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Why tech billionaires are trying to create a new California city

The plan for a new California city
The plan for a new California city 06:13

Starting back in 2017, something mysterious was going on just 90 minutes northeast of San Francisco: a secretive group was purchasing farmland – lots of it, some 60,000 acres – in rural Solano County. Many feared it might be a Chinese government plot to try to set up shop near Travis Air Force Base.

But as The New York Times' Conor Dougherty (who helped break the story) found out, the truth was even stranger than the rumors.

"Like a lot of people, I was chasing it and running into the usual locked doors," said Dougherty. "I got a tip from someone that what was behind the locked doors was the richest people in the world quietly buying all this farmland: Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn and a venture capitalist; Laurene Powell Jobs, the founder of the Emerson Collective and Steve Jobs' widow; Marc Andreessen of Andreesen Horowitz, venture capital firm, just really a who's-who of Silicon Valley was involved in this."

Something else surprising: Within hours of Dougherty's big scoop, this mysterious company launched a website and publicly identified itself as California Forever, an ambitious plan to build a brand-new kind of city for as many as 400,000 residents.

The proposed city would be build in rural  Solano County, not far from Travis Air Force Base.  California Forever

Jan Sramek, a 37-year-old Czech-born, former Goldman Sachs trader-turned-aspiring city-builder, is trying to convince the public that the project isn't just an oasis for billionaires or some high-tech city of the future. His vision: turn all this farmland into a walkable city in the mold of Savannah, Philadelphia, or New York City's West Village. 

"Instead of taking all of these well-paying jobs that are being created in Northern California and sending them to Texas or Florida, let's create a place where we can send them to Solano County," he said.

Artist's rendering of main street in the proposed new city in Solano County. California Forever/Sitelab Urban Studio

So, how could such a city remain a place that middle-class people could even afford? "By continuing to build for a long time," said Sramek. "If we look at why places have become unaffordable, it's because they've just stopped building."

The project's fate will ultimately be decided this November by the voters of Solano County, who have to decide whether or not to overturn a three-decades-old law restricting where new development can go. Sremek's charm offensive have been met with, let's just say, a healthy amount of skepticism by many locals.

"We're gonna have total gridlock," said one man at a public meeting about the proposal.

Locals Al Medvitz and Jeannie McCormack are two of the last holdouts here. Most of their neighbors have sold to California Forever (at far over market value), but they've turned down millions to keep farming the 3,700-acre ranch that has been in Jeannie's family for more than a century. "Having developers come was always a fear [throughout] my whole childhood," said McCormack, "because California was just changing so fast with development in farm areas."

Jeannie McCormack and Al Medvitz on the farm that has been in their family for generations.  CBS News

Many of their neighbors who didn't sell have been sued by California Forever, who has accused them of colluding to raise land prices in the area (a charge they deny).

"The housing is important, there's no question about it," said Medvitz. "But there are appropriate ways to do it."

California Forever is sparing no expense to try to win over county residents, in what The New York Times' Conor Dougherty says could be the most expensive political campaign in the history of Solano County.

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Burbank asked, "The idea that this tech money is being redirected to this very kind of brick-and-mortar thing as an investment is kind of weird to me. Is it just that there's that much money to be made potentially?"

"Everyone thinks I'm crazy when I say this, but I just don't think it's principally about money," said Dougherty. "I think that many of the people involved are extremely frustrated that the pace of change in the physical world has lagged so far behind the pace of change in the digital world." He believes California Forever's motivation is, "If we could redesign everything and not have to deal with all the inherited problems that cities come with, then that would make everything so much easier."

California Forever still has plenty of hurdles to clear, some that may prove impossible.

But Sramek insists this idea of designing and building a relatively-affordable walkable city within the nation's most unaffordable and car-centric state is in fact possible. He says his company has the know-how, the patience, and (critically) the deep pockets to make it a reality.

"To me, success is that, in 10 or 15 years, Solano County is this incredible economic success story that people all over America are looking at and saying, can we replicate that here?" Sramek said.

And does he see himself living there? "Yeah, I'll be moving in the first house!" he replied.

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Story produced by Mark Hudspeth. Editor: Ed Givnish. 

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