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The Iron Fist Of Cleveland Park's Politburo

A classic Only-In-Washington story is shaping up in Cleveland Park, where Not In My Backyard zealots have managed for years to stymie plans to upgrade a pathetic 1950s supermarket for fear that people might actually drive to it and use it.

A relative handful of residents have been able to turn their opposition to Giant's expansion plans for its shop on Wisconsin Avenue NW into a virtual roadblock--and that has so frustrated supporters of the plan that some of those supporters decided if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Recently, they signed up as members of the Cleveland Park Citizens Association, with an eye on turning around that group's opposition to much-needed development.

Now the neighborhood group is pushing back, hard. Its president, George Idelson, sent out this message on the local listserv Tuesday: "The Cleveland Park Citizens Association welcomes the many new members who have joined in recent weeks. This is a president's dream come true and we look forward to their active participation."

Except that he welcomes nothing of the sort. Idelson goes on to accuse the new members of attempting a coup--and he therefore invokes "emergency" measures to postpone an election for officers of the neighborhood association, protecting the anti-development stance of the group.

Idelson writes that the new members were putting together a "competing, unnamed slate" and conducting a campaign that "has been fueled by false charges that the Association opposes all change and development. It has distorted our position on the Giant development and makes the wild claim that the Association is responsible for store vacancies on Connecticut Avenue. The campaign was orchestrated was demonstrated by some 60 bundled applications received by certified mail just before the specified cut-off date, by anonymous leaflets, and by private emails urging residents to join CPCA to 'stage a coup.'"

"Demonizing an association and encouraging a chaotic election is hardly normal. This is Cleveland Park, not some third world country," Idelson writes. "This is clearly an emergency. In the interim, we will seek ways to mend this tear in our neighborhood fabric."

Needless to say, this edict has met with a firestorm of protest from Cleveland Parkers. "If fearing electoral defeat is cause enough to delay an election, we may have never had elections in 1992, 2000, 2004, or 2006," writes Peter Brusoe. "The key to democracy is to allow voice, discussion and perhaps even contention."

A resident named Gina throws the organization's own words back at it, noting that the association web site suggests the group's purpose is to allow residents to "make your voice heard and help preserve and improve our neighborhood."

The battle that has consumed the Northwest Washington neighborhood for so many years is, believe it or not, about a small, lousy supermarket in a block-long mid-century brick building that Giant long ago realized was insufficient to serve local needs. Giant first proposed a replacement that seemed too suburban in design, but over a preposterously extended period of negotiation and revision, the proposal gained support from many in the area.

The latest wrinkle in the saga comes as Cleveland Park loses its Magruder's market, adding to the area's supply of empty storefronts--most of them sitting vacant because of neighbors' opposition to the restaurants and nightspots that would logically fill those empty spaces.

This one's far from over, but when the NIMBYs start waging their battles through Soviet means, it can't be long before the forces of progress prevail.

By Marc Fisher |  May 27, 2009; 8:24 AM ET  | Category:  Business , City life , Development , The District
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Oh, man, this is so hilarious. Let me see . . .the new members, presumably, are eligible for membership -- I would guess (having not seen the by-laws) that membership eligibility is primarily residence-based. So . . . assuming, for the sake of argument, that these new folks are otherwise eligible, is not his ONLY argument for not going forward with the normally scheduled election that (a) a lot of new (eligible) folks have joined; and (b) they may not agree with the (existing) position of the (existing) members of the organization? Pretty feeble, and VERY west-of-Rock-Creek. To the barricades! Bring your own chardonnay!

Posted by: mdean3 | May 27, 2009 8:54 AM

The current president has already given himself a mortal political wound by saying, at its base, that *his* "Association" is not a democracy. He will either have to yield, or the Association will be rendered irrelevant and replaced by another organization that actually listens to all residents/members.

Posted by: MaxH | May 27, 2009 9:09 AM

Quoting the immortal Sharon Pratt Kelly Dixon, "it is time to clean house".

Does Mr. Idelson not see the irony of his words? It is very rich that text on the CPCA website states "We remain DC’s best bargain in democracy".

I guess if democracy is a banana republic, then yes, it is.

Clearly the only emergency is the fear of the loss of the Association to people who actually represent the voice of the community.

Posted by: LukasWP | May 27, 2009 10:04 AM

Just another instance of people defining "the community" as "those people who agree with us, and only those people."

Posted by: Lindemann777 | May 27, 2009 10:12 AM

The writer is correct. This is Stalinism. The forces that have prevented progress for nearly a decade are the very forces that call themselves "progressives." They are, as usual, anti-democratic, power crazed, ego driven and dead wrong. They won some valuable arguments early on when Giant proposed an undesirable suburban "plan." But victory was not good enough. As usual, they continue to fight the fight long after it was won. Time for these wanna-be thugs to get out of the way and allow progress to progress. They are no longer "for" anything. Just against. Obstructionists lead the way. Store-fronts empty and they arrogantly fiddle as Cleveland Park begins to look like the real Depression Era. Not because of the economy, but because of misguided, allegedly well-intentioned "progressives" whose whiff of "power" has made them utterly corrupt. They are what the profess to hate. Time for them to step aside or be pushed.

Posted by: cptm | May 27, 2009 10:19 AM

What a meglomaniac. That man should be ashamed of itself.

It's well-known that in DC local politics, people organize themselves in tiny groups of people all with the same agenda (typically an agenda that does not mesh with that of rest of the neighborhood). See: Mt Pleasant Neighborhood Association, and countless others. In Cleveland Park, I heard that 3 or 4 new groups were formed just so they could protest this new grocery stores and (small) apartment building. Sad...

Posted by: sgrahamuva | May 27, 2009 11:50 AM

Funny how many of those who consider themselves "progressive" are actually the most blinkered, intolerant, group-think oriented hypocrites around. Combine that attitude with NIMBY-ism and you have the proverbial neighborhood group from hell.

Posted by: Claudius2 | May 27, 2009 12:48 PM

Oh, man, this sounds like a script for a new Christopher Guest movie about upper middle class, liberal neighborhoods.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | May 27, 2009 1:53 PM

Oh, man, this sounds like a script for a new Christopher Guest movie about upper middle class, liberal neighborhoods.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | May 27, 2009 1:54 PM

If Giant Food had chutzpah, it would simply shut the store down -- just as it did last year with its stores in Dumfries and Marumsco Plaza in Woodbridge -- and leave the Cleveland Park neighborhood without any supermarket, letting those folks know how people east of the Anacostia felt all those years it was without easy access to groceries. But Giant wouldn't dare, because Cleveland Park is full of the "right" people, folks who believe demography is destiny.

Posted by: VPaterno | May 27, 2009 5:34 PM

Yep, Soviet-style leadership at its very best. While I can appreciate the desire for a balance of residential quiet and neighborhood vibrancy, this is going too far. Especially now, when any chance to re-invest in existing facilities is probably the most successful way for a neighborhood to stand strong during a recession, Mr. Idelson is simply hurting Cleveland Park. If he keeps up like this, he may soon be CP's Gorbachev-realize too late that he has to open up to achieve success, with a powerless board behind him, and then see either a spectacular investment cycle in CP, or see a non-vibrant neighborhood where there should be one.

Posted by: rogwanerman89 | May 27, 2009 5:37 PM

I wonder whether the Federation of Citizens Associations - or whatever they call themselves - will weigh in on this one. They scream bloody murder about everything else in the city. But I doubt if you'll hear a peep from them on this one.

Posted by: observer9 | May 27, 2009 6:10 PM

Perhaps things aren't so black and white. I'm not a member of the CPCA, and, I want a "giant" Giant with a great bakery and all the other typical suburban amenities. However, I'm a big fan of George Idelson, who's a very nice and reasonable man. I was happy to hear that CPCA was keeping up the pressure on Giant, just enough to make sure they'll carry out their promises (perhaps in the same way others want to keep up the pressure on the CPCA itself).

I think what's happened with the CPCA is similar to what's happened with the postings to this column. A little bit of false information goes a long way and leads people to incorrect conclusions.

I specifically know that George has taken positive steps to find out why there are so many vacancies in CP. I recall when he worked with others to calculate the restaurant density so that additional restaurants might move in. It's a mystery to all of us why the old "McDonald's" building remains empty, but I do know it's not because of George and any steps taken by the CPCA.

While I might not be thrilled about the delay in the CPCA elections, I am concerned that the anti-George faction has all the makings of a political machine dedicated to the narrow interests of a few, not the broad-based concerns of the prior CPCA membership, who have been involved in tax, education, parking, density, and a range of other issues.

I'd urge a little restraint and less name calling.

Posted by: johnchelen | May 28, 2009 12:10 AM

@johnchelan, perhaps there are so many vacancies in Cleveland Park because business and property owners don't want to deal with multiple levels of engagement at the local level, such as the likes of the CPCA. The commercial overlay stifles much of this. Did you know Cosi wanted to rent the former Blockbuster space, but didn't because it wanted to avoid the time and effort it would have taken to bypass the overlay.

Do you remember when Indique's ABC license was opposed by so called community activists because they pined for the mythical hardware store that will never come to Cleveland Park?

Sure, Mr. Idelsen and his gang have put in countless hours towards their vision of the better community, but at some point, when everyone you know is opposed to something despite the broader winds of the community, then it is time to either be more inclusive or be removed.

From following the Listserv it appears that the "new group" attempted to be inclusive and such a fence-mending proposition was thoroughly rejected. Thus, it is time to be removed.

Now there are threats that the CPCA will be shunned at the umbrella organization. Certainly its voice, until this is resolved, will be ignored by the ANC and city agencies. Who is being served here? Clearly the right move is to have the election at the time specified by their by-laws and take whatever result is tendered.

Posted by: LukasWP | May 28, 2009 6:47 AM

Sorry. Idelson might be a "nice" man but he's certainly not "reasonable" if he thinks that postponing an election is the way to "mend this tear in our neighborhood fabric." I have news for Mr. Idelson -- residents are sick and tired of having a small group of residents dictate what goes on by way of development in our neighborhoods. The lack of vibrancy is stunning given the demographic base here.

If Mr. Idelson wants to mend the tear, let the election go forward, and then try actually listening to those who have a different point of view. Mr. Idelson, it's called "Democracy."

Posted by: communityguy | May 28, 2009 8:41 AM

I'm sorry, but the very idea that in Washington DC - where the industry is politics, public affairs and government - that something that ranks as political organizing 101 (getting people to join an organization, running slates for election, negotiating with leaders) - is treated as a mortal threat by an organization's leader is appalling.

Mr. Idelson may have previously done fine work. It does not matter now - for me, his arbitrary decision on thinly premised grounds to deny an election at which his point of view might not hold sway overrides.

Posted by: dyedwab1 | May 28, 2009 8:59 AM

In his open letter to the community, President for Life Idelson says he "welcomes your suggestions." Mine would be that the commit an impossible sexual act upon himself. And to hurry. After all, it's an emergency.

He has destroyed all of CPCA's credibility, and has tarred every other civic organization in the city with his selfish and idiotic actions.

Posted by: observer9 | May 28, 2009 10:02 AM

Mr. Idelson's small number of supporters seem to think they have sole control of facts. They repeatedly (and inaccurately) told the zoning board that in their view the proponents of Giant were "uniformed."

I know the zoning law as well as Mr. Idelson. I'm a Cleveland Park resident and I'm definitely not uninformed. I want smart growth. CPCA doesn't. Read their web site, it's a festival of overblown fears about traffic and parking with no vision, not even one molecule, about a plan to build DC in the 21st century.

I lived in the neighborhood for 7 years before I'd even heard of the association. Mr. Idelson and his little cabal of officers delight in keeping their activities under the radar.

Sure, he's worked on neighborhood issues over the years, but primarily as a massive opponent to smart growth. He is one of the old-school car-centric homeowners, who expressed shock at a witness at the zoning hearing when she cited (correctly) the high number of residents in cleveland park who use metro, bicycles or their own two feet to bike or shop. He can't fathom that Northwest DC isn't a leave it to beaver car suburb any longer.

Finally, no community organizer/activist worth a nickel would resort to the tactics he's pulling to remain in power. Most of the neighbors probably oppose 75% or more of the actions of the CPCA. What's different now, is that afater 10 years of blocking the renovation of a supermarket is this: finally, the neighborhood IS aware of CPCA and they don't like their stance on most issues and they DON'T want a small minority of folks running allo ver town cliaming to have the best interest of the neighborhood at heart. All they have at heart is their own, minority interests.

Hence the dustup...

Mr. Idelson is entitled to his opinions. He is NOT entitled to hold opposing opinions hostage.

Posted by: IssuesNotDiatribe | May 28, 2009 1:48 PM

I am a board member of the Federation of Citizens Association but am not speaking for the organization. I shared this same posting with my Federation colleagues. I am a 34 y-o newbie who understands the frustration of the new CP neighbors but I also know the need to compromise and keep the seasoned veterans involved because they not only have the history but have rolodex of contacts in the neighborhood. They give credibility to the organization even when new officers are elected.

Let's not make much ado about something that has transpired in organizations throughout the years and across the wards--the push and pull of growth. New residents who sometimes beaugarde their way in pushing the seasoned veterans to the side and seasoned veterans holding tight to protocol. (It has in fact happened to me in my neighborhood just this January.) All these "outside" groups piling on does nothing to get at the crux of the issue--ensuring the quality of life for the neighborhood is the best it can be.

@observer9 The Federation's role should not be, in my opinion, to add fuel to the fire; I'm not saying we should be quiet but we shouldn't side with either group regardless of individual loyalties. If there is a way for the Federation to mediate, an impartial third party if you will, that would be ideal. I have and will advocate this position with the Federation. In the meantime, folks simmer down, stop the rhetoric, and cool it with the name calling; this is neighborhood politics for goodness sakes. You'll still visit their houses for the annual Halloween trick-or-treat stroll, marvel at their Christmas lights, and share a chicken leg at the block party. (:-p

Posted by: DeanwoodCitizen | May 28, 2009 1:58 PM

Most of the residents opposing Mr. Idelson have lived in Cleveland Park for years. The notion that anyone not involved in a Citizens' Association is a "newbie" is elitist, insulting and profoundly undemocratic. Indeed, it may be a clarion call to look into the dissoluion of the citizens assoications if they don't learn the fine art of community outreach. Much as you may wish it, DeanwoodCitizen, your opinions are NOT, indeed, more valuable than mine simply because you are member of a citizens association. In a city lacking home rule, you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

CPCA held a development hostage for a decade. Don't call me or anyone else who has resided in cleveland park for years and happens to oppose that stance a "newbie", sir.

Again, I'll put my knowledge of zoning laws against any assoication member any day of the week.

Posted by: IssuesNotDiatribe | May 28, 2009 2:05 PM

Oh, the humanity.

Posted by: Publius45 | May 28, 2009 2:39 PM

I've lived in Cleveland Park for years too, and find it interesting that each time I mention an idea, I get called a newbie. Never in my postings do I ever say that I'm new to the area, or state how long I've lived here. It's interesting that any idea posed to the entrenched powers that be, makes you appear like you've just moved in. Just like in the above post. In fact, I've had to stop posting ideas on the Cleveland Park listserve to avoid the massive hate mail that heads my way. Mention closing that disaster of a service road in front of Nanny's, CVS, Dino's and watch the accusations fly!

Posted by: sjake31 | May 28, 2009 5:02 PM

"They repeatedly (and inaccurately) told the zoning board that in their view the proponents of Giant were 'uniformed[SIC].'

I know the zoning law as well as Mr. Idelson. I'm a Cleveland Park resident and I'm definitely not uninformed. I want smart growth."

Yeah, well first you have to figure out that the Giant PUD project was deliberated in front of the Zoning Commission not the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

And once you get that straightened out, we'll make sure you get some smart growth.

Posted by: LongTimeRez | May 28, 2009 5:20 PM

The Cleveland Park Citizens Association are a bunch of idiots. Too much spare time on their hands.

Posted by: caseythekid | May 29, 2009 1:36 PM

Clev Park already resembles an old suburban town anyway, NBD allowing a few "big businesses" to congregate as long as it's on the resident's terms.

Posted by: BlaketheMegalomaniac | May 29, 2009 6:39 PM

This is amazing. We have very similar happenings with the East Silver Spring Citizen's Association. And just a couple of weeks ago they were accused on a local blog of being the old Soviet Nomenklatura! Like deja vu, it is.

Posted by: elasticsynapse | May 29, 2009 8:22 PM

Fisher - please do everyone a favor and die in a fire.


Posted by: popopo | May 30, 2009 4:53 PM

At a minimum, the leadership of the CPCA ought to be compelled to produce the resolution citing the emergency to the community.

In addition, in accordance with the DC Code, it ought to be compelled to make the membership list available to the other members of the organization. That is simply illegal to keep it under wraps.

Posted by: LukasWP | June 1, 2009 7:04 AM

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