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Politics & Policy

Mayoral candidate calls for bringing cars back to Market Street

Mark Farrell, a candidate for mayor of San Francisco, said the city is in a 'doom loop' and has become a national punchline under Mayor London Breed.

A man in a suit is speaking at a podium with microphones, gesturing with a raised fist, showing enthusiasm or making a point.
Mark Farrell, a former San Francisco mayor and supervisor, formally announced his candidacy at the San Francisco Baseball Academy on Tuesday. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Mark Farrell came out swinging in his campaign kickoff Tuesday to regain the title of San Francisco mayor, taking shots at Mayor London Breed and pledging to fire the police chief.

But one of the most passionate calls to action by the former supervisor and 44th mayor of the city came when Farrell addressed the Grim Reaper of narratives plaguing San Francisco: the doom loop

City officials and business leaders have fretted over whether San Francisco’s budget crisis, an exodus of residents, and a cratering commercial real estate market will tip San Francisco over a fiscal cliff that will fuel an irrevocable downward spiral.

Farrell suggested those fears have already been realized.

“We have a doom loop, and we are losing our mantle as a world-class city,” Farrell said. “We are literally now being compared to Detroit and Oakland. That is not the conversation where San Francisco belongs. We know we can’t increase the vibrancy of our local economy without first tackling public safety and the conditions of our streets.”

Part of Farrell’s plan to reinvigorate the local economy includes slashing local business taxes for companies that make less than $5 million in annual revenue, but a more buzzy plan would involve rescinding a 2019 decision to ban private vehicles from Market Street, the city’s main downtown corridor.

“It’s actually scary how empty downtown is,” Farrell said. “We need to do everything possible to create throughput and commerce and bring people back and welcome people back to the downtown core. It’s a small step, but it’s a meaningful step.”

A long view of a commercial corridor at night. The streets are empty and lit with streetlights.
Critics of the Market Street car ban say it's contributed to a desolate feeling in downtown San Francisco. | Source: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Arpit Gupta, an associate professor of finance at the New York University Stern School of Business, was among the first to bring the term “doom loop” back into the lexicon in a study looking at the shift to remote work during the pandemic and the harm it could cause when coupled with an “office real estate apocalypse.”

Many workers have not returned to San Francisco’s downtown offices since the start of the pandemic, and the city’s commercial real estate vacancy rate climbed to nearly 36% in December, an alarming increase of three percentage points since the fall. 

Gupta told The Standard on Tuesday afternoon that he doesn’t believe San Francisco has entered a doom loop.

“The loss of work from remote work provides the early triggers for a destabilizing event. I think the initial stress is there,” Gupta said. “The question is how policymakers ultimately respond to that and the next steps.”

While the warning signs are real, Gupta noted the “booming” AI industry in San Francisco and the vibrant venture capital community, which includes Farrell’s firm, Thayer Ventures. (He promised Wednesday to put his assets in a blind trust if elected mayor).

“San Francisco is going to remain a hub for innovation, I imagine,” Gupta said. “The questions pertain to whether the city is going to fill some of that office space and retain residents and attract new residents to be a vibrant destination.”

He added, “You could see a world where San Francisco doesn’t disappear but remains diminished.”

A man stands at a podium as a crowd stands in the background holding "Mark Farrell for mayor" signs.
Mark Farrell compared the state of San Francisco to cities like Detroit and Oakland at a press conference announcing his run for mayor. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Farrell told supporters Wednesday that he has heard from people who avoid downtown due to the lack of Ubers, Lyfts and taxis to get to and from Market Street, requiring a “scary” walk to pickup points in the Tenderloin neighborhood.

“Why don’t we have [cars] on Market Street? Just because it’s the ideology of no cars?” asked Farrell. “No more in San Francisco.”

Robin Pam, the founder of Kid Safe SF, an organization focused on protecting open spaces and creating safer streets, called Farrell’s Market Street proposal a dangerous “political ploy” that would also lead to slowdowns in Muni bus operations.

“Apparently, Mark Farrell believes that the safety of transit riders, walkers and bikers is worth trading for cheap political gain,” Pam said. “He claims to support our city’s transit-first policy, yet his plan would reintroduce congestion, exhaust, noise pollution and collisions to Market Street.”