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The Futurists Building a Retro City
Why are technology entrepreneurs trying to build the “city of yesterday” in California?
After years of speculation, a mysterious developer in Solano County, California has finally introduced themselves. Since 2017, residents and elected officials have wondered who was behind the spending spree on over 55,000 acres of farmland across eastern Solano County, a mostly agricultural area dotted by wind turbines and grazing cattle. The developer often paid several times market value, spooking locals about what their intentions were.
The New York Times finally unveiled who was behind the acquisitions: a company called Flannery Associates, led by Jan Sramek, a 36-year old technology entrepreneur and banker from the Czech Republic. Sramek founded Flannery Associates in 2017 as a subsidiary of “California Forever”, which is now their public brand. California Forever is backed by the technology power brokers of Silicon Valley, which has brought the project more attention and criticism than it otherwise may have received: Stripe co-founders Patrick and John Collison, Marc Andreessen and his venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, John Doerr, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Michael Moritz, and Laurene Powell Jobs have all invested.
The goal is to build “a new community and economic opportunity” in the area, including walkable neighborhoods and a large solar farm. “I acutely felt this shortage of walkable, high-quality urbanism in the Bay Area, where it really only exists in a few neighborhoods that are super overpriced,” Sramek told Fast Company, adding, “The way that I like to put it is that an 8-year-old should be able to walk to school alone.” The renderings show Tuscan-style hilltop towns, rolling hills with solar panels, kids riding their bikes on the street, people kayaking, fishing, having patio lunches, and walking in bustling, car-free town squares. In fact, there isn’t a single car in any of the renders, which appear to have been AI-generated, somewhat unsurprising for a developer backed by the technology industry.
California Forever’s proposal is especially interesting because it asks us to explore the major challenges in housing and urban design across California. The Bay Area is in a housing crisis, and we need more affordable, middle-class homes, but do we need a brand new city when there’s so much that can be improved in existing cities? There is also the practical question of if it’s even possible to build a project like this in this region, from a zoning, environmental, and infrastructure perspective. Home insurance providers, for example, are fleeing the state of California, citing climate risks. But, when you consider that Sramek’s ambition is to build the “city of yesterday” backed by the technology elite, there’s another question worth exploring in detail: is the technology industry, long obsessed with the idea of building utopian smart cities, changing its philosophy on what actually makes a city smart in the first place?
“It’s Time to Build”
Since its unveiling, California Forever has attracted its fair share of criticism and skepticism. There’s concerns from farmers over how development will affect existing agricultural land, from urban planners who believe housing is more urgently needed in existing cities, and from locals uneasy that a billionaire-backed developer plans to build a utopian city in their communities. Many locals are angry with the Flannery’s aggressive approach to buying land and working with the community: in May, the developer filed a $510 million antitrust lawsuit against a group of Solano landowners, accusing them of price fixing to increase the value of their land.
"The community is very angry – by the secrecy, by the duplicity, by the attack on family farmers," said John Garamendi, a Democrat Congressman who represents Solano County alongside Mike Thompson, in a local paper. "When a single, non agriculture-based owner establishes a monopoly in the entire agricultural infrastructure of the region, it becomes very difficult for any single farmer to continue (farming)."
“We are now totally surrounded by Flannery,” said Al Medvitz, owner of McCormack Ranch, a family farm in eastern Solano County. “That means we have new issues because we have to deal with neighbors who have no experience or expertise in agriculture."
Despite operating California Forever in secrecy for years, Jan Sramek isn’t afraid of the spotlight. He was Financial News’ youngest ever “Rising Star” and was on track to be one of the leading traders at Goldman Sachs in his early twenties before leaving the firm to become an entrepreneur. He wrote a self-help book, Racing Towards Excellence, on how others can achieve the same kinds of professional success that he had in school and work. In the book he gives advice to his younger self in the form of an Ayn Rand quote: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” His younger self would be proud: California Forever is now the largest landowner in eastern Solano County.
Now that his intentions in Solano County are publicly known, Sramek is on a charm offensive, focused on earning political and community support needed to make the project a reality despite the roadblocks. Given their early secrecy and powerful backers, a big part of their success will depend on how they manage public perception. They’re doing everything they can not to be seen as another techno-utopia project. “We are not proposing a pie-in-the-sky ‘utopian’ fantasy, their website says. “Quite the opposite – we believe in looking back to go forward. Our vision for walkable neighborhoods, clean energy, sustainable infrastructure, good jobs and a healthy environment is not about reinventing the wheel, but rather going back to the basics that were once the norm across America.”
This isn't the first time the technology industry has ventured into city-building. The most recent high-profile attempt was from Google, through their urban innovation arm Sidewalk Labs, which tried for three years to build a smart city on a 12-acre patch of the Toronto waterfront called Quayside. They promised self-driving cars and shuttles, autonomous garbage collecting robots, heated sidewalks, and other high-tech approaches to urbanism, to the tune of $900 million. They wanted to build a city “from the internet up”, but after pushback from local citizens and politicians concerned about surveillance and privacy issues, they shut down the project in 2020. It was a major setback for the smart city movement, and it’s had a broader negative impact on the role that big tech can play in urban development. Now, Toronto is developing Quayside in a very different way from Sidewalk’s proposal, putting an emphasis on green space, affordable housing, urban agriculture, and taking a zero-carbon approach.
In 2020, the same year Sidewalk Labs abandoned its smart city project in Toronto, Marc Andreessen, one of Flannery’s high-profile investors, evolved his famous “software is eating the world” creed into a new call to arms for the decade ahead. In an article titled “It’s Time To Build”, Andreessen argued that our society has a “failure of imagination” and an “unwillingness to build”, and lamented the state of U.S. cities: “We also can’t build the cities themselves anymore. When the producers of HBO’s “Westworld” wanted to portray the American city of the future, they didn’t film in Seattle or Los Angeles or Austin—they went to Singapore. We should have gleaming skyscrapers and spectacular living environments in all our best cities at levels way beyond what we have now; where are they?” Given this new call to build, Andreessen was criticized when, in 2022, he opposed building multi-family housing in Atherton, the ultra-wealthy Silicon Valley town where he lives. The new housing will “MASSIVELY decrease our home values, the quality of life of ourselves and our neighbors and IMMENSELY increase the noise pollution and traffic,” he wrote.
Don’t call it a smart city
What’s noteworthy about the California Forever project is that, despite being backed by technology billionaires, Andreessen’s calls to build a new Singapore in the U.S., and the criticism it has received for being a planned utopia for the technology elite, it appears to be a low-tech development. While it’s still early and they haven’t shared details, there’s no mention in California’s Forever pitch of the high-tech ideas that tripped up Sidewalk Labs in Toronto. If anything, they’re presenting a more nostalgic approach similar to European and older American towns.
California Forever has this in common with another developer: Culdesac, a venture-backed firm based in Tempe, Arizona. Culdesac has built a car free, mixed-use, walkable community in Tempe that’s now welcoming its first residents, and the developer has ambitions to build more of these communities across the U.S., even a city of its own. California Forever differs from Culdesac in a few key ways: Culdesac is a far more turnkey development built on a streetcar line in an existing city, rather than trying to build an entire new community from scratch. The company has also put a huge emphasis on community outreach and earning buy-in from locals, something that California Forever is now scrambling to do after years of secrecy. Culdesac, to its credit, is a case study for California Forever on how important branding, storytelling, and community outreach is in development, and how to best advocate for walkable, mixed-use development that prioritizes people, not cars.
Most of all, though, California Forever seems to have also learned a key lesson from the downfall of other high-profile city-building ventures backed by technologists, namely Google’s Quayside project in Toronto, which is that a technocratic, hyper-efficient city doesn’t resonate with everyday people as much as it does with the technologists that want to build them. Sramek and his team are trying a different playbook: Out with the flying cars and skyscrapers, in with walkable communities and row housing.
While there’s still very little known about their specific plans — Sramek said they expect to have an early version of their community plan by January — it’s going to be a long road ahead for California Forever to bring their vision to life. Even if they present a strong vision on paper, they will face zoning hurdles and pushback from locals and elected officials, an ironic case of the billionaires being on the other side of the NIMBY coin. California desperately needs to build more dense, walkable, and transit-oriented communities that help reduce sprawl. Sramek and California Forever deserve credit for that early vision, particularly for trying to shift the technology industry’s narrative of what makes a city “smart”. While they’ve taken a heavy-handed approach that’s made it hard to turn this project into a reality, California Forever is likely to build something, intent on earning a return on their $800 million investment. It’s worth paying attention to how it progresses, because if California wants to continue being seen as a leader and innovator across the world, it will need to learn how to evolve and adapt in the face of intersecting issues: climate change, a housing affordability crisis, congestion, and a technology elite that wants to take building into its own hands. Soon, in the farmlands of Solano County, we’ll start to see how it unfolds.
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