Wreck-It Ralph How Ralph Nader became D.C. libraries’ biggest headache (and pissed off a whole neighborhood)

Ralph Nader had a busy summer. In July, he launched a petition urging New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera not to retire; announced plans to open a tort law museum in his small Connecticut hometown; promised to recruit “enlightened billionaires or multibillionaires” to run for president; and wrote an open letter to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig protesting the all-you-can-eat food deals at certain stadiums. In August, he urged Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper not to allow Verizon to enter his country’s telecom market; tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade Mayor Vince Gray to sign a living wage bill based on a Canadian precedent; and spent two days counting the cars turning illegally onto Connecticut Avenue NW so he could complain to city officials about poorly positioned “No Left Turn” signs.

This all might seem like a far cry from Nader’s days as a consumer crusader and a five-time presidential candidate. After all, he’s the man who’s often credited with bringing safety regulations to the auto industry—and often blamed for swinging the 2000 election to George W. Bush. At 79, Nader could easily retire with several lifetimes’ worth of headlines under his belt.

But it’s another line of work entirely that has drawn the most puzzlement—and ire—from a segment of the District’s population. For amid his hot dog activism and cellular diplomacy, Ralph Nader, according to his critics, has become the single greatest obstacle to the redevelopment of D.C.’s public libraries.

This summer’s battleground has been the West End Library, where Nader’s Library Renaissance Project has sued to prevent the construction of a new library as part of a mixed-use project including the neighborhood fire station and residential units. On Aug. 8, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled against the Library Renaissance Project, but the group quickly petitioned for a rehearing before the full court. That appeal is still pending, as the costs to the city and the developer, Eastbanc, keep piling up. Eastbanc initially hoped to finish the project by mid-2015; it’s now looking at a completion date in 2016 or even 2017 if there are further appeals.

advertisement

But this is not the Nader group’s first time holding up the development of a D.C. library, nor is it likely to be the last. At several of the branch libraries the city has modernized—a process the Library Renaissance Project takes credit for helping jumpstart originally—the group has raised objections and caused delay. And with D.C.’s central library, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, slated for redevelopment soon, another fight is likely around the corner, perhaps the biggest one yet.

Nader, who founded and funds the Library Renaissance Project through one of his organizations, and the executive director he hired to lead its day-to-day operations, Robin Diener, insist they’re as pro-library as anyone. The slew of complaints they’ve levied against the library redevelopment plans, they say, are about making the libraries better. The West End blueprints, they argue, give taxpayers a bad deal and put public land in private hands. At other libraries, they’ve cited deficiencies in handicap access, aesthetic design, fire safety, and planning.

“I’ve never believed that libraries should be looked at in terms of retail establishments and condos and people coming in and out,” says Nader. “It should have an architectural dignity, free- standing with good landscaping around it.”

But neighborhood critics and library officials see the Library Renaissance Project’s complaints as little more than a grab bag of random grievances bundled together to allow Nader to put his personal and ideological stamp on the city’s libraries. One thing’s for sure: Nader has managed to unify the West End and Foggy Bottom community like it’s never been unified before—in opposition to his efforts.

“Ah, our patron saint of annoyance,” sighs Susan B. Haight, president of the West End Library Friends and the Federation of Friends of the D.C. Public Library, when I mention Nader. “The role of the Library Renaissance Project is uninvited and unwanted. They have a history of inserting themselves into community issues, and represent themselves as if it’s for the community good, and it’s not.”

“It’s not a neighborhood fight,” says Barbara Kahlow, secretary-treasurer of the West End Citizens Association. “It’s someone outside of the neighborhood. Ralph Nader lives in Dupont Circle. It’s an interloper coming in who doesn’t live in our neighborhood who interfered. I think Ralph Nader should be embarrassed.”

While Nader has lived in D.C. for nearly 50 years and has a residence near Dupont Circle, he’s domiciled in Connecticut, where he votes. (The District, he says, is a “colony” that has been “disenfranchised.”)

Nader’s recent involvement in D.C. and national issues has come under the auspices of various groups: He signed his living wage bill letter to Gray as a representative of TimeForARaise.org and his letter to Bud Selig as the founder of League of Fans. But none of these efforts has yielded much in the way of results. On D.C. libraries, however, he’s been able to make his mark—partly because he’s a big personality with deep pockets in what’s otherwise a small neighborhood issue, and partly because he’s taken to the courts to fight this battle. Regardless of why, his mark, according to his opponents in the neighborhood and the library system, has been overwhelmingly negative.

“My entire tenure on the board, I haven’t seen one positive thing that the Renaissance group has done,” says John Hill, president of the D.C. Board of Library Trustees and a member of the board since 2004. “They always seem to be against everything.”

When speaking of Ralph Nader in the past tense, some of his fiercest critics these days use phrases like “a hero of mine” and “one of the most important Americans of the 20th century.” That praise stems mainly from Nader’s signature accomplishment half a century ago: the 1965 publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, which highlighted the dangers of certain cars, helped spark the movement for auto safety regulations, and launched the then-unknown Nader into the public sphere.

“He helped change the whole conversation about what consumers had a right to expect from a very expensive product,” says Maryann Keller, a longtime auto industry analyst and former director of Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group.

“His most enduring achievement was in setting a high standard for citizen oversight of government and corporate activity,” says Joan Claybrook, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the Carter administration, who led the Nader-founded advocacy group Public Citizen from 1982 to 2008. “He’s been an inspiration, and he’s changed our society.”

But once he drew public attention to the issue of auto safety and others took up the charge, Nader “sort of dropped off the map” on auto industry matters, according to Keller. He continued his advocacy work but remained somewhat under the radar until 2000, when he suddenly became very relevant again.

When I start to ask Nader if his perceived role in handing the 2000 presidential election to his ideological antithesis has made it harder for him to gain traction on library issues in D.C., an overwhelmingly Democratic city that gave over 85 percent of its vote to then-Vice President Al Gore, he feels compelled to correct the record.

“I have a hundred answers to 2000,” he cuts in. “The first one is, why don’t you ask Gore? Why did he lose? He doesn’t blame the Green Party. He blames Florida. He blames that he didn’t carry his own state [Tennessee], which all by itself would have put him in the White House.”

“Didn’t Bush take away more votes from Gore?” continues Nader, who says a sixth presidential run is “not likely.” “Either we’re all spoilers, or none of us are spoilers.”

Regardless, just two years after his 2000 run won him more than a few enemies in the District, Nader quietly began a new advocacy role in the city, founding the Library Renaissance Project.

The city’s libraries were in terrible shape at the time, Nader says, and illiteracy was a major problem. “I grew up in a small town in New England where a library was a big thing for youngsters,” says Nader, a book lover who has bought thousands of remaindered books that he stores in warehouses and sometimes gives away. “So I thought, well, what are the libraries doing for the youngsters in D.C.?”

Things started off well—Nader threw a kickoff fundraising dinner with such celebrity attendees as Washington Post publisher Donald Graham—but there were bumps. Leonard Minsky, who directed the Library Renaissance Project from 2002 to 2009, recalls that Nader modeled his organization on the legendary fundraising effort of former New York Public Library President Vartan Gregorian.

“He had a completely wrongheaded idea about whether that could work in D.C.,” says Minsky. “Vartan Gregorian is up in New York where all the money is. All Vartan had to do was say, ‘Let’s get a lot of money from philanthropists,’ and the money poured in. Ralph thought that would work in D.C. He thought if he announced the project, people would rush to give money. In fact, that turned out not to be the case.”

So Nader tried a different approach. “When he hired me, he interviewed me and said, ‘Do you own a car?’” Minsky says. “And I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘Is it a new car?’ I said, ‘No, it’s an old Volvo.’ He liked that. He said, ‘Are you willing to travel? Are you willing to go to Ward 8?’ I said yes. And his idea was that I had to go to the most dangerous or most poverty-stricken wards, visit the libraries that served those wards, and find out what those libraries needed.”

The goal was to get members of the community to demand better libraries from the library board, which Minsky says was then “the dimmest-witted bunch of folks in town.” And there’s general agreement that, at least at the very start, the group helped push the District to improve its branch libraries. Minsky, for his part, takes much of the credit, saying, “Oh, we did it. No question. If the D.C. Library Renaissance Project had not existed, you would see crumbling libraries around the District.”

In 2003, Nader appeared before the D.C. Council committee on education, libraries, and recreation, where then-Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous gave him a hero’s welcome for his push for more library funding.

“We appreciate your commitment to the libraries and the energy that you’ve brought to supporting the libraries,” said Chavous, the committee chairman at the time. “We’re glad that you are here, and we’re committed to working with you to make sure that we not only sustain library funding but grow library funding.”

That moment, less than a year after the group’s founding, appears to be the last time Nader showed up at a Council hearing, Zoning Commission hearing, or community meeting on libraries. Future visits to the Council by members of his team were less smooth.

“The amount of time you’re fighting over the architecture of our buildings baffles me,” then-library committee chairman Tommy Wells berated a helpless-looking Diener in 2012. “I see you as working against the future of our library system.”

The library in question at the time was the Mount Pleasant branch, whose renovation had been slowed by Library Renaissance Project objections to the structure of the handicap ramp and fire access to a nearby building.

“Mr. Nader is funding an advocacy group, but he’s never asked to meet with me. I don’t know what y’all’s agenda is,” Wells continued. “Our library system is underfunded. I thought that’s part of what you guys are fighting for. And I am not seeing any energy around that. It’s fighting over architecture.”

That’s because the Library Renaissance Project’s methods had changed. “Until Robin Diener came along and decided that lawsuits were the way to go, it was an organizing effort,” says Minsky, who is now retired and working on an autobiography. “Just before I left, I hired Robin, and Ralph gave her the project. And the project sort of shifted away from the emphasis on Ward 8 and the branch libraries and began to focus on the Mies van der Rohe [Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library] building and some of the libraries in the western part of the city.”

The Library Renaissance Project’s assorted objections to the Mount Pleasant Library redevelopment plans slowed the process and heaped new costs on the city, with little in the way of tangible results.

“When costs went up and delays were done and additional architecture work was asked for, we ended up with the same design we had presented and that the community had agreed to,” says D.C. Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, who’s leaving her position at the end of October. “That took us nine to 10 months and cost us a million dollars.”

The Library Renaissance Project also protested various elements of the redesigns of the branch libraries in Shaw, Benning, and Washington Highlands. But none of those actions drew as much attention, anger, or cost as the group’s lawsuit over the West End Library.

The litany of charges levied by the Naderites at the West End project is manifold and varied. They claim the city undervalued the land on which the current library and fire station are located when it agreed to give those properties to Eastbanc for free in exchange for a new library and fire station that the developer would build. (Eastbanc is planning to construct 224 housing units above the public structures.) They argue that the Zoning Commission was wrong to grant Eastbanc a waiver to exempt the company from its inclusionary zoning requirement to build affordable housing above the library; never mind that the 52 units above the fire station will all be affordable, albeit with a city subsidy. They say the city, with its budget surpluses, can easily afford to build a new standalone library. They point to conflicts of interest on the part of community leaders who support the project, and say they’re prioritizing the neighborhood over the city and its taxpayers.

These points are not unreasonable. Every time the city turns public land over to private developers, there are accusations of a raw deal—take Nationals Park, where the jury’s still out more than five years after it opened, or the ongoing negotiations for a D.C. United stadium. There’s no way to prove that the city got the best deal possible; in all likelihood, it didn’t.

Initially, in fact, there was a community consensus against the library development plans: When the city awarded a sole-source contract to Eastbanc to redevelop the library in 2007, neighborhood groups angrily fought the move alongside the Library Renaissance Project. So the city reversed course and opened the project up to a bid—which Eastbanc won, this time with strong neighborhood support.

And so even if this deal isn’t perfect, now that neighbors and library leaders and city officials have all signed off on it, the question is why Nader and his colleagues remain so strongly opposed.

Nader himself gives the impression that his group’s objections stem from a fundamental distrust of private-sector involvement in public facilities.

“When you have a multi-use, you really don’t have a public library,” he says. “It’s part of a private real estate project, with all the potential subordinations of the interests of the library. Who knows, it could be servicing, repairing, air conditioning, heating, you know what happens later on. This is corporatization of public libraries.”

Nader, who made a name for himself taking on private companies that were violating the public trust, is deeply suspicious of developers generally and their ability to exploit public-private partnerships with what he calls “all the usual developer-city official games, campaign contributions, coverups, and secrecy.”

Eastbanc President Anthony Lanier, not surprisingly, takes issue with Nader’s view that city deals with private developers tend to screw over the public.

“It’s completely without merit,” says Lanier. “It assumes that the administration is incompetent, that all developers are crooks and are improperly benefiting from the stupidity of the public, which is not at all true. The public sector ferociously fights for every right and dollar and value that they can get.”

Still, in Nader’s view, as cozy as the city is with these powerful developers, someone needs to stand up for the little guy. And that someone is Ralph Nader.

“It’s amazing, these developers, they’re just 24/7,” he says. “And the citizen and the taxpayer, what are they? They’re not organized. They don’t have lobbyists. They don’t have lawyers. Our project tries to represent these interests.”

Which all sounds fine, except for one little hitch: The neighborhood groups that exist to represent those interests are universally opposed to Nader’s efforts.

“This wasn’t just a unanimous vote from the [Advisory Neighborhood Commission],” Asher Corson, who’s served on the Foggy Bottom-West End ANC for seven years, says of the support for the Eastbanc project. “This was every group that exists in Foggy Bottom. As far as I know, these groups have never agreed on anything, and probably never will again.”

Kahlow concurs that it’s the only thing those groups have ever agreed on, and ANC Commissioner Rebecca Coder, whose single-member district includes the library, calls this the rare instance of “a neighborhood united.” Diener begs to differ, countering, “That’s silly. They’ve agreed on lots of things.”

I had trouble finding any neighborhood supporters of the Library Renaissance Project’s efforts; most neighbors are eager to replace as quickly as possible the current West End Library, which feels wildly outdated next to the branch libraries that have undergone recent renovations. I asked Diener for the names of some allies, and she passed a few along. Most were residents of Dupont Circle, which lacks it own library and makes use of West End’s. Two—a married couple—are members of the West End Library Friends but stopped attending meetings well before Eastbanc submitted its plans for the development in 2011. On the whole, it’s clear that the neighborhood’s sentiment is not with Nader.

“Where I’d take issue with Robin and the Library Renaissance Project is, at the end of the debate, you take a vote, and if you lose, you lose,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, whose ward includes the West End. “And in this case the vote was overwhelming. Everyone came to an agreement that this was a good project. They were on the losing end of it and refused to stop. That’s where I would say wait, you gotta play by the rules.”

Nader and Diener seem surprised that they haven’t been able to gain more traction on the West End case, but what’s more remarkable is that they’ve been able to have such a big impact. The effort consists of the behind-the-scenes Nader (and his wallet), the day-to-day leader Diener, and a part-time contractor, an activist-about-town named Chris Otten who ran for mayor on the Statehood Green Party ticket in 2006.

Part of the group’s success is attributable to Nader’s name. “If you get a call from Ralph Nader,” says Haight, “you usually take it.” And part can be traced to a chameleon-like ability to convince people unfamiliar with it that it represents the neighborhood in question. On the West End case, the Library Renaissance Project created a subgroup called the West End Library Advisory Group and succeeded in persuading the Zoning Commission to recognize it as a leading participant in the process after one confused commissioner asked, “Am I understanding this correctly, that—I mean, this is essentially the library friends group? The supporters of this individual library?” Convinced this was indeed the case, the majority of the commission granted the group so-called party status.

“His group had the gall to form a neighborhood group with a name that had our neighborhood in it but that had no members in our neighborhood,” says Corson. “It was a front group that was formed by Chris Otten.”

The result of the Library Renaissance Project’s efforts on the West End, say critics, has been costly delay. That comes in the form of legal fees and temporary swing spaces for the library and firehouse, which in turn occupy property that could otherwise be developed.

“The end result is all they have done is grabbed onto an issue that may not be very important and doesn’t get changed and just costs a lot of money,” says Hill. “So I’m really not sure what the purpose of the group is other than to cause delay and cost the taxpayers money.”

Not only that, says Lanier, but these efforts are increasing the city’s cost of doing business in the future, since potential partners need to factor into their decision-making the chance that they’ll face a lengthy lawsuit from Nader.

“It has an adverse financial impact on the city,” Lanier says. “If I can buy a piece of land and build my building and I don’t have to face Ralph Nader, then I can do it in, say, 18 months. And the same thing with Ralph Nader takes 36 months. Every adverse challenge brings tremendous costs with it. All that money, that is being lost by the public.”

The debate over the West End Library, expensive though it is, may be little more than a preview of what’s to come. The city is currently in the process of selecting an architect to redesign the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, and while no firm guidelines have been released, the expectation is that the District will aim for a mixed-use building, with private uses above the central library. A Library Renaissance Project offshoot, the Otten-led District Dynamos, has already made noise about opposing any such public-private development.

Nader declines to weigh in on whether it’d be better to have a mixed-use MLK or no renovation to the outdated central library at all, calling it a “hypothetical choice where you lose on both choices.”

“This is leading us to MLK,” says Diener. “And that remains a question that does need to be discussed philosophically. That serves the entire city, not just one neighborhood.”

In other words, we could be in for a long battle.

I have never met Ralph Nader. The first time we were scheduled to meet, his assistant informed me shortly beforehand that there’d been a mix-up and we’d have to talk by phone instead. The second time, I waited for an hour and a half with Diener and Nader’s lawyer Oliver Hall under the gaze of an Andrew Carnegie portrait in the august wood-paneled boardroom of the Carnegie Institution for Science, where Nader’s office is located. Nader never showed, and Diener promised to reschedule the meeting. A few days later, after repeated requests for a meeting time, she emailed to say, “We have come to the conclusion that its not productive for us to participate further in your story.”

The fact is, hardly anyone in D.C. politics has seen Nader recently. The neighborhood leaders all say they’ve dealt only with Diener and Otten, and have never spoken with Nader face-to-face.

Diener, who works in the same building as Nader, has never even seen her boss’s office. Diener herself works in a dingy, storage room-like chamber off the building’s marbled atrium, piled high with filing cabinets and periodicals, which she shares, she says, with people who clip articles for Nader.

Otten, meanwhile, says Nader pays him only an $800-a-month stipend; outside of that, he is “self-employed and considered working poor.”

Most or all of Diener and Otten’s paychecks comes from Nader. While Hall maintains that Nader’s umbrella group for the Library Renaissance Project and the District Dynamos, the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, is a nonprofit with multiple funding sources, Diener says she’s under the impression that Nader himself is the source of the money.

“The donate button on our website, I don’t think works,” Diener says. (She’s right; it brings up a “Nothing Found” message, as do the links for “About,” “Contact Us,” and “Dynamos.”) “I’m not sure, but I’ve never heard of any donations coming through. This has been a private and personal project of Ralph Nader.”

According to tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service, the Library Renaissance Project had expenses of $50,140 in 2011, the most recent year available, down from $74,937 in 2010 and $95,232 in 2009.

As for Nader, don’t expect him to slacken his efforts on libraries anytime soon, even if the courts continue not to rule his way on the West End. Claybrook, who considers Nader a personal friend, says there’s “not a chance” of changing his mind when he thinks he’s right.

Being friends with Nader, Claybrook says, “has been a challenging experience. Ralph is never satisfied, and that’s one of the great assets he’s brought to our nation. But it’s also expressed in his relationship with his friends.”

And so as long as there are libraries left to be renovated in D.C., we can count on a recalcitrant Nader fighting the plans—whether Washingtonians like it or not.

Count Lanier in the “not” category. After I bid goodbye to the Eastbanc president on the phone, he feels compelled to say one more thing before hanging up. “Ralph should go to the beach!” he exclaims in his Austrian accent, and lets out a long chuckle.

These days, many residents of the District would tend to agree.

Our Readers Say

Thorough article. Good work. Thank you for this.

Back in 2004 my friend and I were "Nader Raiders" when he was trying to get his name on the Presidential ballot in numerous states. He actually came and addressed our small group of ten or so local high school and college kids for 15 minutes of so. My friend attended an HBCU in Atlanta and Nader said he had recently been there to speak. After Nader left, the group of ten or so of us were brought to to see "Fahrenheit 9/11" by his handlers.

The next day my friend and I stood outside of the Smithsonian Metro station for about two hours or so. We collected about a dozen signatures. My buddy and I each got $400 after we said we went out a couple more times to get signatures although we never did. Easy money.

Back in 2000 my younger brother heard Nader speak at the MCI Center. Guess, most folks under 40 or so associate Nader with giving the election to Bush. Back in the 60s he was regarded as legitimate.

Great work Aaron & City Paper.

My roommate worked for one of his PIRGs going door to door. She twisted her ankle in November in Boston and wasn't provided income, health benefits or even a reasonable amount of time to recover. She was summarily fired because she couldn't walk door to door.

Just goes to show you that ego is at the heart of this man's philanthropy, not altruism.
@ Cap City Records Panhandler:

I went to that MCI Center rally, too -- was the first time I'd been to the then-newish arena after moving back to D.C. Pretty big crowd -- in retrospect there may have been more people there than voted for Nader in the District (only about 10,000).
@name: The PIRGs are no longer managed by Nader. So any grievance you have with them is not connected to Nader.
@Name: Also, I highly recommend that anyone who wants to judge Nader as ego-driven should see "An Unreasonable Man" first. Almost everyone who sees that documentary comes out with a different view of Nader then when they came in.
When Nader dies, he will go straight to hell, only to discover that the place is being run by a public-private partnership. He will then spend all eternity in fruitless litigation. He will first claim that Satan got a bad deal from evil corporate masters and the underworld should be a solely public enterprise. Failing that, he will sue to get out of the Lake of Fire, only to be repeatedly turned down by an appeals court of Satanic Judges appointed by Richard Nixon.
What an immature hit piece on Nader. Is this a news article or a commentary? Because as a commentary I'd say it’s fine--quite snarkily written, but fine--but if you're actually trying to develop a timeline and report ALL the facts, you've failed horribly. There's more conjecture and innuendo in this "thing" than a Ted Cruz speech.
I'm so glad this Aaron Weiner guy’s true colors are coming out. I always suspected he was a pro-business chump, but this confirms it. Good lesson for all you up-and-coming journos who want to get cozy with developers: not only give them the last word, but agree with it.
The fact that developers hate him so much should be reason enough for any sane person to realize we need more Ralph Naders, not less.
Wow, Chris Otten is still around and still trying to raise hell? That takes me back. I remember when he was wheat-pasting anti-war rally fliers all over Col Heights and getting the crap kicked out of him by the cops for interfering in drug arrests. good times.
“It has an adverse financial impact on the city,”

ROTFLMAO! The only adverse financial impact on the city was built into this deal from the beginning, starting with the 2007 Emergency Legislation. Lanier's EastBanc and all his bought and paid for groupies in the West End are just pissed off that their ill-gotten gains become a little less obscene the longer this goes on.

Wowza, we're supposed to believe these people re: valuation of deals? When Nader sure doesn't have a clue about getting value for money, given the total nosedive reported here of his efforts in DC once he hired Robin Diener? Robin Diener should change her name to Robbin Ralph. Hey, beats workin!
With a seemingly bottomless pocketbook, institutionalize deference, and an oversized ego, I fear Nader will be filing these nuisance lawsuits for decades to come. Isn't there anything the DC Libraries can do, I,e, seeking declarative judgements as to the sufficiency of architectural plans/ADA compliance? Why doesn't Nader turn his efforts to pressing social problems, like income inequality, or the minimum wage, or another issue that will actually build upon the portion of his legacy that he can be truly proud of? These nuisance lawsuits against these library projects are beneath him.
Chris Otten is a piece of shit. They should tie him up and shove broomsticks up his ass.
#4 Pete - this writer like so many cpers never lets accuracy get in the way of some good snide snark.
Terrific piece, Aaron!

#13 -- I don't get the snarky comment about accuracy. Can you find a legitimate community organization in Foggy Bottom / West End that doesn't support this project? Can you go to the current West End Library and honestly say that it doesn't need a complete redevelopment? The DC Zoning Commission, which includes 2 federal appointees, approved the project. The court of appeals found against the Library Renaissance Project on EVERY count that LRP lodged against the library deal. Instead of just accepting defeat and moving on, the LRP has dragged the case on in the courts, further needlessly delaying the West End getting a new library, blocking 52 families from getting affordable housing units, and reducing the tax revenue and vitality that the residents from the new 224 market rate units will bring. I used to hugely admire Mr. Nader, but I have completely lost all respect for him -- his hubris has clearly undermined his judgment, plus he is out of touch with modern city planning, which has demonstrated that mixed-use projects are key to creating livable, walkable neighborhoods.
That this wet-behind-the-ears apologist for real estate developers has fans like Capital City Records Panhandler, a slacker who boasts about taking money for work not done, is entirely appropriate. Aaron Wiener similarly accepts a salary for journalism not done. This so-called investigative piece is nothing more than a he-said/he-said litany in which one side's account is given credence and the other side's version is discounted. Mario and Anonymous, Too have it right. Because he is so incurious, Wiener should go home and live with his parents, or maybe get a job as gofer with Lanier.
Not for the first time, Mr. Wiener's writing made me wonder how/why the alternative newspaper I remember from the 1980s now always comes down on the side of real estate development. It reminds me of a 1970s-1980s self-promotional real estate magazine owned by a guy named Bill Regardie, fittingly called Regardie’s, with a thin veneer of hipsterism. I knew that Dan Snyder’s suit against the City Paper for an unflattering profile of him had put it in serious financial jeopardy, which made me wonder whether it was under new ownership.

A few minutes of research revealed that the Washington City Paper has had three owners since 2007. Someone bought it; then the paper went into bankruptcy and was acquired by a New York investment company, who sold it in 2012 to a Tennessee-based company called SouthComm, Inc., which calls itself the leading publisher of alternative newspapers, mostly in the South. When you Google the company, you find that it is also the leading publisher of directories for the Chamber of Commerce. Puts a whole new spin on things.
Can we get some context placed into this article? Its easy to write a persuasive piece against people that are doing good work when you intenionally exclude critical information. Seriously, is it that simple to be a journalist? I can only hope people who read this dig a little further to know the entire story and ultimately the truth.

And for those of you suggesting violent measures be taken on anyone in this story, shame on you and your shriveled, petrified soul. One can only hope you can bring that thing back to life for the good of humanity.
Andrea and Unregenerate have it exactly right. Thank you! (mAd, too!)
I don't understand. Are you people saying that ALL development is inherently bad? Who do you think built the buildings you live in? Developers. Where you work? Developers. That fund the city through taxes? Developers. They may be sleazy often, but you can't just say "all development is terrible" like some kind of angry 13th-grader who doesn't understand how government is funded and how the economy works. Or, i guess you can, if you really really want to, but that's absurd to do so.
Who is saying all development is terrible?
'Nader declines to weigh in on whether it’d be better to have a mixed-use MLK or no renovation to the outdated central library at all, calling it a “hypothetical choice where you lose on both choices.”'

Hmm, why does that sound familiar? Let's change a few words:

'Nader declines to weigh in on whether it’d be better to have [Al Gore as President] or [George W. Bush as President], calling it a “hypothetical choice where you lose on both choices.”'

Eureka! We've discovered the Theory of Nader: given two realistic outcomes where neither is ideal but one is clearly preferable to the other, the proper path is to pursue an impossible ideal outcome that will ensure the less preferable outcome will be reached.
With the exception of Mr. Nader, I have dealt with all of the DC individuals mentioned in this piece.

The critics of Ms. Diener's project are to be commended for their restraint.
I learned years ago that the only thing Ralph Nader really cares about is Ralph Nader. His consumer activisim on behalf of the public that forced car manufacturers to install seatbelts and other safety precautions was a benefit to all of mankind and was an historic breakthrough. However, the subseguent fame from that victory went straight to Nader's head and he has never been the same. Naders ego driven Presidential campaign assisted George Bush in gaining the White House, forced eight years of the worst presidency on the American People, cost the country 2 wars and 5000 young men and womens lives, and wrecked the economy. Old Ralph never blinked or felt and inkling of guilt. His ego made him immune.
I have no comment on this specific situation. But, again, I highly recommend watching "An Unreasonable Man" before making claims on Nader's character and citizenry. Here's the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ycR36N68R8. I think you will be pleasantly surprised and learn a lot about what it means to be a dogged, selfless public citizen.
Hey there's a warm-and-fuzzy biodoc out there on Marion Barry too. Did some great things a long time ago, sort of a prick and hot mess ever since.
What a bunch of uninformed smarmy twaddle.

Nader ought to sue you for defamation!

- Specify inaccuracies defamatory in nature
- explain how any content is outside "fair comment and criticism"
- or, dispose of the law license and just eat the Cracker Jack
I think the telling part is that Mr. Nadar participated-well initially-in this story and it still came out this way. I don't fault the reporter. It seems like he spoke to a variety of people who had unflattering things to say about him and his group. The reporter also spoke with his employee. Unless she presented a list of people who said "we are so glad that Mr. Nadar intervened because we really don't want this West End Library," then he would be a bad reporter not to share that.
It seems like he went out of his way to give them an opportunity to present their side. They couldn't do that.

And I hope that people keep his self-serving nature in mind when his employees become involved in the MLK library stuff.
Dear Washington City Paper,

It is terribly sad that Aaron Wiener's article on the struggle to renovate the DC library system to serve all residents became such an unbalanced personal attack on Ralph Nader and, to a lesser but still real extent, Robin Diener. In the process, it ignores the value of the Library Renaissance Project, and underplays the very real issues involved.

First, let me say that I am not involved in the West End Library controversy, and have no horse in that race. Nonetheless, the issue of the sale of DC's public space and property for private profit is very real, and resounds far beyond the borders of that neighborhood. I don't feel that Wiener takes this issue seriously at all, at least as evidenced by his article. Thank goodness a group like LRP--as well as Empower DC elsewhere in DC--is around to press such issues!

Next, the supposed LRP focus on "architecture" is never explained, leaving the reader to only suppose that this is some flimsy aesthetic concern. At least in the case of the Mount Pleasant Library--three blocks from where I live in Columbia Heights--this was anything but the case. The main issue of contention involved a very long and convoluted access ramp that was designed with little thought for our elderly and/or disabled neighbors. Senior and disability advocates --including the Resident Association at Kelsey Apartments, the huge nearby senior building--opposed this ramp design and in the end won some concessions. This issue was brought to our attention thanks to LRP, and their role was very much appreciated.

Perhaps our experience was unique, but it is hard to believe so. I don't know Ralph Nader, and haven't dealt with him around these issues, but I thank him for helping fund LRP. The passion and genuine concern for libraries that Robin Diener and Chris Otten have is palpable for anyone who has worked with them. DC libraries are a public treasure, and one we must fight to preserve and protect. We are lucky LRP is here to ask uncomfortable questions, and push us to deeper insight and engagement on these critical issues.

all the best, Mark Andersen
This is a well researched article that, so far as it goes, mostly gets the players and dynamic right.
It doesn't touch on an apparent core line of inquiry, however.
Why must West End and MLK be redeveloped as public-private partnerships? Does DC government so need money that it should divest itself of valuable and appreciating assets? Why was a ground lease not considered for West End? DC spends hundreds of millions of dollars renovating parks and schools- are these two libraries really so expensive as to preclude the city paying for renovations?
The city's strategy in these two libraries has been clear: it's identified them as surplus property, engaged with the community to find their "wants" for them, identified developers willing to purchase the property and install (at least some of) those wants, and then hung blame for any delays in delivering those wants on those who object to privatizing those assets in the first place.
It's a shame that it went this way. I'd be much more comfortable with these sorts of deals if they advanced through a ground-lease mechanism rather than outright sale.
First of all, no one can defend Aaron Weiner, his work at the CP has been consistently awful, but I have found that he usually creates some knee-jerk liberal response suggesting racism.

Secondly, Ralph Nader remains pathologically in denial over his role in the 2000 election and could seriously use a psychiatrist to set him straight on his role in that situation. I have spoken to friends from Public Citizen who cut off all ties with him over what he did and what he is personally responsible for doing and what he is personally responsible for not doing and the people who are dead from his personal actions.

Safe to say that if you're a liberal activist and a professional, you've met ex-members of Nader's groups or even ex-members of his personality cult and have heard them for yourself. I had a friend who joined Public Citizen right out of leaving SDS and stayed for 15 years, only to leave feeling completely abused by him and his process- just as broke and exploited as if she worked for a corporation- I was a teenager when I heard those stories. Remember, only Nader himself makes any real money, the assistants and researchers can and do get replaced by interns every year- or were, I don't know people who can handle him after the 2000 election. I don't doubt that he deserves the book and speaking fees, but many people believed that he would somehow be a different boss than a capitalist- he isn't.

Libraries are changing and changing in real ways. They will not look like the old community libraries of the 1950s. One cannot both suggest that workers telecommute AND that libraries must remain the same. Not long ago an associate of mine traveled to Nigeria and met a local craftsman selling carvings by the side of the road. They talked to the carver about his work and sales in America and he pulled out an iphone and talked about selling his carvings on ebay and etsy. He had no computer, just an iphone. If a Nigerian woodcarver with wares on the side of an unpaved road can conduct his business via cell phone, then we can expect the same from all DC residents and we don't need to cater to the holdouts who avoid technology because we enable them to. I question the need for physical libraries after 2030- so will you, really, by that point. Do people know that DC elementary school kids read from Nooks in class? The era of physical books has gone the way of feeding your mode of transportation hay. Buh-bye.

The MTP Library was an expensive disaster based on a buggy whip model. In 10 years the 75 yr olds that are one commentator's bread and butter will all have laptops and cell phones because they have them now at 65 and they won't need physical libraries (and hopefully via Obamacare and medical advances will be physically healthy enough not to need ramps). But the expensive redesign was Positively Forced through, chuckle.

If Ralph Nader truly lives in Connecticut then he needs to stop carpetbagging in local DC issues. He was one of the most important people in the 20th Century, and someone I wrote a paper on in school, but it's the 21st Century and by today's standards he's a jerk.
The heart of this story is the Mayor's giveaway of valuable public property in downtown Ward 2's West End neighborhood, yet not once does it conjure up any devils in the details.

And the demonic way Anthony Lanier chuckles at the end of the piece, you know he's getting massively rich off the deal.

A fact conveniently ignored by those consenting is that if the West End library land were sold at fair market value the City would have the income to build at least two new libraries.

Supporters of this horrifying deal should be ashamed for how it steals from other DC neighborhoods without library service, delivering only one library buried within an enormous luxury condo project.

We are tired of the "Lie"brary hurting all DC taxpayers. The people of DC must exorcise this devilish corporate takeover of public assets especially now that the future of our central public library, King Memorial Library, is at stake.
Love the whining by the left wingers here. Guess common sense and history (the bloviating about Bush v Gore was entertaining) are subjects well beyond their grasp.
One-sided slam piece on Ralph Nader, and the work he is doing to provide good public services for the people of Washington without the interference of greedy developers -- many of whom are outsiders, such as the wealthy Austrian suggesting this great man take a beach vacation. This story not only neglected to tell both sides of the story, it was highly repetitive and was written solely to push the neoliberal agenda of the fantastical "public-private partnerships," that have fattened the wallets of the biggest campaign contributors to our local politicians. This is typical for the smug, white, and yuppie-oriented City Paper.
Weiner must be on EastBanc's payroll to have written such one-sided crap. How about reporting on the real issues here? Why is DC privatizing its libraries when it has a $417 million surplus? Who's going to own this library - the city or the developer? We don't know, because the terms of the agreement aren't public. Shouldn't we have transparency in deals involving public land? Furthermore, this isn't just a West End deal -- it affects every DC taxpayer who will be robbed of this prime public property's value by obscene giveaways to Jack Evans's favorite developer. Watch this and see what a horrible deal we're getting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UB_BvtK6IxA
This is the same writer who blithely thinks that DC is not a government town, so let's just sell all our government buildings. Everything'll be fine. But his sacred food trucks are doing 50% less in business, in many cases.
from the Washington Post at: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-11-08/local/35504874_1_graduation-rates-absences-high-schools :

"D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said Thursday that the school system’s high truancy rates amount to an educational “crisis,” as D.C. officials disclosed that more than 40 percent of the students at Ballou, Anacostia, Spingarn and Roosevelt high schools missed at least a month of school last year because of unexcused absences.

“We are in a crisis situation,” Henderson said at a D.C. Council hearing on anti-truancy efforts. In addition to the social problems that plague families and contribute to absenteeism in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, she said, many older students are years behind grade level in reading and have given up."

“Why would I want to go to school if I can’t read the book, I can’t do the work, I’m 17 and in the ninth grade?” she said. “It should be no surprise to us that students we have failed for many years are now failing to come to school.” Henderson said the city needs more alternative high schools, more career and technical education, and a focus on literacy to change those trends." (AND places to IMPROVE literacy - like bigger, better libraries?)
How would more schools help a corrupt culture that allows their children to miss a month of school? Do you know multi-generational crime families? I do. Do you think the drug dealing 45 yr old grandparents are going to take their grandbabies to the library?
The story has been long overdue. Interesting how LRP said their mission included improving libraries in Ward 8 when they opposed funding for all three newly constructed branches. Robin Diener testified before the Council Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation on February 25, 2010 in favor of a new library branch for Dupont Circle after duping the community into believing LRP's motive was bringing additional services to Ward 8. That's the only thing I have ever seen LRP inititate and seems to be what Ralph Nader wants for his money.

Diener never advocated for anything in the way of services or improvements for Ward 8 libraries before the Council or Library Board of Trustees. I was in attendance at the hearing and could not believe her nerve. Sadly, the branch in my neighborhood (Bellevue) bears the name of one of her fools, despite his opposition to its construction (a slap in the face to those who worked hard to ensure it got built). That's the sad state of our city.
For the terms of the West End deal visit >> http://www.tinyurl.com/westend-vid

Mrs. Brown, you must have missed the 6 years and hundreds of pages of testimony put on the record by Robin Diener fighting for more library hours while Chief Cooper and John Hill accepted the reduction in hours sitting down -- not using their library card holder database to lobby Council not to shut down our libraries.

Robin Diener and I have never "opposed" any funding for Ward 8 libraries, that is a straight out lie. This is why you run with Cooper and Hill of the "Lie"brary.

Dupont Circle does not have a library. Ward 7 and 8 don't have enough libraries. That has always been our story, so you are purposely trying to change history.

What the volunteers I ran with who worked in Ward 8 on the Washington Highlands library project wanted was a renovation, full on retrofit of their library. Ward 8 ANC's voted for this, several of them, and so did the people living in those neighborhoods. See here >> http://districtdynamos.org/documents/resolutions/wash_high/

The logic was, since Cooper and Hill were spending so much money on tearing down the library -- which also acted as the neighborhoods nuclear fallout shelter -- and paying a star-chitect from London to redo the library, the community asked the question: why not save 10 million dollars in a retrofit, like they did in Takoma, and take that savings to re-invest into more libraries for Ward 8.

But you forgot those details I guess.

Now you have a new library from outerspace in Bellevue, and the meeting rooms are awkward and smaller than they ever were in the old library. Yes you have some new rugs and lights and windows, but you could have gotten that with a renovation and retrofit of the former solid understructure of the old library, plus they could have added a cafe on a new third floor.

All of those great ideas were jettisoned for the folly of Cooper and Hill to bring in overpaid architects for a library that will most-likely fall apart in less than 15 years.

You won!




We realized Aaron Wiener would not write a serious or substantive account of the controversy surrounding the West End library, but even we were disappointed by the extreme disregard for professional and journalistic standards on display in his 4,247-word screed against Ralph Nader and the District of Columbia Library Renaissance Project.

Wiener’s ultimate conclusion is that “as long as there are libraries left to be renovated in D.C.,” Nader and DCLRP will be “fighting the plans” to do so. As Wiener knows, however, we support renovation of the West End library, but oppose this particular plan because District taxpayers will lose tens of millions of dollars in value on the deal, among other reasons. Wiener’s assertion that we categorically oppose renovation of any library in the District is therefore not merely false, but a seemingly deliberate distortion of the facts.

Unfortunately, Wiener became visibly distracted when presented with evidence that taxpayers’ multimillion-dollar losses in the West End deal translate directly into windfall profits for the developer, EastBanc-W.D.C. Partners, and he declined to pursue the issue in his story. Instead, Wiener concedes that DCLRP’s claims “are not unreasonable,” but suggests there is “no way to prove” them. Why Wiener feels qualified to make that determination is a mystery. Wiener never asked what the relevant evidence might be, so he has no way of knowing what it proves.

Because Wiener makes no attempt to evaluate the merits of the West End deal, the only question it raises in his mind is why DCLRP continues to oppose it. Wiener thus quotes a number of individuals purporting to speak on behalf of a “unified” neighborhood, who insist that DCLRP and its members have no legitimate interest in the West End library. The presumption of these individuals, who claim sole authority to speak on behalf of a community that obviously is not unified, goes unquestioned by Wiener. Similarly, Wiener neglects to mention that the Court of Appeals squarely rejected their view, when it held that DCLRP has standing to pursue its appeal.

Wiener repeatedly asserts that DCLRP’s appeal is causing “costs to the city,” but he fails to clarify that the District is not incurring any of the “legal fees” he cites. Instead, the District is relying on EastBanc’s lawyers to defend the deal. And while Wiener quotes EastBanc president Anthony Lanier at length, as he complains about the cost of the appeal, one wishes Wiener would devote the same attention to the money the public is actually losing in this deal.

To cite just one example: Wiener reports that EastBanc will build 52 affordable housing units as part of its deal with the District, “albeit with a city subsidy.” What Wiener fails to disclose is that taxpayers are footing the entire bill for the units – a reported $7 million in cash – even though EastBanc will own them and reap the rents they generate. Apparently Wiener is unconcerned that EastBanc obtained this “subsidy” despite having a legal obligation to include affordable units at its own expense, pursuant to the District’s inclusionary zoning regulations.

By our calculation, District taxpayers stand to lose an estimated $45 million in uncompensated property value alone in the West End deal, primarily because the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development agreed to convey this valuable property to EastBanc at a drastically discounted rate. We have the evidence to prove it, but CityPaper readers will have to look elsewhere if they wish to evaluate that evidence. For Wiener, it just shows the deal “isn’t perfect.”

In an email, Wiener suggested to us that “the story will not turn out well” for DCLRP unless we continued to grant him access. He also threatened to use “a Nader bobblehead” as a prop if his photographer “can’t get a decent photo.” No serious journalist would make such threats, even in jest. But as Wiener’s story shows, he is more interested in repeating unfounded personal invective than actual reporting on matters of the public interest.
Wiener responds to my comments here: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2013/10/10/chatter-unsafe-at-any-read/#more-106070

And I reply to Wiener's response:

It's true we had hoped Aaron Wiener would cover the substance of the central dispute in his story -- the West End library deal -- but, as Wiener confirms, he simply isn't interested in finding out who is right and who is wrong. Some journalists view this inquiry -- also known as trying to discover "the truth" -- to be central to their mission. Apparently Wiener is not one of them.

Wiener is also incorrect that anything in my letter is disingenuous. Nothing I wrote misrepresents him in any way.

I wrote that Wiener "suggests" there is no way to prove DCLRP's claims -- and he does, by failing to address them on the merits, other than to assert that "there's no way to prove that the city got the best deal possible," and to concede that the West End library deal "isn't perfect". Our objection is not that this deal isn't "perfect" or "the best," however, but that it represents a loss of tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer value. Wiener never even attempted to address that claim, because he chose instead to reject claims we never made on the ground that they're impossible to prove. Who's being disingenuous here?

Similarly, the Court of Appeals did in fact reject the view of those who insist DCLRP has no right to speak out or oppose the West End library deal, which is exactly what I wrote:

"Wiener thus quotes a number of individuals purporting to speak on behalf of a “unified” neighborhood, who insist that DCLRP and its members have no legitimate interest in the West End library. The presumption of these individuals, who claim sole authority to speak on behalf of a community that obviously is not unified, goes unquestioned by Wiener. Similarly, Wiener neglects to mention that the Court of Appeals squarely rejected their view, when it held that DCLRP has standing to pursue its appeal."

My comments are clearly directed at and limited to the issue of standing -- i.e., the right to be heard on this issue. By suggesting otherwise, Wiener misrepresents the clear meaning of my comments. Once again, who's quoting whom out of context here?

As an aside, the Court of Appeals did not "side" with the "neighborhood groups," as Wiener states. It only declined to overrule the decision of the Zoning Commission, under the exceedingly deferential "arbitrary and capricious" standard of review. That decision in no way implies the Court agreed with the Zoning Commission's judgment, much less with the neighborhood groups who insist they are the only legitimate voices in this debate.

Finally, it's hard to believe Wiener would deny making an assertion that serves as the ultimate conclusion of his piece. Specifically, I wrote, Wiener asserts that "we categorically oppose renovation of any library in the District." And here is what Wiener wrote: "And so as long as there are libraries left to be renovated in D.C., we can count on a recalcitrant Nader fighting the plans—whether Washingtonians like it or not." For Wiener now to deny making that claim is beyond incredible.

As for Wiener's unprofessional threats against DCLRP, I quoted them word for word, and they speak for themselves.

Wiener's piece, and his response above, do not reflect well on the City Paper.
Oliver, Why do you talk about journalistic standards as if there have been journalistic standards for the last 40-50 years? You sound like you're looking for the 1940s editor sending out the cub reporter with a huge camera to get the scoop in time for the afternoon edition. The impartial journalistic world you seem to think should exist ended in the 1960s with New Journalism. It has not existed since the Baby Boomers killed it. The same Baby Boomers who run Fox News. You want to go back to the 1950s when journalists tried to find the "truth" behind the story? Do you understand how journalism has worked for the last 40 years? Apparently you don't. I feel like I need to scream up and down that I don't get S&H Green Stamps with my groceries like I "should." Do you have any idea how blogs are written?
Considering how defensive Nadar's people are being, I think this story is likely more true than they wanted to admit. What we are seeing now is Nadar's people trying to spin the conversation.
@B (or b)
Do you bother to read things before you post your opinions? I thought not.

The only spinning going on is this transparent hack job from WCP... and maybe Aaron Wiener playing with his dreidel.
I did read the comments. You don't have to agree with my thought. I clearly find your antisemitism to speak more to your inability to do much else. It makes you look as disingenuous and dishonest as Otten and Nadar do in the article that they chose not to participate in but then got angry when it was published. If that was your purpose, then congratulations.
@B
Not only do I not agree with your specious conclusions, I am deeply familiar with this whole sordid tale and your meandering speculations have no more relationship to the reality of the situation than Weiner's yellow journalism.
You can name call and spout opinions all day long, but you’re not entitled to a separate set of facts, and neither is Wiener.
I understand now. Everyone is hiding the truth but Nadar and his henchmen. You are the one who wrote, "maybe Aaron Wiener playing with his dreidel." Considering that I saw you posting on this page as well as the other page related to this particular story, I will just discount you and your opinion as nothing more than a plant for Nadar. Feel free to respond with your denials and deeper facts because you are "deeply familiar" with this matter.

Keep on spinning. Spin till you vomit.
"Considering that I saw you posting on this page as well as the other page..."

Oh, I get it, "B"... you're a stalker as well as a vomit fetishist.

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...