Power, Politics, and the Prospect Park Bike Lane

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Last March, Mayor Michael Bloomberg dined privately with a small group of guests that included his former transportation commissioner, Iris Weinshall, and her husband, the United States Senator, Charles Schumer.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, at podium, in 2006 when Iris Weinshall (right) was his DOT Commissioner (photo by Eugene Patron via Flickr)

By that time, both Schumer and Weinshall had made known their displeasure over a bike lane that had been built across the street from their home – on Brooklyn’s leafy Prospect Park West.

According to two sources familiar with what was said at that dinner, Schumer asked the mayor: “Can’t you get rid of that lane?”

“You don’t like it?” the mayor responded.  A beat. “I’m going to make it twice as wide.”

Neither Schumer’s office nor the mayor’s office would comment.

But the clash of two broadly powerful men is typical of the Prospect Park West bike lane story, which was never really about a bike lane. Or rather, it was never only about a bike lane, but rather about the perennial New York City question – who decides what goes where in the densely-packed urban streets we call home, and how they get to decide.

The city’s aggressive effort to install new bike lanes – some 260 miles of them have been added since 2006  -- has roiled many neighborhoods.  But only one group – the one that included Weinshall -- sued to have a lane removed.

And now a fresh batch of emails unearthed by Streetsblog, a decidedly pro-bike-lane website, sheds new light on how this group of influential New Yorkers managed to raise their fight above all the rest, marshalling the services of one of the city’s premier law firms, and then, as the emails show, tried to make sure that information never got out.

“We should never say how we got Randy!”  Weinshall implored, referring to a senior attorney at one of the city’s top law firms. Read on for more on what that all means.  (Click here to hear Andrea Bernstein and Soterios Johnson discussing the story.)

(from email correspondence obtained by Streetsblog)

Prospect Park West runs along the Olmstead-designed Prospect Park from Grand Army Plaza to Bartel Pritchard Square -- a distance of less than a mile.  PPW is populated with elegantly detailed mansions and stately pre-war apartment buildings. The avenue itself is a wide, five-lane boulevard.

Before the bike lane was installed, PPW had two lanes of parking, with three lanes of traffic in the middle. Cars, the city DOT says, would routinely speed – about three quarters would go over the legal limit of 30 mph. So it wasn’t a tough sell to convince the local community board to install a two-way bike lane along the park side of the street, buffered from what would now be two lanes of car traffic by a lane of parked cars.

(images courtesy of the NYC DOT)

Proponents argued the lane would provide a safe place for cyclists to ride and slow down automobile traffic.

In June 2009, the bike lane got a green light from the local community board, the most-grass roots level of city decision making (and not the playground in which the truly powerful tend to play).

Following that vote, influential dissenters began to mobilize. In October, 2009, the Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz, wrote a letter to transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Weinshall’s successor. “I reside directly across the streets on Prospect Park West,” Markowitz wrote. (Markowitz has since moved to Windsor Terrace, about a mile away.) “This proposal would definitely reduce the number of parking spaces, further exacerbating this already-intolerable situation.”

And, Markowitz noted, he was joined in his request for more extensive scrutiny “by former DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall, who absolutely agrees that the installation of a two-way, barricaded bike lane would cause incredible congestion.” Weinshall, as it happened, had launched the massive expansion of bike lanes while she was DOT commissioner, the one that was to add 200 miles of bike lanes by 2009 (There are now about 500 miles of bike lanes in New York City). “We’re committed to being the safest city for cycling,” Weinshall said in a 2006 press release announcing the initiative.

(from a 2006 NYC press release, when Iris Weinshall was NYC DOT commissioner)

Even so, compared to her successor, Janette Sadik-Khan, Weinshall was a much more traditional DOT chief. Sadik-Khan has worked to radically reshape how people view streets:  not just as pathways for cars, but as parks, cafes, playgrounds, walkways, plazas, and, yes bike-lanes.

Through the fall and spring of 2011, Markowitz pushed his case. In an April 2010 interview with WNYC he called Sadik-Khan a “zealot,” and no less boisterously made his case that the lane was ill-advised.

In June 2010, the city began installing the lane anyway. Sometime around that time, Weinshall contacted Randy Mastro, a lawyer for the well-connected law firm of Gibson, Dunn, Crutcher.  Mastro had been a deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration, at the same time Weinshall had served as DOT commissioner (she stayed on for the first five years of Bloomberg’s tenure.)

At Gibson, Dunn, Crutcher, Mastro is the co-chair of the firm’s litigation practice group, and also co-chairs the firm’s crisis management unit, which makes him The Good Wife’s Will Gardner and Eli Gold rolled into one, but with a temperament most like Cary Agos.

(Clockwise, from top left: Matt Czuchry as Cary Agos, Josh Charles as Will Gardner, Randy Mastro, and Alan Cumming as Eli Gold)

According to the emails published by Streetsblog, on July 3, 2010, Weinshall emailed her daughter, Jessica, a recent Yale Law graduate who had volunteered to work against the bike lane. The email said: “spoke with Randy Mastro he said he would help you with the Article 78” (the legal proceeding).

Streetsblog obtained the emails through a freedom of information request to the City University of New York, where Weinshall works as vice chancellor.

Mastro confirmed in a telephone interview that his former colleague had approached him.  He said she knew of his subsequent legal work, particularly his role in opposing a West Side stadium in Manhattan, when he worked for Cablevision, the owner of Madison Square Garden. That was one of Bloomberg’s most resounding defeats on a decision on how to organize public space.

“I agreed to take a matter pro bono on an issue that warranted litigation,” – the bike lane lawsuit -- Mastro told me.  He’d taken on this kind of case pro-bono before – for example, on whether the Brooklyn House of Detention could expand without an environmental review.

That summer of 2010, he referred the bike lane matter to a colleague, Jim Walden.

Throughout that fall, the battle over the bike lane continued at fever pitch.  The New York City Council held hearings, and both opponents and supporters of the lanes staged noisy demonstrations, opened Facebook pages, and took sometimes nasty potshots at each other through a number of media outlets and blogs.

In late December, Weinshall co-signed a letter to the New York Times about the bike lane. The signatories also included two of Weinshall’s neighbors: Normal Steisel, a deputy mayor under David Dinkins (and Ed Koch), and Louise Hainline, then a dean at Brooklyn College, disputing DOT data saying the lane had made streets safer.  “The D.O.T. data produce more puzzlement than enlightenment,” the trio wrote.

“When new bike lanes force the same volume of cars and trucks into fewer and narrower traffic lanes, the potential for accidents between cars, trucks and pedestrians goes up rather than down. At Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, for instance, where a two-way bike lane was put in last summer, our eyewitness reports show collisions of one sort or another to be on pace to be triple the former annual rates.”

This was the first time Weinshall had come forward publicly as a bike lane opponent.

Weinshall and Steisel hewed to an argument common to transportation departments – that cutting lanes for automobiles would pour more cars into less space, slowing traffic, and, they argued, causing more collisions.   But there’s a serious line of thinking among urban planners that reducing automobile lanes cuts traffic volumes, because drivers choose different routes, or forgo cars altogether.

About a week later, Walden, their pro-bono attorney, wrote a private letter to Commissioner Sadik-Khan demanding more data and a moratorium on any further decision-making on this bike lane.  On letterhead noting his firm’s offices in locations including Dubai, Palo Alto, Century City, and Munich, Walden closed by saying “your written assurances on this point will obviate the need for us to pursue legal remedies at this time.”

When I obtained a copy of the letter, I reached out to Louise Hainline, who expressed deep frustration about the city’s reluctance to turn over data. One of the questions I asked:  how was Randy Mastro involved in the case? Hainline didn’t give me an answer, but Jim Walden did, telling me Mastro had asked him to take on the lawsuit.

On the evening of February 4, both TransportationNation.org and WNYC.org published stories breaking news of the impending lawsuit.  Here was my lede:

“It’s a who’s who directory of city government. Iris Weinshall, the former city transportation commissioner and wife of U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. A dean at Brooklyn College. Norman Steisel, the former deputy mayor under Edward Koch and David Dinkins. And the other former deputy mayor, Randy Mastro (under Giuliani) who introduced the group to a colleague at his high-powered law firm, Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher. And what is all this former government firepower being assembled to do?  Remove a bike lane on Prospect Park West, in Brooklyn.”

On Sunday, February 6, the New York Post’s David Seifman ran a story that Senator Schumer had been quietly lobbying to have the lane removed.  According to the report, “sources said Schumer -- who has yet to take a public position on the 19-block bike corridor -- shared his feelings privately with some members of the City Council. ‘He's asked legislators what they're going to do about [this and other] bike lanes," said one source.’

The morning the story appeared, Weinshall emailed Steisel and Hainline, urging them to “check out the post!”

Apparently unaware that I’d already confirmed (and publicly reported) Mastro’s role, Hainline wrote Weinshall back:  “I think Randy Mastro is next. Andrea Bernstein of NPR was acting like a middle school newspaper reporter trying to get details about Mastro’s involvement with the effort the other day.”

Which provoked the response:  “We should never say how we got Randy!”

In my phone call with Mastro after the emails were made public, he expressed bafflement at that email, emphasizing that he and Weinshall had been colleagues in the Giuliani administration and it didn’t surprise him at all that she would reach out to him. No evidence has emerged to suggest that Senator Schumer was in any way personally involved in the effort to recruit Mastro, other than by being married to Weinshall.  Neither Senator Schumer’s office nor Iris Weinshall would comment for this story.

However, the fact remains that this particular group of city residents upset with a Bloomberg administration decision – and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of such groups all around the city at any one moment – was able to mobilize a high-powered law firm on its behalf.

The law firm aggressively pursued the suit, penning hundreds of pages of legal motions, arguments and briefs, appearing repeatedly in court, subpoenaing a boatload of officials and community leaders, and FOILing thousands of emails from project proponents.

Even so, that big law firm lost its case.  On August 16, Justice Bert Bunyan ruled the lawyers had missed the statute of limitations by not filing within months of the installation of the bike lane in June 2010. He dismissed the plaintiffs arguments that the deadline for filing had been extended because the lane was “experimental,” saying the plaintiffs had been unable to furnish proof for that.   He did agree that the city hadn't properly responded to the group's Freedom of Information request, and ordered it to do so.

The group is not giving up. On September 26, it filed a request with the court to appeal.  Its resources continue, undiminished.