and this like Silicon Valley element, but also the way that it’s like Silicon Valley sort of colliding with a place like Solano County, which I feel like can’t feel farther enough away from Silicon Valley. You know, so I’m curious how I guess this housing fight that you’re seeing here compares to other housing debates that you’ve seen or covered.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: You know, there’s like this disconnect. I think the people who live there who are like, I see what you’re saying, and I see how that would be good for some people, but I don’t see myself in that vision. That’s like not what I want. What’s more is that Solano County is one of the places where people who can’t find housing in the big cities are going out to to find housing there. And residents who already live there are already facing the pressures of like richer people moving in, driving up the housing prices like they’re already facing that. So when they see California for forever coming in and promising this big thing of even more change and potentially even more displacement, they’re really skeptical and honestly, really scared about it.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Adhiti, thank you so much.

Adhiti Bandlamudi: Thanks for having me.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Adhiti Bandlamudi, a housing reporter for KQED. This 42 minute conversation with Adhiti was cut down by producer Maria Esquinca. Allan Montecillo is our senior editor. He scored this episode and added all the tape. It was pitched by me. By the way, we did another episode that dives deeper into the Silicon Valley giants behind California forever. We actually talked to The New York Times reporter who broke that story. It’s a really good episode. So if you are a Solano County resident and you are curious to know more, I’ll give you a link to that in our show notes. The Bay is a production of member supported KQED in San Francisco. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Peace.

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