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Posts from the "The NBBL Files" Category

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Iris Weinshall on Marty Markowitz: “He’s a Creep… Always Has Been”

Marty Markowitz and Iris Weinshall

So today we’ve been reviewing all the cynical ploys that former DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall, former First Deputy Mayor Norman Steisel, and former Brooklyn College dean Louise Hainline used in their attempt to reverse the public planning process that produced the Prospect Park West bike lane. The lawsuit that’s back in the news today is the centerpiece of their sweeping body of work, and right now, the centerpiece of the lawsuit is an affidavit that Borough President Marty Markowitz submitted at the 11th hour in the summer of 2011.

In case the details of the case have faded from memory, here’s the quick recap… In order for the bike lane opponents to get a judge to rule on the actual legal arguments in their case (which are incredibly flimsy), they first had to prove that they filed their lawsuit before the statute of limitations expired. To do this, they had to show that the bike lane was installed as a “pilot,” not a permanent redesign. The problem was, there was no record of DOT ever calling the bike lane a pilot or a trial. In fact, DOT’s Josh Benson explicitly said at a public meeting in April, 2010, that the bike lane was not a trial, and the opponents themselves acknowledged that they’d never come across an instance where DOT said the project was provisional.

Enter Markowitz and his affidavit, in which he alleged that DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan described the project as a trial in a closed-door meeting between members of Markowitz’s staff and DOT’s staff. Sadik-Khan refuted Markowitz’s version of events in her own affidavit.

Basically, the opponents have been able to drag out the case based on this one dubious piece of testimony from Markowitz. So it only seems fitting to share this assessment of Marty Markowitz from none other than Iris Weinshall herself.

When Steisel wrote to Weinshall in October, 2010, worried that Markowitz’s commitment to their cause might be wavering, Weinshall replied: “Not surprised about Marty… he’s a creep… always has been… he’s not burning any bridges with Bloomberg!”

Well, she was wrong about the burning bridges part.

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The NBBL Files: PPW Foes Pursued Connections to Reverse Public Process

Editor’s note: With yesterday’s appellate ruling prolonging the Prospect Park West case, Streetsblog is running a refresher on the how the well-connected gang of bike lane opponents waged their assault against a popular and effective street safety project. This is the fifth installment from the six-part NBBL Files.

This piece originally ran on November 10, 2011.

This is the fifth post in a series examining the tactics employed by opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign. Read the first, second, third, and fourth installments.

For a few months in the beginning of 2011, hardly a day went by without some political figure or media pundit inveighing against bike lanes and the Department of Transportation. The attackers ran the gamut from Staten Island Republicans to Democrats holding citywide office, from tabloid editorial boards to columnists for highbrow glossy mags. The story swirling in the middle of it all surrounded a bike lane about a mile long on Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West, which had the backing of most local residents but irritated some powerful neighbors.

PPW bike lane opponents including former deputy mayor Norman Steisel, left, met with Public Advocate Bill de Blasio in February. A month later De Blasio sent a letter to NYC DOT criticizing the agency's evaluation of bike, bus, and pedestrian projects.

Even the most rational observer had to question, at times, whether the multi-pronged attack on the city’s bike policy was really a coincidence. And it turns out that in fact, the self-proclaimed “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” had several previously unreported connections to the bikelash of 2011, according to email communications obtained by Streetsblog via freedom of information request.

Former DOT commissioner Iris Weinshall and former NYC personnel director Bob Linn tried to trade on their contacts inside the Bloomberg administration to undermine the PPW bike lane and NYC DOT.

In some cases, NBBL joined up with other bike lane foes after observing them from afar. In others, they had a direct hand in ginning up bad press for bike lanes and DOT. Sometimes they got what they wanted out of their political and media connections. Other times their gambits seemingly went nowhere. And on occasion their efforts completely backfired. We’ll explore these connections in two posts: This one deals with their political and professional contacts, and the next one with their media contacts.

The picture that emerges of NBBL’s behind-the-scenes lobbying contrasts starkly with the process that led up to the installation of the PPW bike lane. While the neighborhood advocates and civic groups who supported the bike lane gathered signatures and helped shepherd the project through the community board process, the opponents traded on their extensive Rolodexes and high-level connections to undermine the bike lane in a secretive and sophisticated campaign.

Two major NBBL players should be familiar if you’ve been following the story: Iris Weinshall, former DOT commissioner and wife of United States Senator Chuck Schumer; and Norman Steisel, sanitation commissioner for Ed Koch and first deputy mayor under David Dinkins. The constellation of former city bureaucrats who put their government contacts to use opposing the Prospect Park West bike lane also includes Bob Linn, city personnel director under Koch, and Connie Christensen, a former arts commissioner.

Note: Streetsblog has already covered NBBL connections to Senator Chuck Schumer, former deputy mayor and Gibson Dunn partner Randy Mastro, City Council Transportation Committee Chair Jimmy Vacca, and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. They are for the most part not included in this piece.

NBBL Spoke With the Public Advocate, City Council Members, Borough Presidents and City Hall About PPW Lane

NBBL leaders Steisel, Louise Hainline, and Lois Carswell, as well as their attorney, Jim Walden, attended a meeting with Public Advocate Bill de Blasio on February 9 (Weinshall was out of town). The meeting was “to discuss bike strategy” according to a confirmation message from de Blasio scheduler Ellyn Canfield Nealon. De Blasio’s office has not returned an inquiry about who called the meeting and what was discussed.

One month after that meeting, however, de Blasio sent a letter to Janette Sadik-Khan calling DOT’s evaluations of its own projects, including of the PPW lane, “rubber stamps.” Impugning the integrity of DOT’s project evaluations echoes a major theme in the NBBL lawsuit. The Post picked up de Blasio’s letter a week later, when DOT publicly abandoned plans for the 34th Street separated busway.

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The NBBL Files: Norman Steisel’s Ideas Became Jimmy Vacca’s Bills

Editor’s note: With yesterday’s appellate ruling prolonging the Prospect Park West case, Streetsblog is running a refresher on the how the well-connected gang of bike lane opponents waged their assault against a popular and effective street safety project. This is the fourth installment from the six-part NBBL Files.

This piece originally ran on October 11, 2011.

This is the fourth post in a series examining the tactics employed by opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign. Read the first, second, and third installments.

The primary objective of most members of “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” was clearly to remove the bike lane from Prospect Park West. They didn’t particularly care about bike lanes elsewhere, though they privately cheered every defeat of a sustainable transportation project as a sign that they might wipe out the bike lane in front of their homes. But because the NBBL strategy relied so heavily on impeding NYC DOT bike planning and tarnishing the reputation of transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, their parochial crusade ended up empowering opponents of street safety across the city.

Former deputy mayor Norman Steisel and City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca.

Nowhere is NBBL’s citywide influence more apparent than in the receptive audience they found with City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca. As we reported earlier this year, NBBL leaders including former transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall met with Vacca in the run-up to his December, 2010 hearing on bike policy — a harbinger of the bikelash that peaked later that winter. Communications obtained by Streetsblog indicate that NBBL not only influenced Vacca’s oversight hearings, they also managed to insert their ideas into his legislation.

Messages from bike lane opponent Norman Steisel reveal a close link between his crusade to thwart bike projects with red tape and two bills introduced in the City Council this June by Vacca.

In mid-February, Steisel, a former sanitation commissioner and first deputy mayor under David Dinkins, wrote a lengthy letter to Vacca and City Council Member James Oddo on the topic of bike planning. The letter was triggered by Oddo’s proposal to subject all bike lanes to environmental review, a suggestion that environmental law experts called a waste of taxpayer money. Some of Steisel’s suggestions ended up in two bills Vacca introduced this summer, which are still under consideration in his committee.

“Iris and Norman have been meeting with City Council people privately, particularly Jimmy Vacca who doesn’t like the lanes.”

- PPW bike lane opponent Louise Hainline, December 2010

In the February letter, Steisel put forward a number of recommendations to impede the city’s bike planning process, many of which were gleaned from his personal campaign to remove the Prospect Park West bike lane. For instance, Steisel wrote that bike lanes should be planned with the “historic character” of the surrounding neighborhood in mind (the appearance of the bike lane on PPW chafed at NBBL members’ aesthetic sensibilities). At the same time, he argued that the traffic-calming effect of bike lanes should not be taken into consideration (it irked bike lane opponents to hear that the PPW redesign was implemented to reduce speeding).

Steisel’s knowledge of New York City government runs deep, and his letter reads like the wish list of someone who wants to see bike projects mired in bureaucracy for years.

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The NBBL Files: Chuck Schumer “Doesn’t Like the Bike Lane”

Editor’s note: With yesterday’s appellate ruling prolonging the Prospect Park West case, Streetsblog is running a refresher on the how the well-connected gang of bike lane opponents waged their assault against a popular and effective street safety project. This is the third installment from the six-part NBBL Files.

This piece originally ran on October 5, 2011.

This is the third installment in a series of posts examining the tactics employed by opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign. Read the first post and the second post.

Senator Chuck Schumer, a frequent cyclist, walks his bike by the Prospect Park West bike lane, which he told bike lane opponents he does not like. Image: Brooklyn Spoke.

Throughout the Prospect Park West bike lane saga, intense speculation has surrounded New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer. Both his wife, Iris Weinshall, and his daughter, Jessica Schumer, played leading roles in the fight against the redesign, but Schumer’s office remained studiously silent throughout. “I am not commenting,” Schumer repeatedly told the New York Times when asked about the bike lane this March; in later press conferences, his staff barred reporters from asking about it.

Despite his public attempt to remain neutral, Schumer told opponents of the bike lane that he personally opposed it, according to correspondence obtained by Streetsblog via freedom of information request.

Members of the anti-bike lane group “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” also attempted to use the senator’s political power and network of contacts to their advantage. They exploited his connections to get access to top political consultants and hoped to use his clout to pressure local elected officials. David Seifman at the Post has reported that Schumer asked City Council members what they would do about the bike lane. Schumer may also have discussed the project with Mayor Bloomberg himself, according to a message from one leading bike lane opponent.

Schumer apparently revealed his opposition to the bike lane to NBBL leader Louise Hainline, who lives in the penthouse of the same Prospect Park West apartment building the senator calls home. “Schumer can’t help much with this issue, but I have seen him and he doesn’t like the lane,” wrote Hainline to two bike lane opponents on June 29, 2010. Though Hainline said Schumer “can’t help much,” NBBL repeatedly attempted to use his connections and clout to aid their efforts.

Bike lane opponents sought to wield the senator’s political influence to pressure local elected officials. Specifically, Hainline believed that she could leverage her Schumer connection to win the backing of City Council Member Steve Levin.

In an e-mail to a personal friend on December 24, 2010, Hainline reported on her recent meetings with members of the City Council. She came away believing Council Member Brad Lander wouldn’t turn against the lane, but that Levin might. Wrote Hainline: “Stephen Levin is a protégée of Vito Lopez, who if you are reading the papers is in some hot water, so Levin’s looking for some god father, and may want Vacca or Schumer to protect him, maybe both.”

It’s not clear whether Hainline’s plan for Levin was based on her recent conversation with him or was simply wishful thinking. Levin has not taken a public position on the bike lane, even when asked about it directly.

No written evidence of Schumer’s direct lobbying on the bike lane has surfaced, but one email is quite suggestive. On December 3, 2010, bike lane opponent and former deputy mayor Norman Steisel wrote to Weinshall: “Also heard abt a purported conversation betwn the mayor and our sr. senator you might find of interest.” In all the documents obtained by Streetsblog, the extent of Steisel and Weinshall’s communications was limited to the Prospect Park West bike lane, suggesting that the conversation “of interest” between Schumer and Bloomberg was likely about the same topic.

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The NBBL Files: Bike Lane Opponents Knew Their Lawsuit Lacked Merit

Editor’s note: With yesterday’s appellate ruling prolonging the Prospect Park West case, Streetsblog is running a refresher on the how the well-connected gang of bike lane opponents waged their assault against a popular and effective street safety project. This is the second installment from the six-part NBBL Files. It’s the one that revealed the bike lane opponents didn’t even believe their own legal arguments.

This piece originally ran on October 4, 2011.

This is the second installment in a series of posts examining the tactics employed by opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign. Read the first post.

When they filed their lawsuit this March, opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign had little chance of succeeding in court. As NYU Law Professor Roderick Hills, Jr. told Streetsblog in March, “I take this complaint to be largely public relations, with no more law behind it than is minimally necessary to avoid sanctions for frivolity.” It turns out that some of the most prominent members of the anti-bike lane group “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” were perfectly aware of the holes in their case too.

Bike Lane Opponents Knew PPW Was Not Landmarked But Argued Otherwise in Suit

One of the central legal arguments in the Prospect Park West lawsuit asserted that the redesign should have gone through the city’s landmarks and environmental review processes. “Because Prospect Park West touches not one but two sites that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, New York State and City law demands careful study of various environmental impacts,” stated the lawsuit, referring to the street’s location between the Park Slope historic district and Prospect Park itself.

The city’s lawyers pointed out that each side of the street is landmarked, but not the roadway itself.

Before they filed suit, NBBL president Louise Hainline and her fellow litigant, former deputy mayor Norman Steisel, explicitly acknowledged the merits of what would become the legal argument of their opponents. They knew the bike lane was not landmarked.

On August 2, 2010, Steisel wrote to Hainline with a suggestion [PDF]. If a distinguished architect or city planner could complain about the aesthetics of the lane to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Art Commission and City Planning Commission, Steisel suggested, First Deputy Mayor Patti Harris might be persuaded to turn against it.

“Unfortunately, the lane is not in the Landmark District,” Hainline conceded later that evening.

Steisel agreed, but he recommended that NBBL push the issue anyway. “Doesn’t matter that landmarks has no jurisdiction they are kindered spirits along with art comm and cpc types,” Steisel wrote. “Bottom line need authorstive voice to say bloomberg legacy will be besmirched by altering this historic street.”

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The NBBL Files: Weinshall and Steisel Manufactured Anti-Bike Coverage

This is the sixth post in a series examining the tactics employed by the opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign known as “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes.” Read the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth installments.

Former deputy mayor Norman Steisel and former transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall both leaned on contacts at NYC's major dailies to amplify their message and give coverage a slant that benefited their campaign to get rid of the PPW bike lane.

One of the defining elements of the Prospect Park West bike lane saga was the inordinate amount of media attention it received. For months, this one short stretch of pavement in Brooklyn ignited coverage from just about every New York City broadsheet, tabloid, evening news broadcast, and glossy magazine. Everyone kept talking about it — even the British press.

NBBL could count on New York Post real estate columnist Steve Cuozzo and CBS 2 political correspondent Marcia Kramer to advance their agenda.

To be fair, it had all the elements of a great story, like a former transportation commissioner attacking her successor, and a United States senator meddling in a hyper-local issue in his backyard. But most of the time, that’s not what the coverage was about. The outlets that covered the bike lane the most — especially the tabloid opinion pages and CBS 2 News — had a knack for amplifying the arguments of bike lane opponents while glossing over the political maneuvering and ignoring facts that ran counter to the story NBBL wanted to tell.

Documents obtained by Streetsblog via freedom of information request reveal that leading bike lane opponents Iris Weinshall and Norman Steisel used their connections in the local press to shape coverage (months before NBBL hired a PR firm to work the media in a more conventional manner). What’s remarkable isn’t so much that they tried to spin the press, but how successful they were. Time after time, papers printed material that made NBBL happy, even when it warped what really happened or was easily disproved.

NBBL Had Friends at NYC’s Three Major Dailies

Weinshall, the former DOT commissioner and wife of Senator Chuck Schumer, and Steisel, the former deputy mayor under David Dinkins, repeatedly used their media connections to shape coverage of the bike lane dispute.

After bike lane supporters and NBBL held dueling rallies on October 21, 2010, for example, Weinshall reached out to New York Daily News transit reporter Pete Donohue. He informed her that the paper’s Brooklyn bureau had covered the rally. “Ok…. but they are pro bike….. not objective!” complained Weinshall.

After predicting that both sides would be represented in the paper’s coverage, Donohue offered to help Weinshall. “I’ll email my editor to make sure there’s a few kicks at the freewheelers in there!” he wrote. Despite the fact that the pro-bike lane rally outnumbered the opponents 5 to 1, the only participant quoted the next day opposed the bike lane. Donohue has not returned Streetsblog’s inquiry about whether he really intervened on Weinshall’s behalf or was simply humoring her.

(Update: Donohue denies doing a favor for Weinshall and says he deleted Streetsblog’s email seeking comment without opening it because the subject line (“Prospect Park West Bike Lane Coverage”) was vague and didn’t pertain to his beat. “Of course I didn’t suggest slanting an article favorable to Iris,” he said. “To suggest that I was part of some grand conspiracy against bike lanes is silly and I would have told you so.”)

Weinshall also helped bike lane opponents get a letter to the editor questioning the safety benefits of the PPW redesign published in the New York Times. On December 17, 2010, Steisel emailed NBBL leaders, worried that he hadn’t heard any response from the Times about their letter. Weinshall offered to call someone at the newspaper to promote it.

“Called my contact at New York Times… she said she would see what she could do,” Weinshall reported the following day. Two days later, the Times told Steisel that his letter had been accepted.

Steisel also marshaled connections to the city’s press corps in support of his cause. Based on the documents Streetsblog obtained, his most valuable contact was on the Daily News editorial board.

“Just spoke with mike aronson guy who wrote editorial,” wrote Steisel in an e-mail last December, right after James Vacca’s transportation committee held a bike policy hearing, instigated in part by NBBL, that put him front and center. “His asst bev calling me, probably mon, to go over materials i sent, docs that he said upon his quick perusal looked intriguingly promising for their further opining.”

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The NBBL Files: Weinshall Got Randy Mastro Before the Paint on PPW Was Dry

Last week, opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign moved to appeal Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Bert Bunyan’s decision to reject their complaint against the city. If the community board’s approval of the bike lane and the data showing its effect on speeding and safety didn’t persuade them not to sue in the first place, a judicial decision wasn’t going to persuade them now. The longer the litigation drags on, the more time they’ll have to muddy the truth (to borrow a phrase from the Brooklyn Paper).

Since the case is still in the courts, though, we’ve also got more time to get a clearer look at the anti-bike lane group “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes.” Based on email correspondence obtained via freedom of information request, we now have a better sense of NBBL’s methods — how they’ve exploited their connections to politicians, media personalities, city bureaucrats, and various New York City power players in their attempt to erase the new bike lane in their neighborhood.

Randy Mastro offered pro bono legal representation to Iris Weinshall and Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes immediately after the bike lane was installed. Mastro photo: New York Post

Let’s begin with the connection that set the lawsuit on its path to becoming a media spectacle: NBBL’s access to Gibson Dunn partner Randy Mastro.

Actually, first let’s pause to appreciate a classic NBBL exercise in muddying the truth. In the run-up to suing the city, you may recall that NBBL adopted the posture of reluctant litigants. “Much has been said about a potential legal action; we hope not to be forced to bring one,” said their attorney, Gibson Dunn partner Jim Walden, shortly before filing the suit. At the time, in late February, NBBL and Walden had been grabbing headlines for a few weeks, talking about litigation as a supposed last resort.

In fact, his firm had been planning a lawsuit with former DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall and the leaders of NBBL for more than seven months. Gibson Dunn provided this service “pro bono.” The person who first offered the use of the firm’s resources to assist Weinshall was Mastro, who co-chairs Gibson Dunn’s litigation arm.

Weinshall and Mastro were not strangers. Both served in Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral administration – Mastro as chief of staff and later first deputy mayor, Weinshall as a high-ranking official in the Department of Citywide Administrative Services and then as DOT commissioner.

On July 3, 2010, Weinshall emailed her daughter, Jessica Schumer, a recent graduate of Yale Law School who campaigned vigorously against the bike lane that summer. “Spoke with Randy mastro he said he would help you with the article 78!” she wrote [PDF]. (An “Article 78″ refers to the type of lawsuit opponents eventually filed in their bid to tarnish DOT and erase the bike lane.)

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