Building land is a scarce commodity in Silicon Valley. Things are completely different north of San Francisco: extensive farms are lined up here, and there is no shortage of space. Investors from the packed south sense an opportunity.
A look at the world map shows that there is a gaping void between Sacramento, Stockton and the comparatively small town of Fairfield in California. Apart from Travis Air Force Base, there isn’t much to see in this area. Farm follows farm, national parks border in the south of the area. And yet: If you want to get from Fairfield to the cosmopolitan city of San Francisco, you only need 45 minutes by car. It is therefore a special feature that there is still nature and almost endless expanses there – because the south, where the world-famous Silicon Valley has emerged in recent decades, is bursting at the seams.
It’s quite possible that Solano County, as the district in the barren north is called, will soon be out of peace. Because like the “New York Timesreported, a company called Flannery has quietly acquired enormous amounts of land totaling around $800 million over the past five years offered the usual market price for their property – apparently quite a few grabbed it.
Deals in the quiet little room
Flannery had been the talk of the area for years – but the company kept a low profile and negotiated behind closed doors. Until the spring of 2023, it was not clear who was actually behind it and where the money came from. Rumors circulated that Disney might be planning a new park in the area. Chinese investors were also mentioned – which made the adjacent US Air Force base sit up and take notice.
Now it is clear: neither. According to the “New York Times”, Flannery is a man named Jan Sramek, a former banker at Goldman Sachs. In 2017, together with venture capitalist Michael Moritz, he approached the financial giants in nearby Silicon Valley with a special idea. Because the space problem around the headquarters of Apple, Facebook, Google and almost all American tech companies has been giving them headaches for years.
His vision: A completely new city could be built north of San Francisco. A Mecca for new approaches, modern solutions for urban living and sustainable urban development. “Thousands of jobs,” Flannery promised potential investors right from the start – and high returns.
It was only found out comparatively late that the property purchases were a coordinated campaign. In the spring, Flannery went to court on allegations of price-fixing by the landowners. They were forced to identify themselves, although the case apparently could ultimately be settled out of court.
Well-known figures from the Valley are on board
Overall, the plans were apparently well received. Three people who are familiar with the people in the background listed the current donors to the “New York Times”. These include Linkedin co-founder Reid Hoffmann, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, Stripe founders Patrick and John Collison, Github CEO Nat Friedman and entrepreneur Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.
Flannery promises the lenders a “spectacular investment”. Officially, the money invested is expected to be multiplied – especially if a new city is actually built there at some point and the property value has been massively increased.
But there is a very big and so far unsolved problem – Flannery knows it too. All of the land that the Company has acquired over the past few years is currently unapproved for commercial use and residential development. They want to have this approval voted on site as early as next year – otherwise it can’t go any further.
Because of this, Flannery is slowly revealing himself outside of court. The company recently asked local politicians to meet to explain the plans. They are confident of victory towards investors and promise that this will at least slow down the many problems and hardships in the south, i.e. rising real estate prices, homelessness and traffic jams.
Crushed at the ballot box
Duane Kromm, who served on Solano County’s Board of Supervisors from 1999 to 2007, sees the merits of the new mega-city differently. Opposite “SF Chroniclehe explains that similar companies that have pursued similar goals in the past have been “crushed at the ballot box”. “Paving over farmland is not a good thing,” he explained.
Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson, who represents the area where the land was acquired, among others, agrees in the SF Chronicle. “Local people make a living supporting American households. It’s totally unreasonable to think that they (Flannery) can just come and put them out of business,” Thompson said.
Aside from a lack of water in the area, which should make building a city difficult, Kromm is bothered by something else entirely. “People with money have their own goals, but what worries a lot of us here is the way they came in like a bull in a china shop,” he told the newspaper. “It has become clear that they have no sensitivity to the local community. The damage they are causing to family businesses and people who have known each other for generations is unimaginable. It is tearing a large part of our community apart.”
Castles in the air from the Valley
Flannery finds an advocate in Matt Regan, senior vice president of public policy at the Bay Area Council. In the “SF Chronicle” he regrets that it is people from business who want to push ahead with the expansion of the infrastructure and not the state, but concedes that the project has realistic chances. “We’re dealing with a number of very, very smart investors,” he said. “If you’re serious about this company, I wouldn’t bet against it.”
It is far from the first project by Silicon Valley billionaires who want a new home for their projects. Peter Thiel finances a project for city-like communities on the oceanwho could have lived free from laws and governments. The start-up center Y Combinator was already dreaming of better cities in 2016. So far, none of these ideas have come true.