back to article Silicon Valley billionaires secretly buy up land for new California city

A gaggle of tech billionaires want to start their own metropolis in California, and they've spent the past five years buying up thousands of acres of land north of the San Francisco Bay Area to do it. No, we're not talking about a new fantasy city in Morro Bay - this dream city of the future lies near Silicon Valley and San …

  1. Nate Amsden Silver badge

    don't forget

    the trillion dollar mega building Saudi Arabia apparently wants to build, to house apparently 5 million people in one building in the desert? Read a couple articles on this new land investment thing going on most of it had to do with national security concerns about the air force base. My only thought was well if the government is so concerned about the area around the base they should have acquired enough land around it in advance so they wouldn't have to worry now, or in the future. (reminds me of Area 51 and the massive area of land around the place that seems devoid of anything).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: don't forget

      don't forget hyperloop...

    2. Toni the terrible Bronze badge

      Re: don't forget

      Arcologies are not a new concept, maybe they intend to incorporate Fremen tech?

  2. DS999 Silver badge

    They keep trying to build in deserts

    Because that's where land is cheap, and is where they don't want to live.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

      Yeah, and it always works out like California City or Arcosanti. How many grand visions either lie in ruin in the desert or never were more than tracks in the sand and wishful thinking.

      A dream of empire doth not an empire make.

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

        "Yeah, and it always works out like California City or Arcosanti."

        I'll have to look up Arcosanti, but I know California City is still a going city. It's close to Edwards Air Force Base and Mojave Airport and Spaceport. They also have a prison out there so I imagine the staff would live in town. The grand plan of building another Palm Springs was a bust and lots of people still hold worthless parcels of land that may never do more than cost money in property taxes every year. I wonder how much of the land is owned by the county/state after being foreclosed for overdue tax.

    2. david 12 Silver badge

      Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

      Not like most American cities -- built on prime agricultural land, with dependable water supplies for farming.

      Personally, I think that putting the people where things can't be grown is a sensible option.

      1. DS999 Silver badge

        Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

        The reason most cities are on land that would otherwise be good for farming is because most cities were built near water until railroads and later interstate highways made it feasible to locate cities shipping couldn't reach.

      2. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

        The problem is that, if you put people in places where nothing grows, you will be spending a lot more resources doing things like delivering stuff to them and insulating them from the reasons that stuff won't grow. Large cities in the desert need lots of water, which obviously isn't there since it's a desert. Some ones will be lucky enough to be large cities in a desert near the coast, so desalinization is an option. However, with a country like the US, there is a lot of desert that's not near the ocean, meaning that if you put too many people there, you'll quickly drain the water that's nearby. A few large rivers, when people try to use them to provide water for millions of people and, where possible, agriculture, is going to cause serious damage to that river. You also have increased risk of fires in a place like that, and it is difficult to prevent fires from being dangerous or to keep rebuilding stuff when the fires have destroyed it.

        At current levels of food production, do we really need to use all arable land for agriculture to the extent that cities are preventing us from doing so? There is more arable land in other parts of the continent which isn't farmed for various reasons, including environmental concerns and more complicated transportation routes. This is only relevant if we're building entirely new cities, since most existing cities were put on arable land because, when they were founded, they were getting more of their food supply either from the surrounding land or near the river that served as the primary method of long-range transportation, and now that there is a city there, it's not worth moving it.

        1. YARR

          Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

          To substitute fossil fuel use we would need large areas of arable land to grow crops that can be converted to ethanol etc. so the demand is there.

          Yes historically humans are lazy so use the best land first, including building on good arable land. There are many grades of land according to soil type drainage etc, so often there is land that is poor for agriculture not far from existing cities, which would make sense to develop first, while ring fencing good arable land for food or energy production. In general water can be piped tens of miles to where people live at reasonable cost. Agriculture uses more water per unit of land than people, so land closest to water sources should be prioritised for agriculture.

          1. doublelayer Silver badge

            Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

            "In general water can be piped tens of miles to where people live at reasonable cost."

            We're not talking about tens of miles. North America is a large continent. If you're living in the southwest desert region, you can be hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean. The solution they've used thus far is to pipe water from a river. This has caused some problems with all the people trying to use the same river for agriculture and cities, and that's with most of that desert still empty. If we tried to move people over there and build more cities for them to live in so they're not living where land is arable, then you'd need a lot more water. What they're doing now is likely not sustainable for the river, and there's no way they could manage to increase without much worse. You can of course build a really long pipe to bring water in from the coast, but that's expensive and so a lot of people will be trying to find some reason why they don't have to do it because how much does this farm take from the river, it can't hurt that much can it?

            As for ethanol-based fuels, one reason people want to stop using fossil fuels is because they produce pollution including carbon dioxide and methane, which ethanol doesn't fix. It fixes some problems, but not all of them. Meanwhile, you could put solar panels in a desert where there is little obstruction for sunlight as a more efficient power source, although that too has its problems with the need for water to keep the panels clean and isn't a perfect power source. You could argue for keeping people out of desert areas for solar about as easily as keeping them away from arable land for ethanol.

        2. Toni the terrible Bronze badge

          Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

          Copy the Ozzie Opal Miners and build underground...

          1. Mike 16

            Building underground?

            Been done:

            https://undergroundgardens.com/about-us/

            The Forestiere Underground Gardens, in Fresno California.

            IIRC, the precipitating event was a would-be farmer finding out that his

            newly purchased (sight unseen) land was not really so agricultural.

            But of course the notice of selling land that doesn't quite match

            the sales pitch is all in the past, right?

      3. jmch Silver badge

        Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

        Prime agricultural land usually is prime agricultural land exactly because of dependable water supply. If one were building a human settlement,the number 1 requirement would be a dependable water supply. That's why cities tend to be near rivers and lakes, and even ones that are on the coast usually have a river either close by or running right through the city.

        Locations which are prime areas for human settlement have already been settled by humans for hundreds or even thousands of years. Ergo, anyone wanting to build a brand-new city, pretty much by definition, will have to find a non-ideal location.

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

          Though in California, "prime agricultural land" often means "land where large agricultural conglomerates can bribe Reclamation into ignoring their rampant violations of the law while draining the Colorado River and pumping ancient aquifers dry".

          There's no question California has a housing crisis, but it also has a water disaster which is only going to get much, much worse (unless they turn it into an energy disaster by trying to ramp up large-scale desalinization). Congress could in theory alleviate this somewhat by purging Reclamation and re-staffing it with people actually willing to enforce the law, which would greatly cut down on how much water is taken by the ag conglomerates, but in reality California has far too much political power for that to happen, and, hey, we want cheap almonds now rather than water tomorrow, right?

          (Though eventually all that irrigation will ruin all the arable soil anyway. Keep flushing those salts out of the high country into your fields, kids. We've known since Babylon that eventually the dropping osmotic pressure and defloccination of soil will make it impossible for you to grow useful crops. This has happened to every irrigating culture in history, except the ones like Egypt (prior to building dams) that used natural flooding, which deposits fresh, low-salt soil. In the not so distant future California's agricultural sector is screwed, and it's their own damn fault.)

          1. Toni the terrible Bronze badge

            Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

            Energy Crisis? Just build more nukes, just not on the faults amd solar farms....

          2. MachDiamond Silver badge

            Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

            "There's no question California has a housing crisis, but it also has a water disaster which is only going to get much, much worse "

            California has a population crisis. It's not the cheapest place to live, but it does have very generous free-money programs for the druggies/insane/unemployed so it attracts people that really can't afford to live there. The state is also good at fixating on things like a rare fish that may, or may not, still be existent that holds up lots of water development. They don't invest in water storage even to keep pace with a growing population much less a worldwide demand for crops grown in California.

            Forget annual river floods refreshing an agricultural area each year. There's too many people on the planet to feed to have that sort of reliance on nature.

      4. Bebu Silver badge
        Big Brother

        Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

        《putting the people where things can't be grown is a sensible option.》

        Putting these insatiable billionaires inside an active volcano would have to be favourite.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

      What’s wrong with Detroit ?

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

        Tech babies don't like snowy winters.

      2. Toni the terrible Bronze badge

        Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

        far too many things to list

      3. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: They keep trying to build in deserts

        "What’s wrong with Detroit ?"

        If one tried to enumerate all of the things, they text box would get very fuzzy.

  3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
    Joke

    He needs to hire the Boring Co.

    Dig a big tunnel to the nearest source of open water, looking at the map that might be Grizzly Bay, and install some revolutionary solar powered de-salinisation plant to water the city, job done :-)

    Based on Musks claims, it should be eminently doable, likewise for his own enclave near Austin, only, what, about 200Km to the coast? Musk slar storage batteries ought to be useful in this case too to keep those desalinator running in the dark.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: He needs to hire the Boring Co.

      Musk solar storage batteries ought to be useful in this case too to keep those desalinator running in the dark.

      Or make it easy to find in them dark, given their propensity to catch fire..

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: He needs to hire the Boring Co.

      Kind of surprising Musk hasn't resurrected the Bureau of Reclamation's plan to buy water from British Columbia. That involved a lot of digging. And siphons. And general supervillain-level madness.

  4. steelpillow Silver badge
    Windows

    Arcosanti

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arcosanti

    For my sins I remember it rising from the desert during the 1970s.

    You did have to be mad to work there, and it didn't help...

    I guess what Arizona can do today, California can throw money at tomorrow.

  5. Paul Herber Silver badge
    Holmes

    Just build a Perkins AFB next to Travis AFB and people will be able to buy stuff to build their own homes.

  6. MysteryGuy

    So, not 'Rapture'?

    When I first saw that Musk wanted to build a city, 'Rapture' from the game Bioshock came to mind for some reason...

    1. Korev Silver badge
    2. low_resolution_foxxes

      Re: So, not 'Rapture'?

      Ha

      I want my genetic enhancements!

    3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: So, not 'Rapture'?

      I thought of Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits, which goes nicely with Musk's belligerence.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A fantastic idea

    A walled-in community where we keep all of the rich and ensure their money is used so that they can’t get out and upset the real world …

    It could probably be energy self-sufficient using wind and egotricity.

  8. ecofeco Silver badge

    Galt's Gulch

    This NEVER works. Tech douche bros and fintech douche bros are so out of touch with reality it's not even funny any more.

  9. Howard Sway Silver badge

    they've spent the past five years buying up thousands of acres of land

    Could the mayor or the council not just pass a law renaming the area Asshole City? That would look great on the maps and all their mail.

    1. NeilPost Silver badge

      Re: they've spent the past five years buying up thousands of acres of land

      The irony of a secretive Flannery Ass. making a land-grab, and at the same time complaining about existing land owners colliding to jack up land prices is not lost on me:

  10. Claverhouse Silver badge
    Happy

    Those Who Live By The Sword

    Since then, Flannery has filed a lawsuit [PDF] against local property owners, accusing them of colluding to boost property prices.

    I always thought the essence of Capitalism was Buy Low --- Sell High combined with Never Give A Sucker An Even Break.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Diaspar ?

    or Lys ?

    1. LybsterRoy Silver badge

      Re: Diaspar ?

      It depends on whether or not there's a very old spaceship nearby.

  12. Marty McFly Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    Two words

    "Company Town"

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Company_town

    And I have to comment... If it was such a great area to live, then it would have been developed already.

  13. IGotOut Silver badge

    Something tells me...

    this not going to be the next Bournville.

    1. Rikki Tikki

      Re: Something tells me...

      Of course not, Birmingham isn't a desert - at least not the climate.

      Takes me back to my high school - we could see (and sometimes smell) Bournville from the playing fields.

    2. Natalie Gritpants Jr

      Re: Something tells me...

      More like the Bournville Estate in Weston-super-Mare. Try Street view on that and remove all the greenery.

  14. Tron Silver badge

    Flannery Row.

    By the time a new city was built, the billionaires would all be very old or dead and California would be uninhabitable. You have to be younger to build a city.

    If you do want to do this in the Southern half of the US, the first thing to sort out is industrial scale desalination.

    You can have your daily needs shrunk by a high court judge: The 15 minute city concept is just a garden prison.

    1. LybsterRoy Silver badge

      Re: Flannery Row.

      -- By the time a new city was built --

      All you need is a very large 3D printer

    2. Korev Silver badge

      Re: Flannery Row.

      You can have your daily needs shrunk by a high court judge: The 15 minute city concept is just a garden prison.

      I traded in the "freedom" of sitting in traffic for 40 minutes for a 12 minute commute on my bike and I don't miss it at all. Shopping is a 5 minute walk to a supermarket and I go to a weekly market. I wouldn't want to go back to a car-dominated lifestyle.

      I've also dropped a couple of clothing sizes since moving over here.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        Re: Flannery Row.

        I'm glad you are able to benefit from it. Just be aware that not everyone is.

    3. JoeCool Bronze badge

      think of it this way

      Corporations have an infinite life time, and are used to convey those billions forward to all of the future generations.

  15. MachDiamond Silver badge

    A few good ideas

    I like the thinking behind some of these proposed projects, but they have the tendency of going too far and ignoring how things happen in the real world. This particular project is a concern to at least me as it paves over agriculture land and is sat right next to an important military base where nobody that works at the base would be able to afford to live in the project.

    I really like "Oath of Fealty" by Larry Niven, but I can see many of the places where it would fall down if somebody tried to build it. I can see a modified version being applied to a large ghost mall if there would be a city flexible enough to allow a mix of office businesses, retail, light industrial and residential in one development. It would be easy to incorporate things like grocery delivery if that was built into the design from the beginning.

    1. jmch Silver badge

      Re: A few good ideas

      "nobody that works at the base would be able to afford to live in the project."

      Absolutely this.

      It seems to me like a lot of developers have grand ideas of luxury living, newest technology, all-singing-and-dancing bells and whistles, everything is the latest and greatest. Obviously with a cost to match. Meanwhile, what is actually needed, in very large volumes, is cheap, affordable housing. Clean, sturdy, well-insulated, reliable water, drainage and and electricity, easily-maintainable, good transport connections, a few local shops. Not fun, not sexy, not grand.

  16. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

    Subscriptionville

    There's a reason not many people live in that area - it's a hellish commute to any major city. You'd essentially have to move if you lost your local job. That narrows down potential inhabitants to renters rather than buyers. H1B visas, recent graduates, seasonal workers, and others not in a position to demand a salary raise.

    So, this really is an evil genius plan. You get cheap labor and they all pay a subscription to live there. If someone isn't working enough weekend hours you can remind how high the bridge tolls are to work elsewhere. Maybe you even change local entertainment business hours to make sure nobody is out having fun when they should be working.

  17. Michael Hoffmann Silver badge

    What will they call it?

    Will they call it "Elysium"? Or is that still reserved for Space Karen's future billionaires-only space utopia?

    As for thousands of jobs: will they live *in* the city, in appropriate slave and serf quarters, of course, probably underground, so as not to spoil the view with favellas? Or drudge in and out like the the throngs in Metropolis? The AFB won't be a problem - I'm waiting for the day when they finally have their own private armies. Russia sort of shows how it's done.

    1. NeilPost Silver badge

      Re: What will they call it?

      The restaurant quarter will be called Neom-Neom-Neom-Neom.

    2. Toni the terrible Bronze badge

      Re: What will they call it?

      Private Military Corporations (PMC) existing forever as mercenaries e.g., The White Company etc

  18. JustAnotherDistro

    Ozymandias

    See title.

  19. ChoHag Silver badge
    Holmes

    If the land is so valuable to them that they want it so badly, and they're hiding their desires and activities begind a collective front, isn't that colluding to keep the prices low so that billionaires can steal the locals' land for a pittance before they realise what's going on?

    Hmm... Where have we seen that one before?

  20. Potemkine! Silver badge

    This kind of projects shows clearly those billionaires have way too much money and are not properly taxed.

    1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
      Alert

      A downvote - is there a billionaire (or aspiring one) amongst us?

  21. well meaning but ultimately self defeating

    Because giving money to SF to make it better works

    You seem to have an implicit assumption that someone giving money to SF could improve if. Unfortunately this has been shown quite drastically to not be the case.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    purchase of land surrounding Travis Air Force Base

    perhaps somebody knows something about the 'de-developement' of that base that is not available in public sources, no? Otherwise, they wouldn't have bothered, eh?

    p.s. but perhaps there's prior art regarding this, i.e. apocryphical spade-sellers in the times of the gold-rush. Perhaps, in times of (unavoidable, imminent, etc) post-civilisation collapse, rocky desert is a spade, if not a bridge, that I have to sell to you?

  23. Fido

    Another example of a model city built in the desert is Fatehpur Sikri founded by Akbar in 1571 and abandoned in 1610. Presumably, it was abandoned due to lack of water, however, it's possible that Akbar simply lost interest.

    Losing interest is also possible in California, especially if the whole point is for certain people to enjoy spending a share of the proceeds. From that point of view, it would be more efficient to sell shares of a gold mine that doesn't have any gold or perhaps an AI startup.

    1. Toni the terrible Bronze badge

      Pharoh Tut's Dads Capital City also?

  24. EricB123 Bronze badge

    Ground Floor Opportunity

    Does anyone know of a REIT that specialized in billionaire utopia cities? Man, I definitely want to get in on the ground floor on this exciting investment opportunity!

  25. Jim Whitaker
    Mushroom

    Think of it as evolution in action

    Read Oath of Fealty by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle to see how Todos Santos gets on.

  26. Swashbuckled

    Billionaire Cities

    I’d put money on Peter Thiel being one of those secretive billionaires. Palantir has inserted its data systems and influence into global defence, US law enforcement and UK health on a previously unimaginable scale. If you control data, and the access to that data; and when that data gives you the power to manipulate the personal information of millions of people, you have the potential capacity to rule the world.

    If you also happen to be a Trump-funding, alt-right fanatic who states openly that democracy is not compatible with capitalism, then we’re in deep dwang.

    The connection with this article is that Thiel and others like him have been advocating for “closed” cities for years - where only billionaires can live, and which exclude the rest of us mere mortals. We are simply to be the worker ants of the colony - expendable bits and pieces. The cities will apparently be designed so the occupants (not us) can be protected from the ravages of climate change and the subsequent eventual breakdown of society.

    I can provide links to those assertions, btw.

  27. Cliffwilliams44 Bronze badge

    Prisoners

    Number Six: Where am I?

    Number Two (not identified as yet): In the village.

    Six: What do you want?

    Two: Information.

    Six: Whose side are you on?

    Two: That would be telling. We want information...information... information!!!

    Six: You won't get it!

    Two: By hook or by crook, we will.

    Six: Who are you?

    Two: The new Number Two.

    Six: Who is Number One?

    Two: You are Number Six.

    Six (running on the Village's beach): I am not a number; I am a free man!!!

    Two: [Laughter]

    1. Mike 16

      Re: Prisoners

      And here I was thinking Rover was bouncing across _beach_ sand, when it is actually desert.

      (Note: a Lottery here in California has started using a larger, red, version of Rover in its ads.

      So maybe you have some tiny chance of getting rich and a larger chance of being smothered)

  28. Pink Duck

    For humans?

    Or robotic factory workers charging from solar?

    1. Toni the terrible Bronze badge

      Re: For humans?

      but they still need resources for those factories

  29. Jamie Jones Silver badge
    Trollface

    "Flannery Town, or whatever it would end up being called, is hardly the first future supercity to be proposed by the ultra-wealthy, nor the first to want to plop itself down in a region that's generally inhospitable to human habitation."

    Nope, that would be Milton Keynes.

    </cheapshot>

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Devil

      It's still better than Luton, or Bedford.

      Also, I rather happen to like a good roundabout...

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Other stories you might like