This is how to build the perfect California city

Construction continues on the University of California, Merced 2020 project in May. Joe Mathews says a successful city needs a research university, preferably with the campus in the central city, not on the outskirts like UC Merced.
Construction continues on the University of California, Merced 2020 project in May. Joe Mathews says a successful city needs a research university, preferably with the campus in the central city, not on the outskirts like UC Merced.

A start-up founder asked: What would you do if you were starting a California city?

My first answer: Get my head examined.


After all, the state of California routinely reduces the revenues and limits the discretion of municipal governments. Our newest cities – such as Menifee in Riverside County – have struggled to survive.

Then I reconsidered. No, I don’t believe in the advanced digital cities that technologists at Google or Y Combinator want to conjure. But maybe you could form a successful city by exploiting California’s present-day realities, rather than bowing to them.

Joe Mathews (1)
Joe Mathews

I certainly know how I wouldn’t start a new city – by electing a government, building expensive housing or hiring police officers and firefighters whose salaries and benefits swallow municipal budgets whole.

Instead, I’d start my California city – call it Joeville – by hiring the most important person in any Golden State municipality: the developer.

Like it or not, cities thrive or wither by the quality of their developers. California open meetings laws greatly restrict public officials from talking freely with each other. As a result, developers become vital communication hubs.

What would my developer work on first? For a great California city, start with a research university.

It’s no accident that highly successful Irvine got a University of California campus in 1965, six years before it incorporated in 1971. Or that Stanford opened in 1891, three years before Palo Alto became a city.

Or consider San Bernardino and Riverside, as James and Deborah Fallows do in their new book “Our Towns.” “Riverside and San Bernardino were similar-sized cities with similar economic prospects at the end of World War II,” they write, but now Riverside is 50 percent bigger. “Their prospects began diverging in the 1960s when Riverside was chosen as the site of a new University of California campus.”

I’d put Joeville’s university in the city center (not on the outskirts like UC Merced) and have my university run the local school district, creating a teachers college in the process. With the schools in place, the developer could develop a tax base.

Under California’s misbegotten tax system, the best-off cities are those that collect the most sales taxes. That’s why retail-poor San Jose, for all its rich homeowners, has a weak city government, and Cerritos, with its auto mall, is rich. My city would be designed around two highly attractive retailers that produce huge sales: Costco and Apple. I’d attach the Apple store to a luxury hotel to tax its rooms, too.

You probably think that, at this point, we’d establish a city government. But local officials in California are so weak as to be useless. Better to let citizens take the lead.

California’s preeminent expert on local participation, Pete Peterson, dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, suggested that Joeville be a charter city with its own mission statement, drafted by residents and recited annually. He also says residents should attend a multi-day “Citizens Academy” to learn the basics of municipal government, including budgeting, so they could run the place themselves.

Peterson says that Joeville could increase citizen engagement through its design. For instance, the city code might require porches to be built on the fronts of houses, with no attached garages.

Once Joeville’s citizens are engaged, we’d be free to set up whatever municipal departments are required. Joeville wouldn’t be afraid to contract out services, especially expensive police and fire, to have more money for libraries and parks.

Now, you’re probably thinking: Wouldn’t Joeville be stopped in its tracks by California regulation and litigation? Yes, which is why we’d lobby state legislators to have the entire city declared a stadium – not for sports, but for civic experimentation, since the state routinely gives regulatory exemptions to stadiums.

California’s nearly 500 cities, struggling with the state’s restrictions on funding and governance, might adopt Joeville’s civic motto: “You’ll Never Win If You Play By California’s Rules.”

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at