California Forever has made its first substantial step toward building a new city on agricultural land in Solano County. Earlier this week, YIMBY spoke with California Forever’s Head of Planning, Gabriel Metcalf, to discuss the facts of their proposal and the Ballot Initiative. The company, a real estate firm established in Silicon Valley in 2017 with financing from several billionaires, hopes to convince the county voters to create a new city with up to 400,000 residents.
The initiative [published here] is a legally binding document to let California Forever negotiate with Solano County. In the document’s own words, the vote is “requesting voter approval to authorize a new community through amendments to the General Plan and… Solano County ‘Zoning’ Code.” Voters will be deciding this November.
California Forever was founded in 2017 by the then-30-year-old Jan Sramek. The sales were made using an anonymous company named Flannery Associates LLC. It is believed the origins go back to the first plot of land purchased in 2018 by Route 113 and Flannery Road. Over the years, its increased activity attracted ever-increasing speculation by residents and public officials alike. Last year, California Forever stated it spent around $800 million to acquire land.
In August last year, the New York Times revealed several Silicon Valley billionaires had invested. The reporting includes a message in 2017 from the prominent venture capitalist Michael Moritz, who pitched to investors that “the return could be many times the initial investment just from the rezoning, and far more if and when they started building.” Other multi-billionaire investors reported on by the Times include Marc Andreessen and the investment firm he co-founded, Andreessen Horowitz, Patrick & John Collison, Chris Dixon, Nat Friedman, Reid Hoffman, and Laurene Powell Jobs.
An important note is that California Forever’s project will not be an incorporated city with local government. The development will remain on unincorporated Solano County land overseen by the County Board of Supervisors. The project’s zoning will be decided through the upcoming ballot initiative. If the initiative is successful, the developer will draft an Environmental Impact Report and then negotiate the development agreement with County officials.
The core facts of the proposal, as described in the ballot Initiative, give a broad overview of the potential city. The proposal will develop under 30% of its owned land or 17,500 acres out of roughly 60,000 acres. The surrounding area will remain agricultural, become open space, or be used for solar farms.
The master plan aims for a total build-out of 40,000 to 160,000 dwelling units and 25 to 90 million square feet of non-residential development. That could see the city occupied by 100,000 to 400,000 residents. The ballot initiative calls for a minimum density of 20 units per acre and a build-out timeline of approximately 40 years. The general plan includes higher density in the downtown district and specialized zoning for industry closer to Highways 12 and 113.
While its highest potential build-out would nearly double Solano County’s current population of roughly 450,000 people, even the lower projection would exceed the county’s mandate from the State to approve 11,000 new units. However, before several cities get optimistic, the current structuring of Regional Housing Needs Allocation does not let the rest of Solano County skirt their responsibilities.
The project team collaboration with California Forever is driven by several local firms. The two most visible design aspects will be overseen by San Francisco-based studios: urban planning by SITELAB Urban Studio and landscape architecture by CMG. Two San Ramon-based companies will oversee engineering, ENGEO and CBG. Daly City-based EKI will be responsible for water resource engineering, and the Walnut Creek-headquartered engineers at Fehr & Peers will oversee transportation.
Interview by Rick Totten for SFYIMBY. Text has been edited for clarity.
YIMBY: How did you first get involved in the project?
Gabriel Metcalf: I met Jan Sramek, who’s now the CEO, back in maybe 2017, and a mutual friend introduced us and said you guys are both obsessed with new cities.
YIMBY: Several proposals have been made over the years by people wanting to build new cities. Some have gone well, some haven’t. What persuaded you that this one was a good idea?
Gabriel Metcalf: I always was interested in the British New-Town movement from, you know, planning school learning about Ebenezer Howard and the Abercrombie Plan. I think it’s a really important influence on new urbanism here, certainly. It always made sense to me that in places that are dealing with really high rates of population growth or demand on the housing side, new towns would be a really useful strategy. So that’s one thing.
If you look at the places in the US that are walkable urban places today, virtually all of them already existed by 1900. And I think that is the root of so many of our problems. We have lost the art of city building. If we could rediscover how to make walkable places again, it would take the pressure off the cities that have gotten so expensive.
I think it just cannot be good for our society to be in a situation where it is either illegal or impossible to create new walkable places. When I got the opportunity to work on this, I jumped at it.
YIMBY: One thing I’d be interested to understand is, this proposal is looking to create a pretty wide-ranging, flexible permission for development, which will only have ministerial approvals for the vast majority of things going forward. That sounds great from a developer’s perspective. But how will the people and elected officials of Solano County maintain kind of checks and balances over this 40-year build-out?
Gabriel Metcalf: There are two primary ways that voters in Solano County maintain democratic oversight. One is the terms of the voter initiative themselves, which are legally binding. Those have been developed through intense consultation with the people and elected leaders in the county. It includes funding commitments, a zoning envelope, and a development footprint. So, all of that is locked in by a vote of the people.
The second main way voters in the count will exert control is through the terms of the development agreement. After our process and the voter initiative, we do a full EIR (Environmental Impact Report) and then negotiate a development agreement with the county board of supervisors. A development agreement is a voluntary contract in which both parties can agree to whatever they choose.
That will be an extensive process. And so, you know, for example, the ballot measure locks in the funding commitments in terms of dollar amounts, but the detail on how that gets spent is to be negotiated in the development agreement.
YIMBY: That certainly makes sense on the funding side. I haven’t seen any mention of an architectural review of individual buildings. So, how will architectural standards and harmonious development be maintained?
Gabriel Metcalf: I would say we think the traditional way that design review normally works in California is a total failure. We’re trying to set up a really different process that will involve a simple design code. Our goal is that a complying project can be approved in 10 days. We’re not looking to have people involved in telling other people what they can build.
YIMBY: Will there be any kind of government or further regulation? Parking is one thing, under or over the provision of parking for buildings, or cycle spaces, or that kind of thing. Will that be governed in any way?
Gabriel Metcalf: Some of that will be in the voter initiative, and some of that will be in the development agreement. The voter initiative sets minimum parking at zero across the entire city. We don’t think that the way that regulation of development standards has worked in recent decades in California is a good model.
YIMBY: So, there won’t be any kind of local government that runs this city apart from the county government?
Gabriel Metcalf: Yes, our intention is to remain part of unincorporated Solano County. So, the political body that will have jurisdiction is the county board of Supervisors. We’ll have a very close cooperative working relationship with the county to provide police and fire services, all the services, and work on economic development projects together. I expect we’ll be very close partners.
YIMBY: There is an awful lot of construction for someone to do. Just to understand how that might be structured, will California forever act as a master developer, building all the infrastructure and highways and public facilities, whatever that is required, and then sell off plots to developers?
Gabriel Metcalf: That’s exactly what the model is. We’d like to be the master developer and secure the entitlements, build out the infrastructure, and then bring in vertical development partners, both small ones and big ones, to build the city over time.
YIMBY: So, you have to start somewhere. Many of the principles that California Forever aims for, like public transit, local shopping, and many services within a 10-minute walk, depend on a critical mass of people. How are you going to get that working from day one?
Gabriel Metcalf: We spent a lot of time thinking about this concept of critical mass and the minimum number of households you need for various things. It’s different for different topics, but we think one of the reasons why many large-scale developments have failed to deliver on things like retail is that they were too small and they didn’t achieve critical mass.
The whole logic behind the densities in the city plan is to put enough customers within walking distance of each local shopping street so that small businesses can succeed. That is something that is almost never done anymore in master developments.
The basic answer to the question of ‘what do you do before you get to critical mass’ is we have to subsidize the services and amenities so that they exist much earlier than they could exist if they were purely dependent on the population that’s there.
YIMBY: The discussion about transportation is linked to that question around critical mass. The internal transportation looks really well thought out with the alleyways and the local community streets, and the grid pattern. But the kind of criticism I’ve seen is about the external transportation connections.
Gabriel Metcalf: Oh yes, Benjamin Schneider wrote a piece. One thing that I feel has not been widely noticed is that after we filed the ballot measure, we got feedback from the county. We ended up making a bunch of edits at their request. Because I got the chance to read that piece, we were able to insert a new passage spelling out something we had already been planning to do, making it more transparent and explicit.
We are required to provide for rail, should it ever become possible. We are building a rail-ready community. That means it’s compact with a central transit station that everybody can access. The local internal planning makes it capable of being connected to a regional network. However, it’s not only up to us. We need to be working with the regional and state transportation agencies in order to do it.
On one level, transportation is just like water, electricity, or sewers. It’s a physical infrastructure that we have to build, and it’s part of the cost of building a new town. It is part of our business model that we must bear the costs of building transportation connections.
The only thing that is a little different and why it’s not developed fully in the ballot measure is that a county ballot measure cannot tell CalTrans, CalSTA, MTC, BART, or Capitol Corridor what to do. We will be working with all of those regional agencies, and I think it sort of goes without saying the city can’t grow past a certain point unless we are successful in building those external connections. I think we’re completely in agreement that we have to build external public transit.
What we will be able to do in the short run is operate a rapid shuttle program, meaning buses. Over the next year, we will be working out the service plan, which destinations and frequencies, operating hours, and vehicle type… We will operate a very robust public transit system from day one. In the longer term, we would like to build new and better connections.