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Tech titans’ vision for a new city in Northern California raises concerns

Silicon Valley tech tycoons on Thursday announced their intentions of building a new city in Northern California. The billionaire investors have to date spent over $900 million to acquire more than 50,000 acres of land in Solano County. Local and US officials, however, have raised concerns about what one Congressman calls "a vision", not "a plan".

Issued on: 03/09/2023 - 12:24

5 min
Silicon Valley tech billionaires including Reid Hoffman (L), Laurene Powell Jobs (C) and Marc Andreessen are backing a dream city project in Northern California. © France Médias Monde graphic studio

Investing through a company named California Forever, which saw the launch of its official website on Thursday, tech billionaires are laying out the blueprint for a dream city in Northern California.

On its website, California Forever said it has acquired over 50,000 acres (or 202 square kilometres) of land through its subsidiary – Flannery Associates – in eastern Solano County, which is nestled between Sacramento, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, San Francisco and Napa Valley in Northern California.

Located at the crossroads of major Northern California cities, Solano County is touted by the company as the perfect place to build the dream city from scratch.

While the website did not disclose the amount that has been injected into the project, the New York Times on Tuesday reported investments of over $900 million in land purchases alone over the past five years.

Founded in 2017 by former Goldman Sachs trader Jan Sramek, California Forever is backed by Silicon Valley heavyweights such as Laurene Powell Jobs, Marc Andreessen, Michael Moritz and John Doerr, among others.

A project shrouded in secrecy

Until Thursday, very little was known about California Forever and Flannery Associates. The parent company and its subsidiary have remained extremely discreet regarding their operations in Northern California.

While Flannery managed to keep most of its activities under wraps, local authorities were alerted when the company started acquiring vast expanses of land, and at prices often well above market rates, until it became Solano County’s largest landowner.

The identity of the company and its billionaire investors only came to light following an investigation led by US federal authorities, who raised concerns of national security after Flannery bought land parcels surrounding Travis Air Force Base, a major base located in Solano County’s seat of Fairfield.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Air Force’s Foreign Investment Risk Review Office launched a probe in late 2022 into Flannery’s purchases of roughly 52,000 acres in Solano County, including around Travis.

Fears that Flannery was representing foreign interests, especially Chinese, were soon dispelled as Silicon Valley tech titans, who unveiled their project of building a dream city, emerged as backers of the company.

City of dreams?

Citing European cities as inspiration, Flannery said it aims to build liveable communities and walkable neighbourhoods while providing "good-paying local jobs" to residents.

Flannery also revealed plans to build tens of thousands of homes, a solar farm, parks and other open spaces in the eastern part of the county.

Despite the company’s ambitious plans, local authorities have expressed worries regarding the feasibility of the project.

Pointing to Solano County’s dry weather conditions, Fairfield Mayor Catherine Moy said in an interview with abc7news that Flannery’s proposed plans are unrealistic.

"It's an area that is known for its drought conditions. It makes zero sense. There's no mass transit. It does not have fresh water. There is some water, but not enough for tens of thousands of homes," Moy said.

Moy also voiced concerns regarding road infrastructure.

"The roads out there are already dangerous. Highway 12 is the highway that goes through there out to Highway 99 and Highway 5. It's called Blood Alley for a reason," Moy said. "There's no way that tens of thousands of homes could be supported by that."

While Flannery noted the need to improve local infrastructure on its website, it failed to provide details on how that could be achieved.

Other elected officials have joined Moy in voicing their concerns.

Following a meeting with Flannery representatives on Tuesday, US Representative Mike Thompson said: "They don’t have a plan, they have a vision, an idea," the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

"To say that this is going to be a long, long road is probably an understatement," he added.

Meanwhile, US Representative John Garamendi described as "strong-arm mobster tactics" the company’s method of purchasing the land, the Chronicle reported.

Tech follies

But this won’t be the first time that Silicon Valley tycoons have dreamed of pioneering cities without following through.

In 2013, Google cofounder and former CEO Larry Page floated the idea of creating a high-tech utopia with minimal regulation.

California start-up incubator Y Combinator set up a research lab in 2016 to study how to build better cities.

Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel launched a pilot project for floating cities in French Polynesia in 2018, and the New York Times reported the same year that Facebook was negotiating with the city of San Francisco for permits to build a town on the outskirts of Silicon Valley.

None of these proposals have come to fruition to date.

"In the end, it doesn’t even matter that these cities are built," said University of Glasgow sociology professor Elisabetta Ferrari, who specialises in digital media. For the entrepreneurs and investors, rather, "the most important (thing) is that we talk about it".

"They want to show that they are not just rich, they are also people with vision and entrepreneurs that are doing something for the people," she said.

Housing workers

In an article published in April on Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s latest endeavours in Texas, which include building a town called Snailbrook aimed at housing employees, the Guardian compared corporation-built cities to 19th-century US industrial towns.

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Offering only basic accommodation and meagre amenities, these towns "were often closer to prison camps than ideal cities", the Guardian said, and noted that companies "want to minimise overheads and squeeze as much out of their captive townsfolk as they can get away with".

Flannery aims to provide affordable housing near San Francisco, where many employers have been forced to increase salaries to attract or retain workers who are facing soaring rents in the city.

The number of tech tycoons proposing to build towns and cities in recent years "has a lot to do with the idea of ‘technosolutionism’. A concept that can be boiled down to ‘there is an app for that’," Ferrari said, adding that it is "the idea that technology provides the best way to address a problem".

These entrepreneurs and investors "are pitching themselves like they are the best to deal with [the problem], when, they say, political power cannot address efficiently modern urban development challenges", she said.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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