It’s not news that California has a housing shortage, nor are the reasons for this shortage a mystery. For decades, California has restricted exurban development, passed building codes that are the most stringent in the nation and add tens of thousands to construction costs, imposed punitive permit fees on developers, neglected expansion and upgrades to the necessary enabling infrastructure for new housing, and enacted zoning ordinances within existing urban areas that prevent higher density redevelopment.
While controversial new state legislation is overriding some of the ordinances that block infill, this does not begin to make up the gap between housing demand and housing supply. According to Zillow, today the average home price in California is $741,789, compared to $348,126 in the rest of the U.S. The average rent in California is $2,923, compared to $2,054 nationwide.
Flying eyes wide open into a hailstorm of objections to “sprawl,” but saying all the right things about “walkability” and “environmental stewardship” is California Forever, the parent company of Flannery Associates. Since 2018 this development corporation has quietly spent over $800 million to acquire over 50,000 acres of rural land in east Solano County. From scratch, they intend to build a major new city.
Absent unforeseen and dramatic changes to California’s political landscape, there is a good chance this project will never get built. The example of the Tejon Ranch in Southern California, a massive and desperately needed housing development that has been stalled by regulatory obstacles and lawsuits for over 20 years, offers a likely example of what Flannery Associates are up against. But what if these well-heeled investors, including Sequoia Capital’s former Chairman Mike Moritz, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, Laurene Powell Jobs and others, wield their financial muscle and political clout, and get their wish?
What if this new city is built? How many people can settle into a new city where right now the developers have 78 square miles of raw land to work with?
What’s fascinating about this opportunity is how rare it is, certainly in this century, for a new city to arise on this scale. Equally fascinating is the unique character of the proponents. These aren’t seasoned developers, deploying tested strategies against a Byzantine array of agencies and constituencies that have to approve the project, then parceling the land to major homebuilders and civil engineering contractors, while allocating the standard areas for parks, schools, and retail centers that will be filled with the same national chains. That is the generic pattern that defines exurban development in the United States. Emanating from the peripheries of innumerable cities, it generates indistinguishable penumbras of asphalt and tilt-up boxes, cookie cutter homes with the obligatory solar panels, and corporate outposts occupying “town centers” with Tuscan themed gingerbread to soften the prefab underneath.
That’s probably not what these folks have in mind. Marinating for decades in the heady ferment of Silicon Valley, and willing to spend billions to blaze a trail into a smart city future, it is reasonable to assume that Flannery and Associates want to break the mold. So what might rise on what are now bucolic cattle ranches and rolling hills, barely an hour northwest of San Francisco, flanked by the Sacramento River estuary to the south and east, and the vast Suisun Marsh to the west?
California Forever has launched a website that features artist’s conceptions of the new development. Mission style homes crawling down a gentle hillside to sun dappled waters, fishermen fishing, kayakers kayaking, beneficent wind turbines turning on the horizon. Men in hardhats installing solar panels. Children riding bikes, with row houses to their left, a verdant park to their right. Families, friends, lovers, dining on a spacious outdoor patio, shaded by sturdy oaklike trees. In the background, quaint storefronts with rounded archways, shutters adjacent to the 2nd floor windows, with peaked and gabled roofs. in the distance. Pastels. Earthtones. A trolley car. How pretty it will be.
And not an automobile in sight.
Sometimes these planned communities work. Over a century ago, Carmel by the Sea was developed, with block after block of Tudor style homes. If it was considered corny and pretentious at the time, it surely isn’t any more. As for planned urban environments, if you stand on the balcony overlooking the street at the Hotel Valencia in San Jose’s prestigious Santana Row, there is not one line of sight that will not afford a view of similar themed Italianate architecture. If you were dropped in from outer space, with no clue where you were, you might think you were in Tuscany. These are good examples of themed environments. But Carmel was built before, among other things, “zero net energy” governed new home construction, and Santana Row was built on the back of a robust existing urban grid. Solano Hills, or whatever they intend to call it, will arise where there is almost nothing today apart from cow pies and barbed wire.
The potential for pretentious schlock to emerge in vain pursuit of instant culture and architectural elegance is not unfounded. There are planned communities in California with faux town squares that are so transparently artificial it would be cruel to name them. Windows that aren’t windows, with shutters that aren’t shutters, and gables that aren’t gables – just puzzle pieces stapled in place to create “atmosphere.” And unless Flannery wants to fire the entire who’s who of consultants they’ve mustered to shephard this project through the many gauntlets and replace them with talented ingenues with no experience, they’ll have to hold their experts onto a tight leash. But at least they’ll have a loose budget. They’re going to need it.
Artist’s renderings aside, the fact that the ideological predilections of these well heeled developers are probably in general alignment with that of the California legislature and regulators is not going to make anything terribly easy. Even as we grant the huge assumption that all legal and bureaucratic obstacles are overcome and construction begins, and even if we assume – hopefully somewhat more reasonably – that the aesthetics of the city will be sufficiently authentic, still, what will be its basic parameters? How many people? What mix of housing? What transportation, energy, water, and waste management solutions?
Reports on the proposed development reference “thousands of homes.” Let’s assume 20,000 homes, plus another 20,000 apartment/condo units of various density. Starting with the homes: will they have any sort of yard? In research reported by the Urban Reform Institute in a 2022 study found that the clear preference of families, seniors, Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans and the foreign born is to live in single-family detached homes, located in suburbs and exurbs.
With over 50,000 acres, or 78 square miles to work with, there’s enough land to give people what they want. If half the area was left as open space, there would still be 25,000 acres for the urban footprint. That would be enough room for 20,000 single family homes on quarter acre lots, occupying 5,000 acres, only 10 percent of the area, which at four persons per household would support a population of 80,000 people. Add to that another 20,000 apartments, condominiums, and townhomes, at three persons per unit, occupying a generous 1/8th of an acre per unit, and you have another 60,000 people consuming only 2,500 acres, or 5 percent of the land. This leaves a lot of flexibility for the rest of the urbanized portion of this project – an improbable 3,500 acres for roads and other transit corridors and hubs, 5,000 acres for retail and commercial development, and 10,000 acres for parks.
It is possible, of course, to squeeze even more people into even less space. But most people don’t want to have “less space.” They want more space. And the first question we should be asking is why, in a state with 25,000 square miles of cattle ranches, is it necessary to set aside as permanent open space any more than 50 percent of developable land, when that land is in close proximity to a megapolis that suffers from an acute housing shortage?
The challenges of energy, water and transportation are equally daunting, mostly because of the straightjackets that have been intentionally donned by virtually every influential decision maker and investor in the state. We can start with the whole “net zero” fiasco. California has locked itself into a future of EVs and mass transit, with “road diets” and an explicit goal of getting people out of their cars and onto bikes, scooters, and pathogen pits otherwise known as buses and trains. Even if this new city has robocops – it probably will – and other decisive innovations that yield effective law enforcement, they’re not going to move people voluntarily into mass transit. You can evict the junkies and the predators, but you can’t evict the germs. And people like their cars. They like them. That should matter.
This speaks to the coercive essence of what passes for an enlightened conventional wisdom in California today. Live in apartments. Get rid of your car. But most people don’t want to live that way. More to the point, it isn’t necessary. There’s plenty of land. What about energy? What about synthetic fuels, just around the corner, that will deliver liquid hydrocarbon, combustible fuels made from nothing more than electrolyzed hydrogen combined with CO2 taken from the atmosphere? We’re willing to put our faith in battery technology evolving to the point where EVs no longer require 10X the resources of conventional vehicles, are affordable, replaceable and recyclable, can be fully recharged in five minutes, and can reliably tolerate fires and floods. But we don’t believe synthetic fuel can be commercialized? Really? Silicon Valley investors, living in the heartland of global innovation, can’t imagine synthetic fuel? Or safe nuclear power? Or energy efficient desalination?
A truly cutting edge future city would design an infrastructure that sets an example the world is willing to follow. Deploy a modular nuclear reactors that generate 50 megawatts each and can be swapped for new ones every 50 years. Build a cutting edge natural gas fueled power plant with an advanced combined cycle design that converts 80 percent or more of the embodied energy in the natural gas fuel into electricity. If every fossil fueled power plant in the world were retrofitted to this emerging technology, it might not achieve “net zero.” But the ratio of CO2 emissions to gigawatt-hours produced would drop by a factor of 4X. That’s a technology the world will buy. That’s an aspiration worth fighting for, because unlike wind and solar, it’s practical, scalable, sustainable, environmentally responsible, and cost-effective.
With all that in mind, it would be advisable to include gas stations in the master plan. They can easily be retrofit to dispense synfuel, and in the meantime can fuel hybrid designs for cars and buses that are becoming more ingeniously efficient every year.
As for water, it would be a welcome assist if these billionaire investors can commit to building a futuristic city that delivers its households and businesses abundance. Will this city adhere to the planned 42 gallons per person per day limit on indoor water use that is roaring down the legislative tracks in the Capitol like a freight train? Nobody wants to live this way, and why should they, when 80 percent (or more) of the water that goes down the drain in homes and businesses can and should be recycled and reused? When it comes to lawns and other supposed abominations, why not just ban fertilizers and pesticides, and allow lawns to suddenly become productive permeable surfaces, able to filter and percolate runoff?
Investing in infrastructure to create water abundance in California is a statewide challenge, but there are local sources. Construct state-of-the-art runoff capture and wastewater recycling facilities. Contract for water from the Sites Reservoir – maybe then the agency directors and state bureaucrats will finally decide that instead of having a job-for-life “planning” the reservoir, they’ll actually build it. Follow Antioch’s example and purify brackish water – there’s plenty of that in the surrounding estuaries. Spend extra to ensure environmental impact is minimal, but do it all the same. Maybe, gasp, even push for raising the Shasta Dam a mere 18 feet, which would create another 600,000 acre feet of storage, ensuring more low-temperature downstream flows to benefit salmon habitat and supply new cities.
How this new city takes shape, should it ever be built, will say a lot about what sort of future is in store for Californians. Will this city use the many new tools becoming available to monitor behavior to enforce lives of managed scarcity, or will that be less of a priority because we have instead made up our minds to achieve sustainable abundance? What ostensibly public spaces will be privatized, and how will that affect the rights of citizens and the texture of law enforcement? How will they manage low income housing? Will they develop covenants that aim to maximize the percentage of owner occupied homes and businesses, or will they sell entire neighborhoods to Blackrock?
The people who want to build a new city in Solano County are thinking big. It could be the biggest completely new city the state has seen in decades. And California needs new cities. But the implications are bigger than the project. They can create a dystopia as easily as they can create a utopia. And they are among the few with the resources to make that decision, knowing full well how it may be a defining example, altering our destiny for better or for worse.
Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
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