WeWork and Elon Musk-founded OpenAI were among a group trying to turn a historic San Francisco Army post into a $200 million 'campus for change.' The park shot their proposal down cold.
Katie Canales/Business Insider
- San Francisco's Fort Winfield Scott is a former US Army base in the Presidio National Park and has been mostly abandoned for years.
- But in 2018, the federal agency that runs the park launched a development competition inviting do-gooder organizations to submit proposals that would breathe new life into the 30-acre fort.
- The park staff envisioned Fort Scott as a campus housing mission-driven organizations dedicated to serving a "higher purpose" through issues like climate change and social challenges.
- Now-embattled coworking company WeWork, the Elon Musk-founded OpenAI, the Epicenter for Climate Solutions (EPIC,) and the World Economic Forum eventually teamed up and submitted a joint proposal to turn the site into a "campus for change."
- But the Presidio Trust staff and board rejected the proposal, citing, among other factors, that the consortium of organizations was dismissive of the humanitarian vision for the land and focused more on using the site merely for financial gain, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.
- WeWork and the World Economic Forum did not immediately respond to Business Insider's request for comment, and OpenAI declined to comment. The Presidio Trust confirmed to Business Insider in an email that the proposal is tabled.
- In a document shared with Business Insider, EPIC cofounder Tom Dinwoodie said that the trust has "rejected a team of highly qualified individuals and organizations thoroughly committed to a better world, one with a stable climate, while safe, verdant, and plentiful with resources and opportunity for our children and their children's children."
- The trust announced in a press release in June 2019 that it will instead take on the gradual redevelopment of the fort on its own, though a representative for the trust told Business Insider that it currently doesn't have any specific plans for the site.
- So until it does, the fort with its abandoned Mission-style barracks will sit untouched. Here's what it's like inside.
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Fort Winfield Scott is an army post in San Francisco with million-dollar views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay.
It was built as a US Army base in the early 1900s to house the Coast Artillery Corps and served as the headquarters for the defense of the Bay Area.
The fort sits on the western edge of the Presidio National Park, which also used to be an army base itself. It transferred to the National Park Service in 1994.
The Presidio National Park is unusual — it's the country's only national park that Congress requires to be financially sustainable. That means that the Presidio Trust, the federal agency tasked with operating the site, is required to run the park without taxpayer money.
The park receives regular income through its tenants — much of the Presidio to the east of Fort Scott has been turned into offices, homes, museums, and tourist attractions.
But Fort Scott is the only part of the site that hasn't been restored — its ring of Mission-style barracks across 30 acres has been left untouched, except for a portion that house the National Park Service Police and the World Economic Forum, host of the annual Davos summit in Switzerland.
The costs to revamp the historic Fort Scott site totaled more than $200 million, funds that the Presidio Trust decided it could recruit from elsewhere through a development competition.
So in 2018, the Presidio Trust launched the Fort Winfield Scott Campus for Change project asking for "mission-driven organizations" to submit proposals that would breathe new life into the fort and its 22 historic buildings.
The ideal organization's proposal would detail how it plans to serve a "higher purpose" through the fort. It would outline how it plans to restore and utilize the site's 22 structures, how it would be environmentally and financially sustainable, and how it would engage the public.
There would also be community spaces, a transit center, and incubator space for startups.
Initially, there were multiple teams in the running for the project, until early 2019, when four of them consolidated their efforts into a single proposal, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.
One of the organizations was the coworking startup WeWork, which is currently still reeling from its botched IPO attempt and subsequent ousting of CEO Adam Neumann. WeWork specifically would manage the campus.
There's also the for-profit OpenAI founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk and backed by prominent Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, whose Founders Fund sits on the eastern side of the Presidio. OpenAI focuses on artificial intelligence that "benefits all of humanity," according to its website.
And the fort's existing tenant, the World Economic Forum, and EPIC, a non-profit devoted to climate change issues, were also involved in the joint proposal.
The Presidio Trust initially approved of the joint effort until it found some cause for concern in the proposal.
The initial request stipulated that the chosen developers would shoulder certain costs, like for the transit center that would be built. But the proposal asked the trust to pay for those costs instead of the money coming from the development team.
The request also required the project to pay for relocating the National Park Police elsewhere, since it operates out of four of the buildings at the fort.
But the proposal detailed that those fees would be recovered from the trust's pockets, not from the development team.
And the trust staff overall found the organizations involved to be dismissive of the project's goal of effecting social and environmental impact at the historic site versus merely using it for financial gain.
So in April 2019, the trust staff deemed the proposal a "nonstarter" in a preliminary recommendation and advised the trust's board to reject it.
Following the report, Equity Community Builders, one of the developers involved in the proposal, told the San Francisco Chronicle that it was "premature to reach those (negative) conclusions without appropriate dialogue, without us being able to sit down and walk through the details."
The trust staff required the members to revise the proposal, and though there was "significant progress" in it, the board heeded the staff's advice and officially rejected the proposal in June 2019.
William Grayson, chair of the Presidio Trust board of directors, said that the proposal "didn't meet enough of the Presidio Trust's requirements to move forward," according to a press release.
So the board decided that the fort's development should be overseen by the trust and the trust alone at its own pace as funds allow.
It will eventually be a campus of sorts but will serve the "higher purpose originally envisioned" by the Presidio Trust.
And until then, the historic buildings at Fort Scott will continue to sit untouched with the city's signature Golden Gate Bridge next door.
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