February 17, 2024

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Today's Smart Brevityโ„ข count is 1,217 words โ€” a 4ยฝ-minute read.

1 big thing: VC joins San Francisco mayor's race

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Venture capitalist Mark Farrell this week jumped into the race to become San Francisco's next mayor.

Why it matters: He's running at a time of unprecedented civic engagement by major players and investors in the local tech sector.

The big picture: Farrell is no stranger to San Francisco's City Hall โ€” or even the job of mayor. While serving as a district supervisor he briefly became interim mayor following Ed Lee's death in 2017, amid a controversial decision by his colleagues.

  • His most recent private sector job is managing director of Thayer Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm focused on the travel industry. The firm's most prominent investment is Sonder, a cross between a hotel and a short-term rental operator.
  • If elected, he pledges to put his investment holdings in a blind trust.

What he's saying: "I'm running for mayor not to have City Hall conduct business as usual โ€” I believe we need to challenge the status quo at every level," he tells Axios.

Zooming in: Farrell's initial campaign message is heavily focused on public safety, and touting other projects like building more housing, that appeal to the tech set.

  • Policing: He's calling for a new police department chief, increasing the city's police staff and tells Axios he favors high-tech methods like facial recognition technology.
  • Homelessness: Farrell pledges to clear encampments from the streets, and wants to improve the city's resources to help unhoused people. "We will offer them shelter or housing but if they say no, will make it inconvenient for them to live on the street," he says. "I believe that the streets belong to everybody."
  • Self-driving cars: "I believe that autonomous vehicles are the future โ€ฆ despite a few incidents on our roads, they are still safer than human drivers," he says. Companies still need to operate transparently with regulators and the public given the high stakes of road safety, he adds.
  • Downtown: Along with improving "the conditions of our streets," Farrell tells Axios that the city should give tax breaks to employers โ€” but only if they require some in-office days, and eschew having in-house gyms and cafeterias that enable workers to avoid patronizing local businesses.

Between the lines: Farrell will have to compete for the tech industry's moderate-left votes against Mayor London Breed, Supervisor Ahsha Safaรญ, and Daniel Lurie, a local philanthropist and heir to the Levi Strauss fortune.

  • Steven Buss, director of left-leaning political group GrowSF which counts tech execs among its leadership, tells Axios that the organization has met with Farrell and the other candidates, but hasn't decided who to endorse yet.
  • TogetherSF, which also has strong backing from tech investors like Mike Moritz, counts former Farrell staffers among its ranks.

Yes, but: Farrell's City Hall experience also means he has a record in office for voters to scrutinize, and potentially hold against him, at the voting booth in November.

The bottom line: "I believe [San Francisco] can be fixed and it's worth saving," he tells Axios when asked about a venture-backed project brewing Northeast of San Francisco to build a new city.

2. Silicon Valley's next big thing: A new city

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A well-funded project to modify Solano County's master plan will soon begin gathering signatures to get on November's ballot.

Why it matters: If successful, this will be a significant step towards the project's ultimate goal of building an entirely new city. California Forever's architects โ€” and the Silicon Valley billionaires funding it โ€” believe their plan will cure the Bay Area's land use woes.

Catch up quick: California Forever is the brainchild of Czech-born former Goldman Sachs trader and entrepreneur Jan Sramek.

  • He came up with the idea after a yearlong exploration of improving housing availability within the city promised not to be an effective solution, he tells Axios.
  • He's since raised over $800 million from investors like Mike Moritz, Reid Hoffman, Marc Andreessen, John and Patrick Collison, Laurene Powell Jobs, Chris Dixon, John Doerr, Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, and Andreessen Horowitz.
  • The company also quietly amassed more than 50,000 acres of land it bought from residents, suing some of them for price collusion.

The big picture: The project's pitch is that the new city will alleviate some of the Bay Area's housing problems and fill out the region connecting it to Sacramento.

  • Recently unveiled plans heavily borrow from New Urbanism, emphasizing walkable neighborhoods and a mix of housing (both for sale and rent) at varying prices.

Zooming in: Part of the plan is to bring in at least 15,000 jobs.

  • To achieve that, California Forever is in talks to get companies to open satellite offices there, says Sramek. He's reaching out to well-known tech employers and companies in industries like defense, aerospace, advanced manufacturing, and biotech that need space for facilities.
  • "It's not an expansion for the daily commute โ€” it's an expansion where you might go once a week to see your team or something like that," he says.

Yes, but: Sramek admits that better train connectivity to the rest of the region will be a separate challenge that is much more out of its control.

  • "I think there should be a high-speed train between San Francisco and Sacramento.... If we were in Europe, you could be there in 45 minutes," he says.
  • While he says California Forever would nevertheless reduce vehicle miles traveled, it's hard not to have environmental concerns about a whole new city of people driving cars to San Francisco and back.

Between the lines: California Forever is a "risky real estate project" and, as such, its backers expect high returns, says Sramek.

  • But while the endeavor is much riskier in the beginning given the high level of uncertainty, it's expected to become more akin to a traditional real estate investment over the long term, according to a source familiar with the project.

And if this doesn't work? The group could develop the land piecemeal, says Sramek.

  • But, he cautions, it wouldn't be able to convince employers to set up shop there, nor be able to make the various community guarantees it included in its proposal.

The bottom line: Some Silicon Valley investors may have entirely written off the Bay Area, but others are doubling down and trying to reshape it via one of their most ambitious bets.

๐Ÿ“š Due Diligence

  • The farmers had what the billionaires wanted (NYT)
  • "This hasn't been done before": can tech elites build their own city โ€“ and win over the skeptics? (The Guardian)
  • Mark Farrell enters SF mayor's race โ€” rips London Breed as "a mayor without a vision" (Mission Local)

๐Ÿงฉ Trivia

California Forever spent several years buying up land in secrecy, hiding its identity and ambitions from sellers and local officials.

  • Question: What world-renowned American company took this approach for its projects in the 1960s? (Answer at the bottom.)

๐Ÿงฎ Final Numbers

Image: Courtesy of California Forever

California Forever's proposed city and zoning plan.

๐Ÿ™ Thanks for reading! And to Javier E. David and Steven Patrick for editing. See you Tuesday for Pro Rata's weekday programming, and please ask your friends, colleagues and New Urbanists to sign up.

Trivia Anwer: Disney. It secretly acquired land in the Orlando, Florida, area where it eventually built Disney World. The project also included a planned community, though founder Walt Disney's death left the community, which later became EPCOT, unfinished. The town of Celebration, Florida, was later developed following some of the community's original principles.