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As Elon Musk rebrands Twitter, its relationship with San Francisco grows more chaotic

SAN FRANCISCO — When Twitter opened its gleaming headquarters in a rough patch of downtown nearly a decade ago, the company’s blue bird logo symbolized a new era for a city struggling with urban blight, homelessness and 10 percent unemployment.

“It is critical that companies like Twitter be convinced they can stay here and that they are welcome, and we welcome them,” said then-Mayor Ed Lee, who championed the so-called “Twitter tax break” to dissuade the growing company from leaving town.

But as Twitter has evolved under owner Elon Musk — most recently into something called “X” — its relationship with San Francisco has become increasingly fraught.

Since Musk took ownership last October, the company formerly known as Twitter has been sued for failing to pay millions in rent and investigated for illegally converting offices into bunk rooms after Musk said he was sleeping on a couch on the seventh floor. Amid an exodus of tech employees from the city, Twitter has shed more than 80 percent of its workforce — essentially hollowing out its headquarters.

The most recent indignity came Monday, when the company brought in a crane to pluck the Twitter logo off the building’s facade, disrupting two lanes of traffic at a busy intersection and prompting a 911 call.

Meanwhile, Musk has hardly been a gracious neighbor. In viral tweets, he has derided San Francisco as a “derelict zombie apocalypse” and erroneously attributed the murder of a tech executive on a downtown street to rampant “violent crime in SF.”

“Even if attackers are caught, they are often released immediately,” Musk griped after the April murder, for which an acquaintance of the dead man now faces trial. San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins blasted Musk’s comments as “reckless” and spreading “misinformation.”

“There are business leaders in the city who want to engage in solutions, and the mayor wants to work with them,” said Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for San Francisco Mayor London Breed (D). “But to have one person who has a megaphone who creates all this tumult, it creates this perception of chaos.”

Twitter and Musk did not respond to requests for comment.

The world’s richest man has long been known for his brash, shoot-from-the hip style. Musk has had many other run-ins with government officials, including as chief executive of electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, which has come under scrutiny from federal regulators as new technologies such as “Full Self-Driving” are tested on public roads.

In the early days of the pandemic, Musk publicly defied local officials by reopening his Tesla factory in the Bay Area. He later unleashed an expletive-laden tirade on a quarterly earnings call, calling California’s strict quarantine policies “fascist,” and made good on a threat to move Tesla’s headquarters to Texas.

“California used to be the land of opportunity,” Musk told the conservative satirical site Babylon Bee. “Now it has become and is becoming more so the land of overregulation, overlitigation, overtaxation and scorn.”

Since acquiring Twitter for $44 billion last fall, Musk has made major changes — reducing the workforce, increasing the number of subscription services and appointing a new chief executive. His recent decision to change the site’s name to X has generated additional controversy, spurring bewilderment among users while raising questions about brand management and copyright (rival Meta holds a registered trademark for “X” in relation to online social networking services).

It’s a far cry from the days when Twitter founder Jack Dorsey ran the company with Zen-like calm. Eager to keep Dorsey’s firm from moving south to Silicon Valley, where taxes were lower and other major tech companies were setting up shop, San Francisco officials offered in 2011 to waive the city’s 1.5 percent payroll tax for businesses that moved to the Mid-Market neighborhood, then struggling with high vacancies and visible homelessness.

The Twitter tax break was designed to bring new jobs and retail to the area as well as reduce crime. Twitter was seen as an anchor tenant. But while the tax break spurred a boom in tech companies in the area, results were mixed when the tax break sunset after eight years in 2019.

The city’s budget had doubled and the unemployment rate had fallen from 9 percent to 2.6 percent. But Twitter and other beneficiaries of the tax break were blamed for many of the woes plaguing the city today, including sky-high rents and gentrification.

Meanwhile, promises by the companies to help their low-income neighbors in exchange for lower taxes have done little to improve the city’s vexing homelessness crisis. The neighborhood — just a few blocks from City Hall — still struggles with vacant office space and empty storefronts.

To some, Musk’s apparent disdain for the city feels like salt in the wound.

“There’s never been any real … responsibility taken for policy decisions that may have contributed to today’s street conditions,” said Sara Shortt, a longtime local activist who works with the city’s homeless and opposed the tax break at the time. “Years later, it’s only insult to injury to have this ultrarich egomaniac land here, bad-mouth us and steamroll over us.”

As San Francisco struggles to rebound from the pandemic — working to retain and attract companies and lure workers back downtown — city leaders are treading a fine line with Musk.

“I want to be supportive of (Twitter),” said Matt Dorsey, who serves on the Board of Supervisors and whose district includes the company’s headquarters. “If they are bringing people to work, and employing people, I want them in my district. I don’t want to be a city that is running people out of town.”

But Musk’s antics, his disregard for rules and his gloom-and-doom tweets are frustrating. Cretan said the mayor has been meeting with business leaders to talk about how the city can work with them to stay in the city. For example, he said, Breed recently met with executives at Visa who said they were committed to San Francisco and expressed interest in being more involved in its future.

“Those are the conversations we want to be having with business leaders,” Cretan said.

On Monday, the commotion over removal of the Twitter logo was resolved relatively swiftly. According to a statement from police and reports on social media, police received a call around 1 p.m. regarding a “possible unpermitted street closure.” Twitter’s crane left by midafternoon, leaving the logo removal haphazardly unfinished. The blue bird that has loomed over the Mid-Market neighborhood for the past decade remains, alongside the “er” and the outline of the now-missing “@twitt.”

On Tuesday, Patrick Hannan, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Building Inspection, said no permit is required to remove letters or symbols from the sign. But, he said, any letters or symbols intended to replace them “would require a permit to ensure consistency with the historic nature of the building and to ensure the new additions are safely attached to the sign.”

By close of day Tuesday, however, no permits had been filed.

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