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California Forever’s Plan to Build a New City Confronts Hostility

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Jan Sramek has spent the past several months in restaurants and conference rooms pitching politicians, environmentalists and labor unions on a plan to erect a new California city on open farmland in an eastern corner of the San Francisco Bay Area. The project is backed by a host of big Silicon Valley names, including the venture capitalists Michael Moritz and Marc Andreessen, the LinkedIn co-founder, Reid Hoffman, and the Emerson Collective founder, Laurene Powell Jobs.

At an event Wednesday evening, Mr. Sramek, the chief executive of a company called California Forever, took his case to the Solano County voters.

The crowd was not convinced.

Before the event started, protesters had gathered on the steps of the meeting site, the Vallejo Naval & Historical Museum, holding signs that read, “Transparency not trickery” and “Flannery Will Ruin California for EVER.” During the event, attendees complained about Mr. Sramek’s billionaire backers, said they were worried that a new city would displace current residents, and met talk of jobs with questions about the data.

Mr. Sramek took it in stride, patiently answering questions and appearing mostly unruffled. He promised improved infrastructure, employment and middle-class homes for the county’s 450,000 residents.

“If not here, where?” he asked the crowd of about 100 people.

“Not here!” an audience member yelled back.

Many of the protest signs made references to Flannery Associates, a subsidiary of California Forever that over the past five years has spent $900 million buying more than 50,000 acres of farmland. The company said little about its backers or intentions, leading to wild speculation about what the company’s plans were until August, when The New York Times reported the backers’ identities and their hope for a new city. Some thought it could be the site of a new Disneyland; others, including members of Congress, worried that a foreign government was behind it. (Flannery’s land now surrounds Travis Air Force Base.)

The revelation that Flannery is in fact not a spying operation but a developer looking to develop has done little to quell anxiety but instead turned one kind of fear into another. On Wednesday the skeptical crowd pelted Mr. Sramek with questions on a variety of issues: the potential for traffic, whether the development would interfere with the base where many Solano County residents work — and oh, by the way, where would they get the water for a new city?

Over the next months and years, California Forever will likely be focused on an overarching problem: most of what it wants to build is currently not allowed. To change that, the company would need to clear a raft of hurdles that require blessings from the local, state and (potentially) federal governments.

The first of those hurdles is Solano County’s decades-old slow-growth ordinance, which aims to direct development to existing cities. California Forever has said that next year it would pursue a ballot initiative to amend the ordinance, making a direct appeal to voters.

Another question that continues to dog the project is why California Forever wants to build in a rural area far from the Bay Area’s urban core — in other words, why it wants sprawl. While the event was held in Vallejo, a bayside city of 120,000 that is Solano County’s largest, the land in question is an hour’s drive away and consists mostly of rolling hills covered with sheep and wind turbines. Mr. Sramek has repeatedly countered the accusation he’s promoting sprawl by saying that, while he is a fan of “infill” development in existing cities, it hasn’t produced enough housing to meet the region’s needs.

“The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over again and expecting it’s going to change,” he said on Wednesday.

During a slide show presentation, Mr. Sramek tried to assuage attendees with bullet points about the project, his backers, and his own background (Goldman Sachs, “but left to found an education company that helped workers acquire new skills”). He said plans for the project’s precise location would be revealed next year. In the meantime, California Forever has created a more impressionistic picture with computer-generated images like a tree-lined street of row homes with cartoon children riding bicycles out front.

Many of Mr. Sramek’s assurances came in the form of promises about what the project would not be. A slide that read, “What we’re not doing” listed the marsh the company doesn’t plan to build on and the prairie it would avoid. California Forever would not build “a gated community for the rich” and will not be “telling Solano county what to do.”

Were the company to get permission to build, it would create a lot of construction jobs. During the meeting Mr. Sramek dangled the possibility of other benefits but fell well short of a commitment. One slide said the “ideas being discussed” included down payment assistance for homeowners, money to rebuild the downtowns in Solano County cities and funding for local nonprofits.

“There is nothing more democratic than saying ‘We have an idea to make Solano County better; we believe in that idea so much, we are going to invest $900 million,’” Mr. Sramek began one exchange.

“In secret!” someone yelled.

After the meeting, one attendee, Phillip Balbuena, a 43-year-old facilities manager, said he had moved to Solano County after being priced out of the city of Fremont, which is a bridge away from the heart of Silicon Valley. His fear was that the project would put pressure on prices and force him and others to move again.

“We’re already overburdened,” he said.

Critiques like this cut to the heart of the Bay Area’s, and the nation’s, housing troubles. The root of California’s rising rents and home prices is a long-term shortage in the number of units. But neighbors remain leery of development to relieve it, and are resentful that most of the new homes target higher-income families.

“It’s really simple: We just aren’t building enough houses,” Mr. Sramek said Wednesday.

Mr. Sramek’s housing shortage argument was in line with the arguments that California legislators, a supermajority of them Democrats, have been making for the past decade. But the size of his proposal, the backing from some of the world’s richest people, and the fact his company spent five years cloaking its intentions, overshadowed the policy debate he seemed to want to have.

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