How new city can change how
California envisions its future:
Edward Ring | September 22, 2023
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 added tens of thousands of dollars 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 development, 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 United States. 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 and 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 – between the Bay Area and the Sacramento region. 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. 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 is 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 might the new city look like?
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. This idea has been marinating for decades in the heady ferment of Silicon Valley. Flannery and Associates seem willing to spend billions to blaze a trail into a smart city future. The company clearly wants 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. It depicts 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 oak-like trees. In the background, quaint storefronts with rounded archways, shutters adjacent to the second-floor windows, with peaked and gabled roofs. Pastels. Earthtones. A trolley car. How pretty it will be.
And not an automobile in sight.
Retro architecture is nothing new
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 shepherd 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 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 will emerge?
Exploring these questions will be the focus of part two.
Edward Ring is a co-founder of the California Policy Center and the author of “The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California.”