Despite downtown SF's current rough patch, prominent business leaders are investing in it

ByTim Johns KGO logo
Friday, May 12, 2023
Despite vacancies, prominent business leaders invest in SF
Despite all of the vacancies in downtown San Francisco, prominent business leaders are investing in it.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Office vacancies in downtown San Francisco hit their highest level ever in the first quarter of this year. But despite all this, some local CEOs say they're doubling down on San Francisco and still believe the Bay Area is the place to be.

For Bay Area native Chris Larsen, San Francisco current troubles are nothing new.

"We've seen this many times before. You know San Francisco is a story of boom, bust and, kind of, reinvention."

For much of the last decade, the city was in a fantastic boom.

New, gleaming skyscrapers, exponential economic growth and a tech sector that seemed like it would never crash.

But the good times did come to an end - thanks largely to the pandemic and the advent of work from home.

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Now, many of those same skyscrapers sit empty downtown, nearly a third off all office space is vacant, and business after business is seemingly fleeing the city.

"This is one of those transformations you haven't seen in 50 plus years," said Chris Larsen.

Chris Larsen is a CEO and investor. He tells ABC7 News despite this difficult period, he thinks the city's future is bright.

That's why his tech company, Ripple, is bucking the trend.

They recently signed a lease for a new, 130,000 square foot headquarters downtown.

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"I think it's the most creative and accepting place on the planet, which is why you see so much innovation coming out of here. That's not a coincidence," Larsen said.

Larsen says the city certainly has its share of challenges to deal with, most notably public safety concerns and homelessness.

But he rejects the notion that San Francisco is dying, saying the economic foundations of the past are still sound.

Data from the Bay Area Council backs that up.

Consider these stats.

Of the 10 most valuable companies in the country, six of them are based in the region.

Between 2020 and 2022, of the companies worth more than $10 billion that went public, two-thirds were from the Bay Area.

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New businesses are moving in, expanding, or adding residential and office spaces in San Francisco's Union Square.

And for companies worth more than $1 billion? The Bay Area also topped that list.

"For really world changing ideas to take root and thrive, you need a population and environment that is supportive of people who think differently," said Randy Howder.

Ripple isn't alone.

Randy Howder is the co-managing director of Gensler - the world's largest architecture firm.

They too are investing millions and moving to a new space in the historic Mills Building on Montgomery Street.

"Art Gensler himself came from New York in the 60s and was able to create this company that really changed the face of our industry. And I think that was only possible by being here," Howder said.

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As the city goes through this latest transformation, Gensler is working with elected leaders.

A growing trend of local companies stepping up to do more to help San Francisco.

Howder tells me one thing Gensler is focusing on, is helping the city rethink downtown and the potential of converting empty office space to homes.

"Thinking differently about development, about who belongs in the neighborhood and how we can kind of transform it to be something that's more of a destination," Howder said.

So what comes next for the city by the bay?

The truth is, nobody knows for certain.

But one thing both Larsen and Howder are sure of, that despite the rough patch now, there's nowhere they'd rather be than San Francisco.

"There's a whole cottage industry of people who love to predict San Francisco's demise and they've been proven wrong every time," Howder said.

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