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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.
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.