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Soda With a Politician: Google Bus Protests Were Good for Us

"The tech community is not inherently political, but the protests made them political -- it woke them up."

Nellie Bowles

Nicholas Josefowitz, wearing a slim-fitting blue suit and tie, sat down at one of the off-kilter tables just outside of a subterranean Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in downtown San Francisco.

He pointed out an older woman carrying shopping bags and struggling to get down a broken escalator. He pointed out the pools of urine surrounding the station’s out-of-service elevator. He pointed out how long the largely empty plaza was. He didn’t order anything, but I got a soda from a nearby coffee cart.

“It’s an escalator. It’s not rocket science,” Josefowitz said of the broken infrastructure. “There’s this incredible entrepreneurial spirit in San Francisco — everything is possible, except when it comes to the city. Here, we’ve become pessimistic.”

Technologists, who often skirt public transportation altogether by taking private company-sponsored luxury shuttles, need to just apply some of their usual can-do optimism to that same public transportation.

And Josefowitz, a 30-year-old Harvard grad and tech entrepreneur himself, thinks he might be just the one to convince them. This fall, he’ll go up for election to join one of San Francisco’s notoriously problematic political leadership organizations — the BART Board of Directors.

BART, which carries 400,000 riders across the Bay Area each day, is the nation’s oldest unrenovated subway system. It hasn’t had a significant upgrade in San Francisco since 1976. Last year, BART employees organized a strike over their contract, which shut down the system for four days. The solution for BART, Josefowitz said, is not that it needs more money, but that it needs to use its resources better.

“I’m running against a guy who’s been in office 24 years. He pleaded guilty to money laundering, and has the worst attendance record of any other BART director,” Josefowitz said. “You wouldn’t get away with that anywhere else. But, for most people, the BART board is the last job they’d want.”

Why, then, does Nicholas Josefowitz want it?

Because BART is more than a collection of broken escalators. BART owns land. And developing the largely empty plazas and parking lots around stations, which Josefowitz wants to do, could mean more housing to accommodate the flood of workers coming to San Francisco — though, of course, at the cost of losing public gathering spaces.

“BART is the largest parking-lot owner west of the Mississippi. That’s a lot of housing you could build,” Josefowitz said. “There are 46 BART stations, and each one has the potential to be the center of a dense, vibrant neighborhood.”

Currently, developers from Maximus Real Estate Partners are attempting to start building a 400,000-square-foot mixed-use development around the 16th and Mission BART station plaza. Development has been met with protests, but is proceeding. And certainly more of these would go through if one of the nine BART board of directors were highly pro-development:

“You have these plazas — if you can call them that — sitting empty in the middle of the neighborhoods where we need housing the most,” he said. “There’s a Burger King and some one-story buildings. BART should be a partner in development.”

Josefowitz, who lives with his wife in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, founded solar power plant company RenGen, as well as Leadership for a Clean Economy, which invests in eco-friendly political candidates. He got interested in BART during last year’s employee strikes. He said he doesn’t want to be a career politician, though he had some good statesmanlike moments (“I just want to get San Franciscans home for dinner on time,” he said). After our interview, he sent me pictures of yellow “out of order” placards stacked up at the ready by the ticket booths.

The Bay Area tech community, under pressure from protestors who see the plush private company shuttles as another sign of the city’s growing income inequality, has started to rally behind this development-friendly public-transportation aficionado. Co-hosts of his most recent fundraiser included Lyft co-founder Logan Green, Path co-founder Dave Morin, and Founders Fund partner Brian Singerman.

“The tech community is not inherently political, but the protests made them political — it woke them up,” Josefowitz said. “There are San Franciscans suffering from poor public transportation. And the solution is right in front of us.”

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