Can billionaires create a ‘city of yesterday’ from California farmland?

Jan Sramek’s Silicon Valley-backed firm has planned a new, affordable and community-focused city in Solano County. But the area’s farmers may see it differently

March 08, 2024
Building complete neighborhoods. Image designed by SITELAB urban studio CMG
Building complete neighborhoods. Image designed by SITELAB urban studio CMG

If it weren’t for his wealthy backers, Jan Sramek’s plans to build a brand-new city on 78 square miles of California farmland an hour outside San Francisco would seem at best implausible. The “fake it until you make it” variety of start-up is a familiar phenomenon in nearby Silicon Valley. But Sramek’s backers have the deepest of deep pockets. He is the public face of a consortium of investors that includes Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s founder, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffmann, and the venture capitalists Michael Moritz and Marc Andreessen. Their company California Forever has spent six years and a reported $900m taking control of the land that it needs for a city in which 400,000 people could live and work. The last time that Britain did anything like that was in 1967, when land midway between London and Birmingham was designated as the new town of Milton Keynes. It relied on government powers to purchase land and took almost 50 years for its population to reach 200,000.

Czech-born Sramek is a 36-year-old graduate of the London School of Economics with no previous experience of building anything, let alone a city as large as New Orleans or Bristol. But as Sramek, who while still a student co-wrote the self-help book Racing Toward Excellence, would certainly tell you, Elon Musk had never built a car when he started Tesla. Sramek had a brutally simple idea for solving the urban problems of San Francisco: start again. He was able to convince his backers that not only would this plan bring housing within reach of the large number of middle-class Californians who could no longer afford to buy their own homes, but also that they could get as much as a tenfold return on their money. 

In an early demonstration of his powers of persuasion, Sramek convinced the LSE’s director, Howard Davis, to contribute a foreword to his book. In the book, Sramek described growing up in a simple, one-room village house in Moravia, starting his first business aged 13, and his impatience with Cambridge University, which he left after just one year. Sramek then briefly worked as a trader for Goldman Sachs in London. In 2009, while still in the UK, he was interviewed by CNN, and tweeted afterwards that he had been edited to sound like the love child of Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko. He left banking to set up an unsuccessful e-learning business in Zurich before moving to California, where his social media start-up, Memo Inc, was also a failure. 

Sramek discovered Solano County on a fishing trip in 2017 and came up with a strategy to finance the building of a new city. The premise of the plan is simple, but it is far from easy to pull off. He has bought cheap agricultural land and is betting that he will be able to use the massive uplift in values that would come from a change in the planning rules to permit housing to fund the project. For the plan to work, he had to keep it entirely secret while he was buying the land for fear of pushing up prices. He set up Flannery Associates, named for the two-lane blacktop road that runs through the area. He incorporated it as a limited liability partnership in Delaware, a state which does not require the public disclosure of the names of shareholders or company officials. Sramek used it as a vehicle for buying up land anonymously. Five years ago, he was paying $5,000 an acre; farmers are asking for $20,000 an acre now—showing how much impact the project has already had on the local economy. If it is re-zoned for housing, the land will fetch $100,000 an acre or more. Sramek now controls more than 50,000 acres, bought in 400 separate transactions. 

For years, the farmers of Solano knew that persons unknown had embarked on a gluttonous land-buying spree, but not who, or why

The second part of the plan is likely to be still more difficult to execute. Sramek has to overturn the so-called slow growth law, which for 40 years has restricted new housing in Solano County to sites within existing town limits. It is an echo of the arguments now being made in Britain to weaken green belt protection for much the same reasons. To do it, Sramek will depend on winning the support of a community that is deeply suspicious of his motives and his tactics. The difference between what the land cost and what it would be worth if he is successful is more than enough to pay for construction and all the extras that might win them over—the school building, the new roads, sewers and power lines, as well as the sweeteners needed to persuade the voters to support a change in the law. Solano Together, a campaign group set up to stop the project, claims: “Flannery Associates are going for the ‘christmas tree’ approach for the proposal, trying to sprinkle financial benefits to specific interest groups around the County in a way that distracts from the negative impact of the proposal on water, county resources, traffic, and taxpayers in existing cities.” 

Sramek hopes to put the proposition in front of the Solano County electorate when they go to the polls on 5th November to decide who they want in the White House, but to do that he needs to collect the signatures of 13,000 voters before the summer. If he gets them, he will have to work even harder to secure a majority of the county’s 260,000 registered voters. 

Founder and CEO of California Forever Jan Sramek talking to reporters after a news conference about the proposed new city. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo Founder and CEO of California Forever Jan Sramek talking to reporters after a news conference about the proposed new city. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Backing from some of California’s wealthiest investors has its drawbacks as well as the obvious advantages. Their money has allowed Sramek’s opponents to tag his plan as “the billionaire city”. For years the farmers of Solano knew that persons unknown had embarked on a gluttonous land-buying spree, but not who, or why. There were plenty of rumours. Some people suggested that Disney was looking to create another theme park. Others thought that it had something to do with China, or another hostile power interested in spying on the sprawling Travis Airforce Base, home of US transport command, and the largest employer in Solano County.

When the identity of the real owners was leaked to the New York Times last summer, well before Sramek was ready to go public, the years of secrecy meant the news was inevitably going to be pitched as a lurid tale of ruthless billionaires scheming to take advantage of hard scrabble farming folks, buy their land cheap and make a fortune out of it. It read like a real life blend of Chinatown and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, two films with a lot to say about the darker side of city planning. Both films mirror arguments over the future of Solano County. Polanski’s Chinatown explored the struggle for water in Los Angeles. Rio Vista, the town nearest Sranek’s site, is already arguing about who will get rights to water from the Sacramento River. The villain in Who Framed Roger Rabbit uses strong-arm tactics and subterfuge to take over LA’s mass transit system. In Solano, a congressman has denounced Sramek’s hardball approach to site acquisition as “mobster techniques and bullying”. He was talking about Flannery Associates’ termination of the leases of one tenant who had criticised their ownership of so much land, and also the case Flannery Associates brought against another group of farmers, claiming that the farmers colluded illegally to raise the price of their land. Flannery is still demanding $510m in punitive damages.  

If that wasn’t damaging enough, some accounts presented the project as a sinister tale of the digerati turning their backs on a San Francisco tarnished by the squalor of its homeless street sleepers, its rising crime statistics and its abandoned department stores to start again somewhere else. California Forever was represented as all of a piece with Elon Musk’s plan to abandon Earth and head for Mars, and the determination of the survivalist masters of the tech universe to live forever in their bunkers in New Zealand. Sramek once cited Peter Thiel, the thin-skinned billionaire who bankrupted a scurrilous website after it outed him, and who takes a Bitcoin approach to city planning, as a role model. Thiel used a little of the money he made from starting PayPal to support the Seasteading Institute, which wants to build floating cities outside territorial waters and beyond the reach of any government. 

Sramek’s opponents started a petition urging the rejection of what they call “utopia for the wealthy”. In allowing the project to be framed in these terms, Sramek clearly made a mess of the launch. 

Once the New York Times had published its first story on the project last summer, Sramek tried to calm things down. He confirmed that Flannery Associates was actually controlled by California Forever, a company whose purpose was to build a new city. He rushed out a series of insipid drawings depicting a generic Mediterranean landscape that could have been taken from the label of a bottle of Napa Valley pinot noir to provide some soothing architectural mood music. His development would be nothing like Mohammed bin Salman’s project to build Neom, the 170km linear city in the Saudi Arabian desert. There would be no super-tall skyscrapers, no flying taxis and definitely no monorails—just parks, cycleways and pedestrian neighbourhoods.

As Sramek put it at one of a series of town meetings to introduce the project to Solano residents; “we don’t want to build a city of tomorrow, we want to build a city of yesterday… an old-fashioned community where people can live close to the shops and close to their grandkids.” It would be more like the so-far fuzzily defined plans floated last year by Keir Starmer to build another generation of new towns in Britain than the utopian visions of authoritarian dreamers. Stramek claimed that he would be creating well-paid, middle-class jobs, and offered to set up a fund to help existing residents in the area to buy homes in the new development. His opponents have represented this as a smokescreen for an attempt to make money out of urban sprawl, rather than build a genuine new city. 

Sramek has struggled to show that they are wrong. His first drawings didn’t amount to a plan and had no connection to a specific site. But he recruited the widely respected urbanist Gabriel Metcalf as California Forever’s head of planning. Metcalf ran the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association for many years and has spent a great deal of time and energy trying to understand what had gone terribly wrong with what he called “the most progressive of American cities” in a 2013 opinion piece. The city has been choked by its own success to the extent that few can afford to live there, a fate which threatens London, New York and other western cities too. 

Sramek’s opponents started a petition urging the rejection of what they call “utopia for the wealthy”

Metcalf came back to California to work for Sramek after a spell in Australia running a thinktank planning the future of Sydney. He wrote Democratic by Design: How Car Sharing, Co-ops and Community Land Trusts are Reinventing America, a book which suggests he will try to push a more nuanced approach to planning California Forever’s city than its critics claim. Metcalf is closer to Jane Jacobs in his approach than to Robert Moses. He told one interviewer that in San Francisco, “We’ve really gotten good at preventing bad things from happening, but we are not good at making good things happen.”

It sounds like an uncannily precise description of the situation that faces him in Solano County, and in a California that, like today’s Britain, feels it has lost the art of realising big projects, it is a rallying call that could resonate.

In January this year, Sramek and Metcalf unveiled a step-by-step strategy. While the city could indeed one day reach 400,000 people, for the time being they are only asking voters to approve enough development to accommodate the first 50,000 residents and create 15,000 new jobs. If Solano says yes, California Forever will pledge $700m of incentives to invest in revitalising surrounding communities, in subsidies for existing residents and their children to buy homes, and to pay for all the infrastructure at no cost to existing taxpayers. He accompanied it with the release of a new set of drawings that sketch out a much more realistic approach than the first wine-label illustrations. The city would be built on a grid, with a recognisable downtown area, a tech district and a manufacturing zone. 

The small San Francisco firm Sitelab, which is keen to point out that it is women-owned, and has a portfolio that includes retrofitting second-hand buses to offer showers to San Francisco street sleepers, was commissioned to make detailed architectural drawings. It is an appointment clearly calculated to change perceptions of California Forever. The drawings show a city limited to a maximum of eight floors, with a variety of housing types, including terraced houses and apartment buildings and a mix of uses: there would be room for shops and bars and workshops alongside homes. It would feel very different from the typical American single house on its own plot suburb. As Metcalf puts it, the city will have a density that is neither suburban sprawl nor Manhattan, but somewhere in the middle. The most powerful argument that has been raised against its sustainability is that while it will have a bus network, and a density which makes walking to a shop or a junior school possible, there is no provision to connect it with San Francisco’s Bay Area rapid transit system. Beyond the convenience store, it will still be a car-based settlement.

California Forever is aware that it has to build trust if it is going to win the November ballot in the face of bristling opposition. It has put forward what it claims are legally binding guarantees. Unless it delivers the 15,000 high-paying jobs it promises, construction will stop when the population reaches 50,000. Even that would represent a massive project. For comparison, Celebration—not a city, but what America calls a Census Designated Place, which Disney built on the edge of its Florida theme parks—has just 11,000 people and took 25 years. King Charles’s Poundbury project has only 4,100 inhabitants and construction started more than 30 years ago.

One implacably hostile local congressman claims that these guarantees are unenforceable, and if the area were stripped of the protections against development there would be nothing to stop Sramek’s investors taking a massive capital gain and selling their stake. 

Rather than being primarily about returns on investment, Metcalf’s involvement suggests that the scheme could be understood as a last-gasp attempt to find a way for capitalism to deal with the all-too-obvious failure of the market to provide an adequate supply of affordable homes. It’s a lack that is at the root of so many of the problems in such different urban contexts as London and San Francisco. And it is one that is damaging those cities’ ability to sustain themselves when it becomes impossible for ambitious newcomers to find somewhere to live. If this project works, it raises the possibility that, just as Musk changed the car industry, Sramek will have changed the way that we build cities. Solano’s farmers will no doubt see it as having been realised at their expense.