Alpert and the GGW gang are hardly the first people to be drawn into D.C. politics by debates over the shape of the city. Many the city’s political leaders in the early days of Home Rule cut their teeth during the epic fights against 1960s-era plans to build highways through various parts of the District. Perhaps the most apt precedent for Alpert’s activism is the late Cleveland Park lawyer Peter Craig, who led the anti-highway forces.
“The experts proposed a pretty bad idea, and were corrected by the people,” says Zachary Schrag, an assistant professor at George Mason University who wrote the Metro nerd bible, The Great Society Subway. “His tools were the typewriter and the mimeograph, but had blogs been around in 1959, I imagine his would have looked something like Greater Greater Washington.”
Instrumental in that earlier effort was the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a now-87-year-old organization dedicated to the preservation of the original L’Enfant plan for the city. Thanks to their relentless advocacy, D.C. remains a walking-scale city, retaining many of the elements of a healthy urban environment that Alpert & Co. promote today.
But revolutions always eat their young. And now, a generation later—a generation during which the powers that be finally realized that urban renewal and downtown freeways were a lousy idea—there’s little love for GGW among some of their forebears.
Take this column from the Committee of 100’s chairman, which appeared in the organization’s newsletter in 2008. It didn’t mention Alpert or his blog, but the identity of the “insidious” force it slams was pretty clear nonetheless: “The Committee of 100, a scarred veteran of freeway battles and early champion of D.C.’s Living Downtown, is being tarred as a gaggle of aging couch potatoes bitterly clinging to cars and big houses,” the message reads. “The mischaracterization is coming from so-called ‘smart-growth’ advocates who want to recreate Washington, DC as a high-density destination for the healthy, wealthy and young…. Smart growth, as experienced by many District residents, has come to mean demands for multi-family mixed-use development on every available scrap of land without regard to need, scale, balance, or the opinions of impacted District residents. This is coupled with hostility toward all automobile use, whether or not any other form of transportation is available. To live in this ‘smart’ vision of the District, you should be willing to forego elbow room and to accept that a neighbor who enlarges his house may be literally an arms length away.”
In other words, says Committee of 100 Chairman George Clark, Alpert’s crew wants to turn D.C. into a Manhattan-esque metropolis. “I like the Upper West Side, but I don’t want to live there,” Clark says. “If I wanted to live there, I would move there. We’re Washington. We’re a capital city, we’re a world city, and we’re different.”
Furthermore, Meg Maguire, the Committee of 100’s point person on streetcars, says the “anti” caricature is inaccurate and unhelpful when discussing massive public projects. “I think with David, you’re either for something or you’re against it,” says Maguire. She says her beef with D.C.’s streetcar initiative had to do with poor planning and lack of funding, not an objection to change on principle. “I think he mischaracterizes our position when we raise complex issues, like how [the streetcar] will be paid for.” (Zartman, the preservationist Alpert recalls as his first “anti,” died earlier this year).
Alpert, in fact, says he does appreciate historic preservation—and doesn’t think developers should be given carte blanche to build as big as they want. He just thinks that today’s preservationists, who formed their alliances back when opposing things was the best way to defend the city’s livability and charm, have gone overboard.
“Now, you’re also starting to veer into preservation being about preserving the mistakes,” Alpert says. In between bites of a spinach salad at the Dupont Circle Sweetgreen, his feet up on a chair, he cites historian Richard Longstreth’s argument against demolishing the Third Church of Christ, Scientist at 16th and I streets NW as an example. Preservationists opposed bulldozing the unloved, Brutalist structure because it now represents a bygone era. “I thought he could probably say that about the dirt that’s along the edge here of Connecticut Avenue, that should be landmarked, we should never clean that up, because in such a such year there was dirt there, and that was when Eleanor Roosevelt walked by, you know, or something like that.”