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Reality vs hype

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Real Solano County, site of CA Forever?

SFist and the SF Chronicle have carried a few stories recently about new towns on the Bay Area's urban fringe. One is "California Forever", a Techie Investors' pipe dream of a new town in Solano County. The other is Mountain House, a real developer-driven new town in San Joaquin County. Full disclosure: Mountain House is a participating community in our California (un)Incorporated coalition.

HYPE - California Forever is a proposal by people dripping with money to impose a dream-like community on 55,000 acres in the sticks of Solano County. Don't just take our word that the proposal is ridiculous, read what John King, the Chronicle's urban design critic, said about it last month:

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Fake Solano County, as proposed by CA Forever. But where are the Infinity Pools?
Let the eye-rolling commence. It’s impossible to critique the vision of the investors, because what was unfurled is so innocuous as to be an insult. The images are as placid as a video aimed at infants; just this side of cartoonish, depicting clusters of vaguely sized storybook homes hugging a terrain that looks more like Italy’s Cinque Terre than the wind-battered ranges of Solano County.
John King, "Here’s everything that’s wrong with renderings of new California city fueled by tech money", S.F. Chronicle, Sept. 1, 2023.

Still, as King pointed out, money is no object for the Techie Investors, which means their idea of Shangri-La might get built. Of course, that raises questions about operations and maintenance.  Jan Sramek, the Founder and CEO of California Forever and a former Goldman-Sachs trader, says his envisioned utopia does not intend for the large new community to become a city; he expects it to be unincorporated for a long time. He also says Solano County does a good job running the County, but he is silent about Solano County's willingness and ability to provide municipal services for his intense urban development at what is currently a very rural area.

REALITY - Mountain House came into being in the mid-1990s as a typical urban sprawl housing development. To San Joaquin County's credit, it was not just built as a "planned community" of an assemblage of residential villages, it has been implemented as one. The County has trickled out the building permits sensibly and has guided the creation of the Community Services District to ensure the supporting infrastructure would be delivered along with the residences.  The Mountain House Community Services District is already looking into how the community can become an incorporated city. However, as the SFist article points out, Mountain House hasn't flowered into completion as planned. Intended commercial functions like retail shopping, restaurants and services have been very slow to emerge - the first grocery store, a Safeway, only opened last year. Planned offices, such as might be used for tech jobs, have not emerged at scale and might not, given the societal shift to remote work. With the County at the helm and waiting for the market (developers) to make things happen based on a 30-year old concept, the prospects for incorporation seem like the eternity of Tantalus, who was condemned to live in a state of perpetual hunger and thirst, plunged into water which, when he went to take a sip, moved away from him, and taunted with a branch full of fruit just above his head, which disappeared out of his reach whenever he tried to pluck a fruit from it. The developer-driven playbook is unlikely to be changed, or even accelerated, unless state laws are revised to enable the community - which currently has 27,000 residents - to have the rights and privileges of local control that are enjoyed by people who live in 482 existing cities in California.

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Real San Joaquin County: Mountain House


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