When David Alpert arrived in Washington 12 years ago, the city had no bike-share, WeWork, or dockless electric scooters, and Uber and Lyft had yet to arrive. Apple had just introduced the iPhone, Gmail was still in beta, and it was as hard to imagine $15 cocktails on H Street, Northeast, as it was to picture Russia helping a reality-TV star get elected President.
DC was also still very much a car town. “When we moved here, we had to go to Tysons Corner to get all our furniture,” Alpert says. He and his girlfriend (now wife), Stefanie Schneider, moved from New York after Alpert left his job as a product manager at Google; she’d taken a position as an attorney at WilmerHale. It wasn’t an easy transition: On his personal blog, Alpert wrote about the “soul-crushing emptiness of downtown DC.”
Today Washington is a different place—and Alpert’s blog has played at least a small role in that transformation. Obviously, a lot of factors have contributed to the city’s economic boom in the last decade-plus, but his site—which he relaunched in 2008 as the online publication Greater Greater Washington—has become one of the area’s most influential advocates for thoughtful growth and better transportation options. “I’m amazed at how many smart and knowledgeable people they have to engage in dialogue on these topics,” says Gwen Wright, director of the Montgomery County Planning Department.
But despite the site’s impact, it has—like so many other media outlets—found it challenging to keep the lights on. At the beginning of this year, Alpert published a long post about Greater Greater Washington’s situation. The organization, he wrote, now “has to fill a hole of about $125,000 a year.” Can Alpert keep it afloat? The answer could have a not-insignificant effect on what Washington looks like in the future.
Thump! Thump! Thump! Alpert thwacks the table with his fingers when he talks, reinforcing his most important points with staccato percussion. A slight 41-year-old with the mien of an astrophysicist who’s chucked it all to run a goat dairy in Vermont, he’s at a coffee shop in Dupont Circle, not far from his home. Alpert studied computer science at Harvard, and he shares that profession’s twin dedications to conversational precision and jargon. For example, when I ask how his childhood in Boston’s suburbs influenced his thinking about urbanism, he says, “I never liked the suburban land-use form,” before pausing and recalibrating. “I felt dissatisfied by it, I guess I would say.”
Alpert’s dislike of—sorry, dissatisfaction with—the US’s car-centric infrastructure dates back to high school, when he was assigned “car dependence” in debate class. It would take a while before he lived someplace not in thrall to the internal combustion engine. After graduating from college in 2000, he headed to Silicon Valley to work at a voice-computing startup called Tellme.
Soon he moved to a different young company that had launched just three years before: Google. “It was pretty small—about 120 people in one building,” he says. “If you had an idea, you could pitch [founders] Larry Page or Sergey Brin in the lunchroom.”
Alpert transferred to Google’s New York office in fall 2002. It was there he got on the path to his next, far less lucrative career. He read and loved George Washington University professor Christopher Leinberger’s book The Option of Urbanism at roughly the time New York was experiencing a burst of new-urbanist thought, known as “smart growth”—broadly speaking, the idea that cities should be more livable and walkable.
When Alpert quit his job to follow his wife to DC, he had accumulated a small fortune in Google stock options. “I was fortunate to do well in my time there, and that gave me some freedom to be able to start GGWash,” he says, using his preferred shorthand for his site. (He never calls it GGW, which, as he knows from his time at Google, is used by people searching for Girls Gone Wild.)
“Starting a blog of my own,” and growing it into a group blog, “was a way to engage in the discussion and learn for myself by writing about topics I was curious about,” he says. The name Greater Greater Washington was a bit goofy, but its intent was earnest: to push a vision of a more livable DC area, with more affordable housing, higher-density development near Metro, and a far greater reliance on alternate transportation. Over the years, Alpert attracted like-minded urban planners, politicians, and technocrats to his platform as readers, writers, and sometimes board members, building it into something of a local hub for advocates.
At first, Greater Greater Washington was still just a blog; none of the contributors were paid, and Alpert ran it from his apartment. He funded the modest budget himself, choosing not to sell ads. (GGWash also began soliciting donations from readers in 2014.) But despite the operation’s modesty, readers were paying attention. By actually showing up at city meetings and taking time to learn and report on policy details, Alpert and his band of transpo geeks made the arcana of urban planning accessible—and even a bit exciting.
In 2015, GGWash became an official nonprofit, which has allowed it to get grants for advocacy work in addition to its journalism efforts. That same year, Alpert secured funding from the Open Philanthropy Project, run by former reporter Cari Tuna and her husband, Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz. That let him hire full-time employees, including two editors and a housing-policy advocate. It moved out of Alpert’s home and eventually into a WeWork.
Alpert and his band of transpo geeks made the arcana of urban planning accessible—and even a bit exciting.
As the site has grown more professional and published more often, local residents have continued to be drawn toward its vision for what cities should be. Alpert won’t take credit for bringing smart growth to the region (“I don’t want to make it seem like, hey, I just came in and had this idea that no one had before,” he says), but Greater Greater Washington has undoubtedly helped convince some local voters and politicians to consider the issues it pushes.
And its policies are gaining favor. Just look at the race for at-large seats on the DC Council last fall. While the Washington Post editorial board, Mayor Bowser, and much of the business community got behind Dionne Reeder, GGWash endorsed Elissa Silverman. Voters apparently shared the site’s enthusiasm for Silverman’s positions: She received nearly double the share of votes Reeder did.
Two years ago, Open Philanthropy informed Greater Greater Washington that the founders’ attention had shifted and the site shouldn’t expect to maintain its grant after 2019. To keep its current roster of five employees—including journalist Julie Strupp, who oversees the blog—GGWash now has to rethink its business model.
Alpert has already made one big change: He has begun accepting advertising, as long as it’s from groups “aligned with our mission in some way,” he says. There’s also a bit of revenue from events, such as a panel last fall about dockless transportation sponsored in part by Bird and Lyft. Greater Greater Washington also gets paid to manage the Sustainable Transportation group, which brings together Business Improvement Districts, advocates, and government officials to find priorities they can share.
They still need money to keep going, however. In Alpert’s January post, he asked readers to help cover the deficit with memberships and donations. When we spoke, only about two weeks had gone by and the government was still shut down, so there hadn’t been a lot of contributions; he was nevertheless optimistic. I asked whether he’d consider looking for a savior like Post owner Jeff Bezos. “That would be something we’d be open to,” Alpert said, his fingers pounding away on the table. Then he paused and recalibrated for precision. “But it would be in a nonprofit model; it wouldn’t be that person buying the paper, so to speak.”
But what happens if no savior emerges and the site can’t hit its fundraising goals? “I don’t know, honestly,” he said. “We’re not on the verge of closing or anything, but if we aren’t able to make our budget numbers, we would have to consider contingencies.”
Regardless, GGWash plans to keep the focus on “boring things like roads and rails and bike lanes” rather than whatever the undertow of national news sucks into local politics. “As you can tell from our conversation, perhaps,” Alpert said, “I’m most excited to talk about how to improve bus service or improve equity in housing, not about things to do to find new donors.” In other words, there actually is a topic that’s too wonky to stimulate Alpert. He’s going to have to find a way to get interested in it pretty quick.
This article appears in the March 2019 issue of Washingtonian.