What would you do if you had a billion dollars?
Build a new city from scratch, says one cohort of California billionaires.
A group of Silicon Valley elite have been buying up land in Solano County between San Francisco and Sacramento with the dream of building a brand new city.
The idea began with Jan Sramek, 36, a former Goldman Sachs trader who moved to the Bay Area about a decade ago. Sramek “fell in love” with Solano County after going on fishing trips there, and he and his wife recently bought a home in the area where they plan to raise their toddler and new baby on the way.
In the last few years, Sramek’s unassuming company Flannery Associates has spent more than $800 million buying up farms and undeveloped land with the idea of building a new city.
His investors are some of the richest people in Silicon Valley.
The first investment came from Patrick Collison, the Irish chief executive of Stripe, a payments company. Another investment came from the king of venture capital Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz. Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman also invested.
The group went about their plan quite secretively until late last month, when The New York Times revealed the investors’ intentions.
Days after the Times shed light on who was behind the project, Sramek’s company debuted a website called “California Forever” explaining the plan for the new city.
“To date, our company has been quiet about our activities,” the website reads. “This has, understandably, created interest, concern, and speculation. Now that we’re no longer limited by confidentiality, we are eager to begin a conversation about the future of Solano County a conversation with all of you.”
The goal, according to the website, is a “new community that attracts new employers, creates good paying local jobs, builds homes in walkable neighborhoods.”
The company is now making the rounds among voters and local politicians, trying to get them on board with the plan.
Originally, the wealthy investor group planned to buy up only about 10,000 acres, but since 2018 their sprawling land grab has gobbled up more than 50,000 acres or 78 square miles in Solano County, an area almost twice as big as San Francisco.
Sramek’s company was more aggressive than simply buying up land too.
In the spring, Flannery made residents bristle when it sued several landowners, accusing them of conspiring to inflate prices. The lawsuit attracted public attention and raised eyebrows about the company’s land buying spree.
Solano County is also home to Travis Air Force Base, and elected officials were alarmed to see the surrounding land being bought up. The land grab even prompted national security concerns that drew an investigation from the FBI and Treasury Department. Both local and federal officials are still skeptical, and some are exasperated.
“The FBI, the Department of Treasury, everyone has been doing work trying to figure out who these people are,” Representative Mike Thompson (D-CA), who represents a large part of Solano County, said last week after meeting with Sramek.
“Their secrecy has caused a lot of problems, a lot of time, and a lot of expense,” Thompson said.
The company has assured that the vast majority of its funding, 97%, comes from American investors, and only the other 3% are investors in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Another California Democrat, Representative John Garamendi, also met with Sramek recently.
“It was a continuation of my disappointment,” Garamendi said. “It’s very, very clear that they do not have a plan for the 55,000 acres.”
The mayor of one small city in Solano County said she thinks the investors may simply want “to create a city for the elite.”
“Economic blight is everywhere. So why do you need to spend upwards of a billion dollars to create a brand new city when you have all these other things that can be achieved throughout the Bay Area?” said Mayor Princess Washington of Suisun City.
In order to move forward with their grand plans for a new city, investors must win over voters in Solano County. Since the land has been protected from urban sprawl since 1984, voters would have to approve a ballot initiative to allow the land to be rezoned for a city rather than agriculture.
The investors said their plan for a new utopian city could take decades.
Given the massive nature of the project and the skepticism from locals, they have a long road ahead.