Most fights among D.C. residents somehow involve parking. So you could argue that David Alpert’s introduction to local political warfare was only typical.
Alpert’s position in the fracas, though, was somewhat unique. Where most Washingtonians tend to kvetch about how difficult it is to snag a street spot, Alpert wanted less parking, not more. Back in 2008, as the District’s Zoning Commission started work on a comprehensive rewrite, Alpert embraced the idea of decreasing the number of parking spots required for new developments.
“That was my first exposure to the antis,” Alpert says, employing his general label for people who oppose change on principle. “Because I went to these meetings, and there were these people, like Barbara Zartman from the Committee of 100. She was there to fight hard for keeping the zoning the way it was, basically, against the efforts of the Office of Planning to upset the apple cart of these prohibitions on lots of things.”
Alpert took to the blog he had started earlier that year, Greater Greater Washington, to launch his counterintuitive counteroffensive. For 10 days, he posted one reason per day why parking minimums were bad: They make housing more expensive and render good commercial development projects unfeasible, he argued. They increase traffic. They’re a reason, in other words, that locals pay so much in rent, have so few places to shop, and spend so much time in traffic.
But as a July hearing on the subject approached, Alpert knew that making reasoned online arguments wouldn’t be enough. “What I was telling people was, we really need to get people to go, there’s going to be a lot of antis there, they’re really organized, they’ve got all these groups,” Alpert remembers. “And maybe our best hope is just to get enough people there so that the Zoning Commission sees that there are two sides to it, and then maybe they’ll be OK approving it.”
Sure enough, 24 advocates showed up to testify in favor of the zoning change, speaking far into the night. Only a handful came to oppose it. And the measure—a sharp blow to the District’s auto-friendly status quo—passed.
Since then, the triumphs have piled up. In December 2008, Greater Greater Washington—and the gang of policy nerds Alpert has enlisted to help him run it—demanded that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority partner with Google to create a better mapping application for Metrobus and Metrorail riders. The agency is finally doing just that. In early 2009, Alpert championed efforts to tax plastic bags in order to clean up the Anacostia River. The measure is now law. This May, in a now-famous incident, Alpert spotted D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray’s 11th-hour attempt to axe funding for the H Street NE-Benning Road streetcar, envisioned to be part of a future city-wide light-rail system. The blogosphere exploded and irate calls soon crashed Gray’s switchboard. Within hours of GGW’s action alert, the trolley budget was restored.
GGW now has a couple dozen contributors, and gets some 60,000 unique visitors a month. But that growth has only amplified the voice of its founder, who writes with a smartest-guy-in-the-room entitlement that’s impossible to ignore. An editorial board of one, Alpert this year has interviewed the major mayoral and D.C. Council candidates; his endorsements will serve as the final word for many in the voting bloc of smart-growth enthusiasts he’s helped educate and assemble. Meanwhile, candidates have started campaigning on smart-growth policies, hoping to tap the demonstrated size and influence of Alpert’s audience.
In just a few short years, Alpert has made himself arguably the District’s most important advocate on issues of planning and development—a guy who, without holding public office, occupying a university chair, or even having a day job, is going to help shape what Washington looks like decades from now. “His way is to push and push and push on people, and advocates very assertively for smart growth and new urbanism and all of these things that are important to make D.C. great,” says District Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein. Before they roll out any new initiative, Klein says, his team wonders “what is David Alpert going to want to know, what is Kojo Nnamdi going to want to know, what is Dr. Gridlock going to want to know?” That’s pretty good company for a 32-year old Massachusetts native who was living in Brooklyn during Washington’s last mayoral election.
Alpert’s response to the streetcar reversal, castigating the mainstream media for not recognizing an instantaneous citizen response triggered by social media, had all the webby triumphalism of a Markos Moulitsas screed in 2004. Alpert is steeped in the netroots revolution and its determination to upset established patterns of how journalists relate to authority. But GGW, carefully focused to achieve the most provincial and yet concrete possible gains, is no chaotic and sprawling DailyKos. Alpert’s creation, rather, is the netroots all grown up.