San Francisco Chronicle

Why I’m betting big on San Francisco

Michael Shvo, Dec 19, 2022

I’m investing $400 million toward reimagining the Transamerica Pyramid and its surrounding neighborhood. It’s because I believe in this city and what it stands for.

An aerial view of the Transamerica Pyramid, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

The first time I came to America, I was 6 years old. I was born and raised in Israel but my parents received teaching fellowships at Stanford and Yale universities, so we spent two years living on both coasts of the country. I remember, vividly, the first time I saw the famous sights of San Francisco: the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and, of course, the Transamerica Pyramid.

I have a clear memory of staring up at the Pyramid in 1979 and my father telling me that it was built the same year I was born. For a kid who grew up in Israel in a house with no running water or electricity, seeing the skyscraper was like seeing the future. It changed me. I knew that there was something special about San Francisco, and the buildings and people that brought it alive.

It made me realize that I belonged in America.

In my 20s, I finally took the plunge and moved to the United States, eventually finding myself in the world of real estate. From my headquarters in New York, I built a portfolio of some of the most notable buildings in the country. But there was one that I always kept revisiting in my head.

As fate would have it, in October 2020, at a time when everyone else was betting against San Francisco, my company closed what would become the largest real estate transaction over the course of the pandemic — and I became the proud owner of the Transamerica Pyramid.

Despite my excitement, those were dark days. There were many predicting the death of San Francisco as we knew it. But I believed then — as I do today — in the resilience and magic of this city.

My interest in the Pyramid was never just about a building.

In addition to being one of San Francisco’s most iconic landmarks, I believe the Pyramid is a metaphor for the city and the soul of this community. San Francisco has always been defined by innovators, artists and iconoclasts — and it is this city’s culture of visionary optimism that makes its communities so special.

In 1972, when futurist architect William Pereira and community leaders unveiled the building, it was considered ahead of its time by many. It also generated vocal opposition.

Today, however, it is widely recognized as an iconic representation of San Francisco itself.

While there are those that will have you believe this is a city in despair, the facts on the ground are very different. Since I purchased the Pyramid, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time walking through crowded streets nearby, shopping in local, independent stores that are bustling with customers and seeing crowds of people waiting to eat at the city’s restaurants — which, I think most residents know, are some of the best in the world.

My confidence in San Francisco’s recovery isn’t just anecdotal. Economic data shows that the city is at the beginning of a great American comeback story. In 2021, San Francisco grew its contribution to the gross domestic product at the fastest rate of any county in the nation — posting a 14% year-over-year growth rate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

While there’s no doubt that like other cities, this community is still recovering from the COVID pandemic; it isn’t losing people, it’s actually growing. The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the top 10 fastest-growing U.S. metro areas, according to research by LinkedIn. The Wall Street Journal just named San Francisco International Airport the best airport in America. Meanwhile, tourist spending in the city for 2022 is expected to double that of 2021.

We are also already witnessing unprecedented demand for space at the Transamerica Pyramid. Companies, employers and workers are looking for something special to be enticed back to the office.

The fact is that the brightest minds in the world still want to be in San Francisco.

That is why I will be investing an additional $400 million toward reimagining the Pyramid and its surrounding neighborhood. One of the greatest architects of our time, Norman Foster, will oversee this vision in partnership with the city of San Francisco.

Once we have completed our work, the Transamerica Pyramid will be home to a beautiful park to spend your weekends amongst its redwood trees and a place where you can enjoy the kind of unique neighborhood retail experiences that make this city so special.

I am also certain our building will be home to the most innovative companies in the world.

As I reflect on the Transamerica Pyramid’s past 50 years and craft a vision for the next 50, I am optimistic about San Francisco’s future and humbled by my responsibility to this most iconic of buildings. Together with the people of San Francisco, I am committed to making this icon even more iconic.

Michael Shvo is chairman and CEO of SHVO, a New York City-based real estate development company. He acquired the Transamerica Pyramid in 2020 and is redeveloping the building with acclaimed architect Norman Foster.