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'Not Just a Crazy Idea': California Forever Releases Ballot Details for New Bay Area City

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Windmills atop golden hillsides with a large mountain in the distance.
A parcel of land recently purchased by Flannery Associates near Rio Vista on Sept. 15, 2023. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Inside the modestly decorated Veterans Memorial Building in Solano County’s Rio Vista on Wednesday, representatives for a company aiming to build a new Bay Area city described their bold aspirations and promises they hope will win voter support for the project.

The 83-page initiative, which could be on the ballot in November, lays out a series of commitments to existing Solano County residents, as well as plans to construct row houses, apartments, shops, parks and industrial spaces.

California Forever CEO Jan Sramek said the grandeur of his company’s ambitions reflects the state of the region’s housing affordability crisis.

“We have a big problem to solve,” Sramek said. “In California, we have dug ourselves into such a deficit in terms of housing.”

The project – which aims to transform more than 60,000 acres of wheat, safflower, canola and other crop lands into a moderately-dense urban city, with as many as 400,000 new residents moving in over the next half century – would help solve that problem by taking advantage of economies of scale, Sramek said.

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“We can deliver a big solution to the problem,” he said.

The new community would include downtown centers, a rapid bus network, manufacturing and makerspaces that Sramek said would add jobs to the region, helping solve a twin problem of people commuting long distances into San Francisco, Oakland and other Bay Area cities for work.

Neighborhoods would be a mix of row houses, apartment buildings and retail. Stretching from west to east between Travis Air Force Base and Rio Vista, it would double the security zone, or open space, abutting the base, and include a park separating it from Rio Vista.

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But before development can begin, the company must first secure voter approval. Solano County’s Orderly Growth Initiative requires urban development to be concentrated in cities where housing already exists. The proposed ballot measure California Forever released Wednesday is the first step to reclassifying its Solano County landholdings as eligible for this new development.

 

At a press conference announcing the initiative, Srameck told reporters he was confident the measure would pass and committed to spending “as much [money] as we need to win.”

But outside the Veterans Memorial Building, curious residents expressed anger that they hadn’t been allowed inside the meeting, which was closed to the public.

“They barred me from coming in,” said Rio Vista resident Bill Mortimore, adding he had hoped it would be an opportunity to learn more. “How can I make a decision? I can’t.”

The project had been shrouded in secrecy for years as Flannery Associates, a subsidiary of California Forever, discretely spent upward of $800 million to purchase some 140 properties between Rio Vista and the Travis Air Force Base, inviting speculation about the investors’ intentions.

Brian Brokaw, a spokesperson for California Forever, acknowledged the air of secrecy was one obstacle the company would have to overcome.

“People have a right to be skeptical,” Brokaw said. “Hopefully now, when people actually can see what we are putting forward, they just give it a fresh look, and see that this is not just a crazy idea on a website. This is something that’s real.”

Jan Sramek, CEO of California Forever, speaks during a town hall meeting in Rio Vista on Dec. 5, 2023, for the proposed California city backed by Silicon Valley investors on farmland in eastern Solano County. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As part of the ballot measure, the company is making a number of commitments to the community, said Anyé Spivey, director of development planning for California Forever.

Chief among them, Spivey said, is a promise to limit growth to 50,000 residents if the new city does not produce at least 15,000 jobs that pay 125% of the county’s average weekly salary.

“This guarantee values the dignity of hard work and the concern that so many working families share: getting and keeping good paying jobs,” he said.

Spivey said California Forever would also pay the county $500 million for every 50,000 residents the new city adds – a community benefits package that includes $400 million in down payment assistance and affordable housing funds; $70 million in grants for college or vocational training, or to start new businesses; and $30 million for parks and ecological habitats.

A second fund, called Solano Downtowns, would contribute $200 million in for-profit investments for every 50,000 new residents to support infill development within the county’s existing cities, Spivey said.

Sarah Donnelly, a Rio Vista city councilmember, declined to voice support for or against the project but said she was skeptical of California Forever’s promised investments.

“I’m skeptical about them guaranteeing anything when they’re doing what you already heard of – suing our friends and neighbors – so they can get their way,” Donnelly said after the meeting.

Rio Vista will bear the brunt of the new developments impact on traffic, home prices, and water, Donnelly said.

“This is where the most impact will happen, right up against us,” she said.

Roxanne Stiles-Donnelly speaks during a town hall meeting in Rio Vista on Dec. 5, 2023, for California Forever, a proposed California city backed by Silicon Valley investors on farmland in eastern Solano County. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

To mitigate some of those impacts, Spivey said California Forever would be on the hook to supply the right-of-way and part of the financing to widen highways 12 and 113. The plan also includes a bypass along the portion of HWY 12 adjacent to the new city, as a means of redirecting local traffic.

Finally, Spivey said California Forever would also pay to construct its own schools, which would be incorporated into local school districts, as well as its own utility infrastructure and municipal services.

“Our taxpayer guarantee says that the new community has to pay its own way for both infrastructure and services,” he said. “Everything we need has to be paid for by the residents and employers in the new community and not by anyone who resides outside it.”

Envisioned as a moderately-dense urban area, the proposed city conflicts with anti-sprawl efforts the county first enacted more than four decades ago. Another attempt to override those restrictions failed.

Local residents fill a town hall meeting in Rio Vista on Dec. 5, 2023, for California Forever, a proposed California city backed by Silicon Valley investors on farmland in eastern Solano County. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In 1984, San Francisco developer Hiram Woo proposed turning 886 acres of pasture land into a residential town called Manzanita, which promised to house almost 6,000 residents with 2,000 homes powered by solar energy with a matrix of bike paths and sidewalks connecting people’s homes with their jobs, restaurants and shops. The vision was not far off from what California Forever is proposing today.

The plan was struck down by voters, many who believed farmland should be protected from encroaching developers. But today, amidst California’s increasingly dire housing shortage, some Solano County residents are open to a new development that could provide them with affordable housing and nearby jobs.

Still, the company is trying to win the trust of residents who wonder whether this new town will have a place for them, much less be built. Late last year, the company announced it was distributing $500,000 to local nonprofits, including a homeless shelter in Vacaville and two groups supporting people affected by domestic violence.

The company also announced it opened offices in Fairfield, Vallejo and Vacaville, where people can ask questions and share concerns with staff members in person.

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Sramek has promised to host another series of town hall meetings in February, similar to those held late last year, to answer questions from residents about the ballot text and next steps on the road to election day.

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