Among the many bills that languished in last year’s legislative session in Sacramento: 2023’s SB 224, prohibiting foreign governments from purchasing, acquiring, leasing, or holding a controlling interest in any agricultural land within the confines of California—a topic recently in the news after the release of this watchdog report claiming that the federal government isn’t doing its due diligence when it comes to foreign investments in US farmland.
The fate of purchased California land likewise made headlines in the San Francisco Bay Area last week after a group that calls itself California Forever revealed its intentions regarding the approximately 60,000 acres of space it now controls in Solano County, just east of Travis Air Force Base (that’s double the size of San Francisco and four times Manhattan’s acreage).
The plan, in California Forever’s words: “to build a dynamic new community, with middle-class homes in safe, walkable neighborhoods,” plus “a commitment to bring good-paying jobs in advanced manufacturing, renewable energy, construction . . . as well as large investment in education, green spaces, clean energy, and the revitalization of downtowns across the country.”
Translation: Solano County, which sits between Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area, could see the construction of at least 20,000 new homes—housing some 50,000 residents in rowhouses and multistory apartment buildings, with the population eventually reaching 400,000 if development meets certain economic benchmarks.
Before we go any further, a point of clarification. California Forever isn’t a front for an overseas entity with sinister designs on America’s security. It’s more an example of strangers in a strange land—in this case, Silicon Valley movers and shakers parking their money in a stretch of California more famous for livestock that livestreams. The New York Times calls the group “a who’s who of tech money” that includes LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, Laurene Powell Jobs (Steve Jobs’s widow and founder of the Emerson Collective), venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, and other investors who have ponied up a reported $900 million to support CEO and former Goldman Sachs trader Jan Sramek’s vision of a California utopia a little over an hour’s drive east from San Francisco.
Will this 21st century version of “a shining city on a hill” become a reality? That’s up to Solano County voters to decide in November in the form of a ballot initiative (submitted title: “East Solano Homes, Jobs, and Clean Energy Initiative”). That sign-off is required, as the California Forever vision violates Solano County’s 1980s-era policy restricting growth outside of existing cities—i.e., keeping farmland from turning urban.
As for that vision (“to build a better Solano County, with more middle-class homes, more good-paying local jobs, and cleaner energy,” the initiative reads), here are the key selling points:
- Creating at least 15,000 jobs in which workers earn the annualized equivalent of at least 125% of annual minimum wage in Solano County
- A $500 million in “community benefit” fund for down-payment assistance, scholarships, and parks
- A $400 million “Solano for All” pledge to help county residents buy into the community
- A $200 million “Solano Downtowns” initiative to revitalize other local communities
- Building homes in “safe, walkable neighborhoods” giving workers options to walk, bike, or take public transit to work
- Designating “working families” as desired residents (further defined as “teachers, nurses, police, firefighters, construction workers”)
- A pledge to build homes for “low income, very low income, extremely low income, and special-needs households” (with veterans, seniors, and agricultural workers singled out)
If all of that sounds surreal, that’s because . . . well, it is. Feel free to name a California town within proximity of a California metropolis that can call itself affordable, safe, cutting-edge, and eco-minded—not to mention commute free. What comes to mind is The Truman Show, a 1990s film about an ordinary man living an ordinary life in an idyllic town. As it turns out, the town has been fabricated for television, with Truman’s life playing out in front of the cameras—as such, a precursor for today’s staged and scripted reality television (is anyone at California Forever thinking “Real Housewives of Solano County”)?
And it raises a question: With hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal, is building a new community from scratch the best way for California’s privileged class to contribute to the state’s improvement?
Skipping past the question of political correctness, should the community see the light of day—e.g., will there be a chicken in every pot . . . but only in non-gas stoves?—let’s consider other ways to invest Silicon Valley’s riches beyond the 650 and 408 area codes.
First, there’s the choice of which community to choose in terms of California’s economic growth. Is it more vital to the state’s future to further develop Solano County, or should money be committed to a grander scheme of revitalizing downtown San Francisco (say, converting commercial office space to residential property while also trying to bring back small businesses)? A wise friend of mine in Sacramento has another suggestion: make the new community part of a larger vision to improve rail service between Sacramento and San Francisco—California’s capital city having been left out of the state’s high-speed rail design.
Second, is there a more practical approach to community design and investing—i.e., is it better to revamp an existing town rather than building a social utopia from scratch? Instead of dividing $1.1 billion three ways—the $500 million “community benefit” funding for down-payment assistance, the $400 million to help county residents buy into community, and the $200 million to revitalize other local towns—should California Forever spend a nine- or ten-figure sum on a town already on the map?
Third, given California and the San Francisco Bay Area’s myriad challenges, are there more pressing matters to address? Take, for example, the issue of hunger and food insecurity. One in four San Franciscans is at risk of hunger due to low income. Statewide, 10.3% of households were food insecure from 2020 to 2022, up from 9.6.% between 2019 and 2021 (“food insecure” meaning that at some point in the year, a family couldn’t afford to put food on the table). Does that mean California Forever should be concentrating on bread and milk rather than brick and mortar?
Finally, there’s a question of commitment and stick-to-itiveness. What comes to mind: the globetrotting billionaire Nicholas Berggruen and an endeavor to transform the Golden State, dubbed Think Long California.
Established in 2010, the Think Long Committee for California dedicated itself to addressing “the dysfunctional state of affairs” in the Golden State. The end product, a year later, was a “blueprint” for renewing California, parts of which coincided with actual reforms (for example, the creation of a “rainy day” fund for state budgeting in 2014’s Proposition 2), while others were dead on arrival with the left-leaning legislature (for example, Think Long proposed an across-the-board reduction of California’s personal income tax).
In retrospect, Think Long fell far short of its dream to dramatically change California for the better. And that might be serve as cautionary tale for California Forever. The group may be able to muscle its way to a ballot win come November. But then the hard work begins: dealing with lawsuits, state and local environmental red tape, plus publicity stunts and whatever else local opponents can gin up so as to disrupt plans (one such example of how complicated the process can be: Berkeley’s struggles to develop a housing plan that complies with state law).
Perhaps California Forever succeeds and the result is paradise on Solano County’s earth. But if the plan stumbles and the dream doesn’t materialize, the moral of the story might be: When trying to dramatically transform California, perhaps it’s wiser to start with one modest nibble rather than bite off 60,000 acres of farmland.