City Desk

Chatter: Unsafe at Any Read

Ralph Nader has had a long and distinguished career as a consumer advocate, five-time presidential nominee, and champion of longshot left-wing causes. But last week’s cover story by Aaron Wiener surveyed Nader’s legacy through the prism of his latest incarnation—D.C. neighborhood activist—and a Naderite group’s opposition to the public-private redevelopment of the West End Library (“Wreck-It Ralph,” Oct. 4). Early this week, Oliver Hall, a lawyer for Nader’s Library Renaissance Project sent us a response, which begins, “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.” The letter goes on:

“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 City Paper 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 not 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 wrote this response:

“Throughout my conversations with the Library Renaissance Project, I tried to make clear to them that this was primarily a story about Ralph Nader—specifically, why a national political figure was getting involved in a community library dispute, and the neighborhood’s response. I aimed to present both sides’ arguments on the library deal—DCLRP’s against, and the city’s, library’s, and neighbors’ in favor—but ultimately I did not see it fit to adjudicate a matter that’s before the courts and has no single right answer. Instead, I focused on the dynamic of Nader’s involvement and the community’s reaction.

“In this sense, Hall’s letter is not so much a criticism of the story I wrote as a plea for the story I didn’t write. But he does make a few arguments that are disingenuous. He quotes my story out of context, claiming I wrote there was ‘no way to prove’ DCLRP’s case when in fact I wrote there was ‘no way to prove’ that the deal DCLRP opposes is the best one for the city. Likewise, he says the Court of Appeals ‘squarely rejected’ the view of the neighborhood groups, when the court actually rejected every argument made by DCLRP and sided with the views of those groups, except on the narrow question of whether the DCLRP subgroup had standing to bring the appeal. And he refers to my ‘assertion that we categorically oppose renovation of any library in the District,’ an assertion I never made, though I did point out that DCLRP has raised objections to a startlingly high percentage of recent library renovation projects.

“Unfortunately, I was unable to continue the productive conversations I had with Nader and DCLRP early on in my reporting of the story after Executive Director Robin Diener informed me that they would no longer speak with me. In response to Diener’s email, I urged her to reconsider, noting that when a reporter is examining a two-sided debate, if one side is cooperative and helpful while the other shuts down access and cancels meetings, the latter probably won’t come across as well in the story. Likewise, I asked her to allow our staff photographer to take photos of Nader, since the story required artwork and in the absence of photos, we’d be forced to ‘pull some silly stunt like holding a Nader bobblehead in front of the library.’ Fortunately, we were able to take photos of Nader at a public event.

“Perhaps if they’d maintained a dialogue, they could have gotten more of their perspective into the story. I hope they’ll reconsider their decision next time I call them for an article.”

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  • Oliver Hall

    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.

  • Mario

    City Paper needs to cut ties with this Wiener hack. If you're going to write an "investigative" piece you have to go all the way. His first article was woefully childish and bereft of pertinent facts and, as a result, unprofessional.

  • fasicad

    With an ineffective and childish Congress, a cadre of corrupt international banks, the systematic dismantling of the poor and middle classes by a group of billionaires so large that they can't all fit on the Forbes 100, the gradual eradication of natural resources including unmodified grains and produce, rampant and endemic racism, sexism and homophobia among more than half of the country and an educational system that generates little more than arrested development I find it incredibly offensive that a purported public servant like Mr Nader chooses to be so focused on this issue.

    THe deal was offered to the development market and only bid on by two firms. From what I understand of developers, they generally aren't inclined to walk away from a "windfall". The District negotiated an arms-length transaction and I presume they got the best deal they could. While I understand at some point, someone valued the properties above the amount they ultimately transacted for - that's just part of the deal. If you feel your house is worth $1million based on the location, but it requires $300,000 of work, is it still worth $1million? And if the only bids you get are for $500-600,000 because of the current property values and you need to sell in order to finance the new house you are building across town- is it so far a stretch of the mind to think you'd take that offer? In addition, over the course of the next decade, the District will certainly make out quite well on transfer and recordation taxes from this property. I hardly think the District residents are getting shafted here.

    I respect Mr. Nader and his team for all the good that they have done for the American public over the last four decades. I just wish he'd turn his efforts and resources towards something that truly has a deleterious effect on the residents of the District (and nation at large) and NOT renovations of neighborhood libraries regardless of the context.

    Thank you.

  • anonymous

    "...I just wish he'd turn his efforts and resources towards something that truly has a deleterious effect on the residents of the District..."

    This IS a very serious issue--conflicted DC employees, politicians and their cronies colluding behind the scenes to reward each other with millions in valuable public assets.

    Sounds like Wiener was lazy or told by his usual sources that he could just blow it off. Tsk, tsk!

  • fasicad

    -anonymous - This is not a no-bid award. As a resident of the West End neighborhood, I know that this is a deal that was subject to an RFP process, a multi-year negotiation with the District, City Council approval, ANC approval, Zoning Commission approval, an appeal in District court AND endless community reviews with no substantive objection from any party except Mr. Hall.

  • darien endel

    Journalistic standards are nonexistent at The City Paper. They are a bunch of hacks and anyone who reads the CP paper expecting factual and/or investigative reporting is a fool.

  • anonymous

    We'll see if WCP prints my comment or keeps it locked up in moderation this time.

    @fasicad: Unfortunately, you have fallen into the distraction trap set by EastBanc and its bought-and-paid-for groupies.

    As you wished, Mr. Nader and his team ARE dealing with the corrosive cadre of politicians, their DC government cronies and their political operatives who feel entitled to public assets and continue blithely to scratch each others backs in an endless pay-to-play scheme.

    Mayoral candidate Jack Evans--who tried to give these properties to EastBanc in 2007 and had to cook up another approach when that didn't work--has been the beneficiary of EastBanc's gratitude for nearly two decades. It's called pay-to-play and it just doesn't cut it.

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