Many of those at the meeting in Tenleytown said they were there because of Alpert and his blog, Greater Greater Washington. The site has advocated for a new zoning code for years, pushing for rules that allow for more corner stores and alley dwellings but less parking. In a post that morning, he had described the meeting as “epic.”
Part news site, part advocacy group, part community newsletter, Greater Greater Washington is like an unending handbook to being an engaged D.C. area resident. It draws more than 100,000 unique visitors a month.
While the blog has attracted an array of contributors, it’s the vision of Alpert — a former software engineer with no formal planning experience — that has shaped the views of citizens and politicians on what a better city means and how to achieve it.
In the process, he’s also become a symbol of the divides in the city between development and preservation, young and old, bikes and cars, black and white. Criticism of the blog often essentially boils down to: Who does this guy think he is?
Diminutive and nasal-voiced, Alpert is not an imposing presence. His power comes from his obsessive coverage of and authoritative take on arcane policy. When he thinks older residents, council members or mayors are wrong, he says so. A well-off white transplant who loves bike lanes, at first glance he fits perfectly the stereotype of the careless gentrifier. And yet he sees his blog as an advocate for the city’s poorest residents, tackling the problems that bedevil them: unemployment, educational inequality, a lack of affordable housing.
Alpert, who studied computer science at Harvard, has always had a political bent, and his career has mixed technology with policy.
“He was known as the best computer guy on campus,” said Michael Passante, a college friend. “What set him apart was that he had a strong social conscience.”
Alpert left college early to work for a start-up. Soon he was a “product development guru” at Google. After a few years, he moved from the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters to its New York office, where he got involved with Drinking Liberally, a social group for Democrats who felt despondent during the George W. Bush administration.
At the same time, Alpert was developing an interest in urban planning. He had started reading New York’s Streetsblog, an influential pro-urbanism site, and reading up on planning history. In 2007, when his wife got a job in Washington and Alpert moved to Dupont Circle, he had already decided to leave Google. He flirted with starting a technology blog. Instead, he launched Greater Greater Washington.
“There’s no reason you need 20 years of residency to know what you think,” Alpert argues. Friends say his ability to ingest and process information is formidable; his living room contains a library of the major urban policy thinking of the past 100 years.