A City Wants to Grow in Solano: What the California Forever Project Might Mean for the County

IN LIGHT TRAFFIC, it’s a 45-minute drive from Marin to Fairfield, the seat of Solano County. That’s where powerful California tech-types want to build a nearby city of 50,000 people that by 2070 could be the size of Miami, Florida. Exactly where is it? Heading to Tahoe on Highway 80, approaching Fairfield, hang a right on Highway 12 and go east for 15 miles. Nothing but grassland there now. However someday that might change, really change.

The project’s name is California Forever. 

Who Are the People Behind California Forever?

Map of New Community Solano

The two dozen or so “wealthy tech-types” behind California Forever include Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, Steve Job’s widow Laurene Powell Jobs, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, digital journalist/author Michael Moritz and early Google investor John Doerr. Their leader, the one who had the vision for California Forever is Jan Sramek, a 37-year-old Czech-born, London School of Economics-educated, former Goldman Sachs trader who is now a U.S. citizen and lives with his family in Fairfield. According to him, “The community we plan to build isn’t exactly a ‘City of Tomorrow.’ What we envision is more a city of yesterday with multi-story row houses, where schools, parks and shopping are close by and work isn’t such a long commute that families have little time to spend together.”

As to why such immense wealth has coalesced behind Sramek and California Forever, the young leader is succinct: “We’ve always been clear that this is a for-profit endeavor.” To that, he adds: “While most investments have a six or seven year horizon before returns are realized, these investors aren’t expecting any returns for 20, 30, even 40 years.” 

When quizzed regarding investors’ possible altruistic motivations, e.g., solving California’s housing crisis; creating affordable housing; making the world a better place, his answer is again succinct: “All of the above,” he replies, then adds, “These are people who live in California, made their fortunes in California and now, when some appear to be giving up on California, they’re doubling down on California.” Sramek also believes each investor has their own personal reasons for putting tens of millions of their dollars into California Forever. “For example, Laurene Powell Jobs has always been interested in providing better education and opportunities for young people,” he says, “and John Doerr is an outspoken investor in companies that promote clean energy and fight global climate change.” To Sramek, such causes and concerns will be assuaged one way or another in California Forever’s ambitious endeavor. 

California Forever: Past and Present; Problems and Promises

Rendering of Downtown, Solano

To create what California Forever hopes someday to become, Sramek has built a team of about 75 in-house and external planners and designers that include San Francisco’s SITELAB Urban Studio; CMG Landscape Architecture; and ENGEO, geotechnical analysis group. The canvas they’re working on is 17,500 acres of mostly level Solano County grassland. In all, California Forever now controls over 62,000 acres, which is about twice the area of the City of San Francisco. That farmland alone has cost investors nearly one billion dollars and was acquired rather covertly over a six-year period starting in 2017. 

“We bought about 160 ranches,” Sramek says, “and in the process dealt with over 400 people as many ranches were owned by large families.” According to him, an East Coast attorney represented California Forever, as buyers, and local real estate agents represented the ranchers, as sellers. “In every case, our attorney told the sellers the buyers were investors who wanted to diversify their investments in ranchland,” Sramek maintains, “and that many could stay on their land, farm it for the foreseeable future, even keep all of the resulting income.” 

In order to avoid a chaotic “land rush,” says Sramek, the subject of their land someday becoming a planned megacity of between 50,000 and 400,000 people was never discussed. Yet people talked, rumors spread and, over the years, government officials, even the FBI (due to the acreage’s proximity to Travis Air Force Base) got involved with determining who was buying all this ranchland. And ever since, the stigma of using a less-than-forthright, possibly deceptive process in buying the 62,000 acres of land has plagued Sramek and California Forever like a bad rash.

It was until the fall of 2023 that New York Times investigating reporter Conor Dougherty, using all his wily ways and Silicon Valley contacts, broke the story of who the buyers were and what they intended to do with their acreage. And by spring of 2024, not only the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, but also CBS Sunday Morning and local and national media outlets, print and electronic, were atop the story. And, because the acreage in question is but a 45-minute drive from Marin County, and the hot topic of changing zoning from agriculture to residential, which Sramek must do, is always “about” to be discussed in Marin County, it’s a relevant topic for Marin County residents.

A Community of 50,000 residents that Could Someday House 400,000 People

Rendering of Retail Street

If all goes their way, California Forever’s yet unnamed unincorporated city will have a population approaching 50,000 by the late-2030s and will continue growing. Their promotional materials state the eventual population could reach the 400,000 mark, which is just below Solano County’s current total population of 434,000. It is between the populations of Tampa, Florida (398,000) and Bakersfield, California (411,000). However, promotional materials are also emphatic that California Forever’s community will be nothing like either Bakersfield or Tampa or today’s existing Solano County cities of Fairfield, Benicia, Vacaville, Vallejo, Rio Vista and Suisun City. “It will be a dense walk-able community,” says Sramek, “like Brooklyn or San Francisco’s Marina District.” For him and his backers, that means two- and three-, even four-story row houses and apartments, where stores, schools and parks are no more than a ten- minute walk away from anyone’s home. To him, it also means that ample work opportunities will be close by thus making long commutes unnecessary. 

To accomplish the latter goal, Sramek and his backers have “guaranteed” to bring 15,000 well paying jobs to Solano County, where recent surveys show that 40 percent of the workforce now has to commute outside the county for employment. By “well paying,” Sramek and Co. mean “at least 125 percent of current county average annual pay,” (with county workers’ salaries now averaging $83,000/yr., this means salaries in the $100,000/yr. and above range). According to him, corporations that have already shown “strong interest in locating to East Solano,” include Hadrian, a builder of highly automated factories that produce precision metal components; Living Carbon, a grower of resilient trees that capture increased amounts of carbon dioxide; and Brex, Inc., a financial services firm that primarily works with tech companies. In addition, California Forever has commitment to building the largest solar farm in California; one that will power 1,500,000 homes and provide 1,300 full-time, well-paying jobs during the decade it will take to construct. 

California Forever’s Future Rests on the November 5th Election

Rendering of a Solar Farm

All of California Forever’s dreams and schemes will be for naught if the zoning of its vast acreage can’t be changed from agriculture to multi-use. And that will take a vote of the people of Solano County. As a result, by this May, nearly 21,000 registered county voters signed petitions putting “The East Solano Homes, Jobs and Clean Energy Initiative” on the November 5, 2024 ballot. A Yes vote will rezone farmland to mixed-use, amend their urban-growth-restricting General Plan and give California Forever a green light to go forward with their ambitious plans. An 85-page development plan which, according CEO Sramek, “Includes such items as ‘no stores, schools or parks can be no more than a ten-minute walk away from anyone’s home,” will be readily available for voters to read before casting their ballots. A No vote on “The East Solano Homes, Jobs and Clean Energy Initiative” could spell n-e-v-e-r for California Forever.

It’s hardly breaking news the organization is going pedal-to-the-metal in an effort to entice Solano County voters into changing the zoning on the vast property controlled by California Forever. In addition to developing a walkable community of 50,000 residents and providing 15,000 well-paying, close-by jobs for its residents, other “guarantees” also include: $400 million to help county residents — to the possible tune of $50,000 each — put a down payment on a California Forever home; $200 million to develop homes, shops and offices in the cities of Vallejo, Fairfield, Vacaville, Dixon, Benicia, Rio Vista and Siusun City; and $30 million to restore parks, natural habitats and green spaces across Solano County. Then in June, California Forever placed $500,000 in a local bank to be used by county residents, working in conjunction with a nationwide sports and entertainment management company, to plan and design a Solano County Sports Complex costing “tens of millions of dollars” that would be built on California Forever land and used by all county residents. If all that sounds good, stay tuned.

Opposition Comes From Elected Representatives and a Local Environmental Coalition

California Forever factory

Numerous manufacturing and industrial companies have expressed interest in building factories within the California Forever boundaries to provide jobs and commerce for residents in the community.

If a Solano County voter wants to hear both sides of California Forever’s rosy plans, the best place to start is a YouTube video dated February 16, 2024. It covers a question and answer press conference featuring Democratic U. S. Congressmen John Garamendi and Mike Thompson, who share long and successful records of representing the lands involved in the project. And both firmly oppose California Forever coming to Solano County.

Rep. Garamendi, a former California Lieutenant Governor, opens the conference with: “Our distrust of this organization goes back to when they started buying up land. Even when the land edged Travis Air Force Base, they absolutely refused to tell anyone who they were or what they intended to do with their acreage.” The Congressman then lists his other concerns as being: 1. Creating interference with the strategic mission of Travis AFB; 2. The cost of the project’s infrastructure eventually having to be paid by Solano taxpayers, and 3. Increased traffic resulting with “gridlock” on nearby Highways 20 and 113 and Interstate 80.

Rep. Thompson echoes these concerns yet his primary opposition to California Forever is that their envisioned city would have no mayor, no city council, thus no local government. Rather, it would be an unincorporated county municipality. Congressman Thompson also points out that should California Forever be successful in changing zoning of their land from agricultural to residential, their acreage would be considerably increased in value. “And who knows what they’d do then?” he asks, adding, “They could ‘flip’ their land and go down the road and do the same thing to other people.” (Those wishing to view the press conference are urged to search “Reps Garamendi and Thompson on California Forever”). In addition to Congressmen Garamendi’s and Thompson’s opposition, California State Senator Bill Dodd, a Democrat who has represented the land in question since 2016, is “strongly opposed.” According to a press release of February 28, his stance is based on their having no plan for increased traffic; the loss of needed agricultural land and housing interfering with Travis AFB (see sidebar: “Infill Development is Needed, Not More Profit-driven Sprawl”). Also opposing the concept is is Fairfield’s mayor, Catherine Moy who is concerned about the massive development’s impact on Travis AFB and agriculture in the area.. 

A grass roots organization opposing California Forever is a coalition of concerned citizens named Solano Together that’s been joined by the local Sierra Club and Greenbelt Alliance. In a January 2024 press release it labeled California Forever to be a “senseless sprawl development in a remote, undeveloped part of Solano County… that would divert needed resources from cities leaving existing infrastructure to degrade and residents to suffer.” A specific concern of Solano Together is that California Forever’s incentive of creating 15,000 new jobs “will lure jobs away from Solano’s population centers to this new community and thus harm our (existing) communities. (A complete copy of the Solano Together January 17th press release is available here.)

California Forever’s Future Rests on the November 5th Election

Aerial Rendering of the new site

With just four months until the crucial vote on the “East Solano Homes, Jobs and Clean Energy Initiative,” is California Forever’s Jan Sramek losing sleep over the opposition to California Forever’s ambitious plans? His answer could well be, ”Yes and No. “

“Yes,” he answers, “opposition from elected representatives such as Congressmen Garamendi and Thompson, State Senator Dodd and local mayors and council persons are worrisome.” But no,” they’ve had time to fully consider what we plan to do, and many of their reasons for opposing us— such as concerns over Travis AFB and our sources of water—have been mostly resolved.” 

When asked how these items had been satisfied, Sramek says: “We provided Travis with an additional 4,000-acre buffer that will never be developed unless Travis approves of it being developed.” Regarding water, the California Forever CEO points to rights coming from the 62,000 acres the project has purchased that are “sourced by groundwater and the nearby Sacramento River and will provide water for as many as 100,000 of our first residents.” 

However, when contacted at deadline to see if their positions of 90 days back had changed, the offices of Congresspersons Garamendi and Thompson, along with that of State Senator Dodd, their responses were almost identical: “Thank you for reaching out,” they essentially stated, “But no, (fill in the blank) is still firmly opposed to the California Forever project.”

Tuesday, November 5th will be a critical election for nearby Solano County and California Forever. And people will be the deciders.

Pro Argument for California Forever

Why “In-Fill” Building in Existing Cities Doesn’t Work

By Jan Sramek, CEO, California Forever  

In 2017, when I first came to California, then-Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom gave a speech about California needing 3.5 million more homes in order to house its current population. A few weeks later, I read about a UCLA economist estimating the shortage at 3 million units of housing.

I saw quickly that the Bay Area was possibly on the verge of becoming the greatest squandering of economic opportunity in history, and I don’t say that lightly. We had an innovation engine that was creating  wonderful new products and services, and we were creating lots of well-paid jobs, but we were risking it all by not being able to build new housing—and I wanted to help solve that problem.

I spent a year researching building more housing in existing cities, in other words, “infill projects.” What I learned was that, especially in California, infill just would not be enough. There was just no way the numbers were going to add up. Infill projects take a long time to build, they are expensive and they seldom produce starter homes, especially not for families.

I believe we need to rediscover the art of building cities. We have a serious housing crisis and we need new tools to solve it. With California Forever’s East Solano Plan, we have an opportunity to reimagine what a city could be and how it could work.

We can build a city where people can walk to work, kids can safely walk to school alone, and we can be less dependent on cars and do more for the environment. This is an amazing opportunity to do all of that here in Solano County.

We expect our starter homes—which would be a three-bedroom, two-bathroom flat with about 1,100 square feet in a three- or four-story building—to sell between $400,000 and $450,000. With the average price of a new home in the county being $750,000, when I tell young homebuyers that, they’re over the moon.

Con Argument for California Forever

Infill Development is Needed, No More Profit-driven Sprawl

By Bill Dodd, D Napa, 3rd California State Senate District

Imagine a clandestine group of well-heeled investors descended on your community and quietly began buying up all available open space with secret plans to build a megacity of 400,000 people. You’d be concerned, right? That’s exactly what happened in Solano County, where Silicon Valley tech billionaires amassed more than 60,000 acres of farmland and want to steamroll a gargantuan housing and commercial project onto locals, bypassing the local vetting process.

There’s no question we need more housing. Our chronic shortage has triggered a supply and demand imbalance, drastically limiting housing options for buyers and renters, and driving up prices for all. But it must be done right. And the massive development proposed for Solano County near Travis Air Force Base is dead wrong. It serves as a reminder to the rest of the North Bay that we need thoughtful infill development — not more profit-driven sprawl.

Aside from the developers’ lack of transparency, the project takes away much-needed agricultural land, and causes additional traffic and taxpayers in the region could wind up paying to clean up the resulting mess. With local opposition growing louder, developers have offered varying takes on the original but none provide substantial answers. I have been skeptical since day one but reserved my judgment as I gathered more facts. It is now crystal clear to me that this project is bad for the region.

The bottom line is, we need more housing. But we don’t need it at the expense of what makes the North Bay the best place to live. And we definitely don’t need it forced on us by this secret cabal headed by a former Wall Street trader, who moved to the area recently to try to show he cares. Give me a break. He thinks we’re all a bunch of country bumpkins who don’t know what we have and can’t tell when someone is peddling hot air.

Let’s prove him wrong. Let’s send a clear message that we recognize the value of our open spaces and thoughtful planning and stand up against this irresponsible and greed-inspired vision that is nothing but a fool’s paradise.