California Forever, the quixotic, billionaire-backed effort to craft a new city out of $800 million in Bay Area farmland parcels, continues to struggle. The project, which is owned by an opaque parent company, Flannery Associates, and backed by a slew of Silicon Valley luminaries, envisions a utopian new community nestled in Solano county. Backers of the project have promised locals new jobs, economic growth, a vibrant, “walkable” community, and local infrastructure improvements, but, so far, opposition has been stiff.
Over the past few weeks, the company has held a series of “town halls” designed to give county residents the opportunity to hear more about the project and ask questions. It’s also the project developers’ first real opportunity to engage with the community that they want to totally remake. If you were to qualify these recent town halls in terms of local enthusiasm, it’s inarguable that they have been, so far, an abysmal failure. The word that keeps getting used to describe them is “heated,” which seems to be code for: locals really fucking hate this idea.
Joey Horta, a local journalist who attended the first town hall in Vallejo on Nov. 29th, described the event as “tense” and said that the bottom line seemed to be that local residents “don’t want this in their backyard.”
Video from that meeting shows residents yelling things like “shame on you” at the company’s CEO, former Goldman Sachs trader Jan Sramek, while also complaining about what the project could do to the local economy and housing prices. Another outlet characterized the event as being shot through with “outbursts, accusations and disdain” and said that the audience effectively mutinied against the event’s originally designated structure. There weren’t supposed to be any questions from the audience during the organizers’ presentation, but, at some point, residents apparently just started heckling Sramek’s in the middle of his prepared comments.
At the next town hall, held in Rio Vista on Tuesday night, things didn’t go much better. At this event, a small gaggle of protesters stood outside the building holding signs and, inside, locals were again described as being extremely hostile. “How do you expect anyone in this room or the county to believe what you’re saying?” one man asked the event’s organizers.
There’s another town hall tonight, and yet another tomorrow. A final one will take place on Dec. 18th. I’m going to hazard a guess that all of these meetings, like the previous ones, won’t go well. The fact of the matter is that, these days, it’s just sorta hard to trust a group of billionaires who claim they want to make the world a better place. The average, non-billionaire in the U.S. has seen enough hedonism and greed from that demographic over the past few decades that, whether Sramek and his cohort are earnestly trying to do a good thing or not, public opinion is just not on their side.
Problematically, this really seems like a project that will not survive without local support. For the group’s plans to move ahead, they will need to win a county ballot initiative next year that would allow development of the city to continue. To do that, they obviously need locals to like them.
On the public relations front, however, California Forever seems to have already shot itself in the foot multiple times. For one thing, it’s currently suing a group of farmers over land negotiations related to the project. The company accuses these farmers of “price fixing,” while the farmers in question have argued that California Forever used “strong arm tactics” in an effort to pry loose land from them. Whatever the truth behind the scandal, it has certainly made it look like the company is playing hard ball with longtime county residents—not exactly a good look for a group that claims it wants to “help” the local community.