Though they can land on different sides of development debates today, the preservationists who fought highway planners of the 1960s and the smart-growthers who battle parking lots of the 21st century share a common denominator: They’re easy to paint as rich dilettantes.
A glance at the overwhelmingly white happy hour crowd underscores the perception that Alpert’s group represents one part of the city prescribing solutions for another—which, no matter how logical their ideas, can create a public relations problem. Councilmember Wells, for example, is facing an energetic challenge from a black candidate who suggests to long-term residents of Ward 6 that things like bike lanes and streetcars are just ways to attract new residents, wholly irrelevant to the more pressing issues of crime and education.
Alpert is conscious of perception issues, and is careful to argue that more options for transit mean better access to employment for low-income residents. He’s also expanded the blog in recent months to include more content about poverty, and is thinking about branching out into education. But Schrag puts his finger on the difficulty Alpert faces in claiming the populist high ground, at least where cars are concerned.
“The tension there is that most Americans really like cars, and they don’t like cars as objects, they like cars because they get where you want fairly quickly,” Schrag says. “If you’re really going to be populist about it, it’s hard to be that stridently critical of the automobile.”
It’s all about choices. And for Alpert, dividing the world into two camps—like deciding whether Vincent Gray is a safe choice for smart growth advocates or not, the subject of a five-part GGW series—is just a way of clarifying those choices. After all, Alpert has made his own choices, like leaving the highways and strip malls of Mountain View for the sidewalks and local retail of Brooklyn. Every seemingly small choice made by local zoning boards and transit agencies and elected officials will help decide whether the District of the 21st century will look more like the former or the latter.
Running Greater Greater Washington gives Alpert a way to affect as many of those decisions as possible. He’s has contemplated serving in government someday, but that would probably involve working on one project for long periods of time. Shaping D.C. into his urbanist vision is a much more comprehensive thing.
“I think that there’s a debate going on, something of a battle, of how to conceive of development and growth in the city,” Alpert says. “And I want my view of that to prevail, because I think it’s right.”