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.

In a more unusual alliance (between the wife of a prominent Democrat and a local Republican politician), Weinshall spoke with Staten Island City Council Member James Oddo on multiple occasions about obstructing bike lanes.

After the bike lane on Staten Island’s Father Capodanno Boulevard was removed in November 2010, Weinshall got in touch with both Oddo and Borough President James Molinaro to learn how they prevailed upon City Hall to take the lane out.

“It would be nice to know how the bp and councilman got it done, whether it was bareknuckles politics or analytic research of impacts etc or a combination,” Steisel wrote on the 23rd.

“I know him well… will call him and Oddo,” responded Weinshall.

Steisel then suggested that Randy Mastro, the one-time Giuliani deputy mayor who had arranged to give NBBL Gibson Dunn’s pro bono services, could serve as a go-between for the Democrat-heavy NBBL to the Republican Molinaro.

In January, Weinshall spoke with Oddo again, and Oddo looped her in immediately when he proposed requiring environmental review for all new bike lanes.

One of Weinshall’s most direct, though ultimately less effective, connections was to Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, who was communications director for Chuck Schumer during his first Senate run. Marty Markowitz routinely forwarded constituent letters regarding Prospect Park West to Weinshall. When she came across one she particularly liked, she forwarded it along to a Wolfson aide. “Putting it on his desk now,” was the reply, seven minutes later. Weinshall later invited Wolfson to tour the bike lane with her, an invitation Wolfson accepted.

The NBBL entreaties seem to have backfired, however. Wolfson ultimately emerged as one of the city’s top defenders of bicycle infrastructure.

NBBL Targeted Contacts at City Planning, Landmarks Commission, and Public Design Commission as Potential Allies

Bike lane opponents Norman Steisel, Bob Linn, and Connie Christensen called on extensive contacts from their time in government, seeking to enlist senior staff at city agencies in their cause. For the most part these entreaties seem to have dead-ended, but they illustrate a key component of NBBL’s strategy: to foment a kind of civil war within the Bloomberg administration, pitting high-level officials against NYC DOT.

Last summer, Steisel reached out to his former boss Ed Koch about the PPW bike lane and received some assistance from Koch’s former chief of staff, Diane Coffey. “On confidential basis to you, I had lunch with mayor Koch on a number of issues,” reported Steisel to NBBL on August 10, 2010. “Also attending was his close confident Dianne Coffey who told me she introduced Bob Linn to [Planning Commissioner] Amanda Burden who in turn sent someone out to check situation in field, a visit Diane thought has occurred, as well as to do additional analyses.”

Linn, who served as the city’s chief labor negotiator and personnel director under Koch, replied that he had been in touch with Burden, but had not received a report. By that time, Linn had also spoken to Landmarks Commissioner Bob Tierney and First Deputy Mayor Patti Harris, widely acknowledged as Bloomberg’s most trusted lieutenant. Tierney and Harris both have close connections to the Koch administration themselves. Tierney served as counsel to Mayor Koch while Harris worked for Koch both when he served in Congress and in City Hall.

Linn’s contacts with Burden, Tierney, and Harris were apparently fruitless for NBBL. Linn gradually dropped out of active participation in the group, and after August, 2010 he appears to have stopped replying to Steisel and Hainline when they tried to follow up with him.

The other agency NBBL courted was the Public Design Commission. The PDC must approve the design of most permanent works of art, architecture or landscape architecture proposed for city-owned property, and NBBL had hoped to get them to nix the PPW bike lane. NBBL member Connie Christensen, a lawyer and one-time member of the city’s Art Commission (the precursor of the PDC), reached out to her former colleagues, urging them to stake a stand against the aesthetics of the bike lane. Christensen ended up writing an op-ed for a publication targeted at former commission members. She also spoke with Libby Ryan, who sits on the Landmarks Commission, and offered to team up with Linn to lobby Amanda Burden.

Weinshall Enlisted Engineer Philip Habib to Help NBBL

Streetsblog has previously reported that Iris Weinshall and Louise Hainline, both CUNY executives, tried to enlist CUNY professor Robert “Buzz” Paaswell to assist them. He wasn’t the only transportation expert to whom Weinshall reached out.

Transportation consultant Philip Habib agreed to meet with Hainline at Weinshall’s request in the summer of 2010. Habib’s firm has performed transportation planning for major projects including the World Trade Center reconstruction, Donald Trump’s Riverside South developments and the Time Warner Center. His primary suggestion to Hainline, on July 1, 2010, was to sue the city over the bike lane. He appears to have been the first to recommend this course of action; no NBBL communications mention legal action prior to July.

Weinshall also relied on another CUNY-employed transportation expert for assistance. Judy Bergtraum served as Weinshall’s deputy at both DOT and at CUNY, and Weinshall routinely consulted her former first deputy commissioner about Prospect Park West. In a typical conversation last November, Weinshall asked Bergtraum whether bike lanes needed to go through ULURP, the city’s land use review process. “Any word on ULURP of bike lanes?” wrote Weinshall. “No not yet,” responded Bergtraum. “I am meeting with philip habib this afternoon… i will ask him.” This conversation took place during the afternoon on the Monday before Thanksgiving, over CUNY e-mail accounts.

Weinshall also turned to Bergtraum when she had questions about the statute of limitations on Article 78 lawsuits (the type of lawsuit NBBL eventually filed against the city) or whether the city’s bicycle master plan had gone through environmental review when first written. Bergtraum’s involvement in the Prospect Park West fight extended beyond factual inquiries; Weinshall also informed Bergtraum when this reporter reached out to Weinshall for comment.

In the next installment we’ll take a closer look at NBBL’s media connections. Stay tuned.

  • Jack E. Savage

    Noah and Ben for Mayor!

  • Anonymous

    The next installment is the one I’m waiting for. Please tell me there are emails with Marcia Kramer

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The opponents traded on their extensive Rolodexes.”

    More ageism from Streetsblog!  NBBL had a social media website!

    The story forgot to mention Marty Markowitz, although I guess there is no need.  The anti-bike media campaign started after the number of people using the lane went down. And the number of people using the lane went down, based on my observation using it on three or four days per week, not when it got cold and dark but when it was obstructed by snow for several weeks at the Borough Presidents’ request.

    So this winter, do I and others get to spend a few weeks on 8th Avenue and the PPW motor vehicle roadway fearing for my life and getting yelled at and honked at by drivers again?

  • Great Reporting 2.0

    Somewhere bicyclists and livable streets activists need to give a huge hug to JSK and Bloomy as with this much pressure they stayed the course and resisted.

  • @IvoryJive:disqus  There will be Marcia

  • Anonymous

    “Weinshall asked Bergtraum whether bike lanes needed to go through ULURP, the city’s land use review process.”

    How on earth is a former transportation commissioner this ignorant about transportation planning? 

  • moocow

    We shovel it ourselves, I did it once and I’ll do it again. We can have fun doing it AND shame those responsible.

  • FOILer

    Have you guys FOILed Bill de Blasio’s office yet? I’d be curious to learn more about the Public Advocate’s “bike strategy.” And I understand Bill believes city officials should be very forthright with FOIL compliance.

  • Morals Clause

    Here’s my favorite part of these emails.  Hainline writes of “holding in reserve” the information about Mark Gorton’s “deep legal trouble” with LimeWire, essentially threatening to use it to discredit Paul Steely White, TA and Streetsblog as being in bed with “a crook.”  She mentions that Brad Lander “might be a bit less likely to associate with TA’s position…if it might associate him with someone convicted of internet piracy…”

    Yet Hainline has absolutely zero compunction about using Norman Steisel’s political influence to further her group’s agenda.  She and her fellow NBBL members are “in bed” with a man who was arrested for soliciting a prostitute.  (The charges against him were later dropped.)

    Just in case Jim Walden is reading, I think that neither Steisel’s sexual history nor Gorton’s involvement with LimeWire are all that relevant to the bike lane debate.  But I bring it up here only to illustrate Hainline’s utter lack of moral standards.  You can be sure if Mark Gorton was on her side, she’d have no problem leaning on him to influence a few electeds with a campaign donations.  If it serves her purpose, she’ll use it.  If it doesn’t, she’ll ignore it.  What a fantastic academic she must have been.

    Still, Steisel’s response to Hainline is priceless: “I’m having difficulty understanding this line of argumentation.  Maybe you can fill me in tomorrow.”

  • CUNY Trustee

    Is it appropriate for a $260,000 per year Vice Chancellor at the City University of New York to task her assistant to work on her personal political lobbying efforts during regular business hours?

    It seems like this should be cause for serious censure if not outright dismissal. Has anyone reached out to CUNY’s President about this?

  • Eric McClure

    I got a special kick out of  this email.

    “We may want to challenge PSN to release the actual data from the supposed 352 cars thy did now and 251 they supposed did before. Interesting that these large numbers from the March study didn’t appear before this, unless these are DOT data, but again, they were never fully reported.”

    Challenge us? When we released the results, we stated explicitly that “the raw data is available upon request.”  But rather than challenging us, they lied to us: Louise Hainline’s husband, Micha Tomkiewicz, a CUNY physics professor, contacted us with a cockamamie story about wanting to use the data with one of his classes.  We learned that he lived at 9 PPW, which was surely not a coincidence, but we shared the data, as we said we would.

    And our March 2010 “before” study data had appeared months before Hainline wrote her email.  On April 12, 2010, we issued a press release far and wide, which included this passage:

    Volunteers from Park Slope Neighbors on the first weekend of Spring followed up NYC DOT’s March 2009 field survey, with similar – and potentially even more dangerous – results.  Last year’s DOT survey clocked 70% of cars exceeding the 30 mph speed limit, with 15% traveling 40 mph or faster.  The PSN survey – conducted on March 20th and 21st, a weekend during which thousands of people on foot and on bicycles flocked to Prospect Park to take advantage of unseasonably warm weather – found 85% of cars exceeding the speed limit, with a startling 30% averaging 40 mph or more.

    “What was true a year ago is even more true today,” said Eric McClure, campaign coordinator for Park Slope Neighbors.  “Speeding poses a significant danger on Prospect Park West, something that NYC DOT has clearly recognized.  On the occasion of tonight’s Prospect Park West Traffic Calming and Protected Bicycle Path Open House, we urge the city to begin implementing this critically needed project immediately.”

    Streetsblog and The Brooklyn Paper were among a number of media outlets that reported on our speeding survey.

  • Shemp

    Any sign of Joe Lhota?  He’s a CUNY Trustee and was Iris’ boss in the Giuliani admin….  Probably tight with Mastro too.   

  • P.R. Consultant

    I like the email where Louise Hainline asks “when and where is the right time” to play the Mark Gorton Limewire law suit “card.” Louise seems to believe that if she simply times it right, she can sell Marcia Kramer or one of these other dipshits in the political press the story that the PPW bike lane was foisted on the community by “the Bernie Madoff of Internet crime.”

    Here’s my suggestion for Louise: On Thursday, December 1 the Rockefeller Foundation is going to honor T.A.’s Paul Steely White and DOT’s Janette Sadik-Khan with the prestigious Jane Jacobs Medal for urban visionaries for the work they’ve done these last few years in making NYC a better, more livable, more sustainable city.

    So, here’s what you do, Louise — have your publicist Linda Gross drop the Limewire bomb in a press release on Tuesday right before the awards ceremony. Have your attorney Jim Walden do a big press event right outside the building. Get Jim’s attorney Evan Thies involved too. He’s a player. Louise: your Bernie-Madoff-of-Bike-Lanes story will totally overshadow the Jane Jacobs Medal narrative. It will be a huge coup for NBBL.

  • We’ve made no Lhota sightings in the NBBL Files.

  • Eric, as we learned in an earlier CUNY email, nothing happens in this world until Louise Hainline is either notified of it directly in her capacity as co-op board president at 9 PPW or reads about it in a free newspaper.  The Key Food must have been all out of the Brooklyn Paper on April 13th.

    Some may defend NBBL by saying it’s their right to use whatever political connections they have at their disposal.  I won’t necessarily argue with that as much as I find their tactics an affront to the great civic spirit and community-driven process that resulted in this popular traffic calming project.  Who wouldn’t want Chuck Schumer to make a few calls on your behalf?

    What’s most galling, however, is that every last thing NBBL has accused the “radical pro-EBL lobby” of doing — holding secret barroom meetings, conducting bogus studies, conspiring with local officials — was something they’ve been doing in spades.  We continue to learn that for each secret barroom meeting between Park Slope Neighbors and DOT, there were hundreds of emails, phone calls, and meetings between Iris, Norman, and high-ranking officials such as De Blasio, Vacca, and Markowitz.  I suspect that the next round of documents will expose a coordinated media effort more vile and potentially damaging than “the Blogger’s” attempts to discredit NBBL with anonymous comments here on Streetsblog and elsewhere.

    At this point, Jim Walden might as well issue a press release saying “I’m rubber and you’re glue” and be done with it.

  • J

    I’m most amused by the Howie Wolfson piece. They confronted him, and got him to take a look at the PPW bike lane. He did, and apparently was inspired to get on a bike for the first time in a while. For every NBBL press release, I bet there are ten folks who decide to check out this new bike lane that’s so controversial and find it rather pleasant. On the other hand, I highly doubt anyone read an NBBL press release and decided to stop biking and start driving a car.
    The closer we get to the tipping point for bikes (where we stop arguing about if, and start arguing about how), the more I think how silly this all was (is). A few folks with powerful friends and too much time on their hands, got mad because they are used to getting their way. A year later, what do they have to show for themselves? The lane is still there, biking is more popular than ever, a massive bike share program has engendered almost no opposition, and new protected lanes are sprouting up quicker than ever. Who knows, maybe in some way NBBL has pushed us past the tipping point towards better bike lanes. 

  • Glenn

    Streetsblog is just showing off now. You guys kick serious butt. Contribution on it’s way.


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