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High-rise vs. low-rise; the Times resists corrections, maintains false dichotomy

When Atlantic Yards architect Frank Gehry said last Thursday that Brooklynites wary of the Atlantic Yards plan would have picketed Henry Ford, and when landscape architect Laurie Olin said they were "frightened" of change, the two designers set up a simplistic dichotomy between progress and Luddism.

The misrepresentation was compounded by some shorthand in the Times's 5/12/06 report:
"They [opponents] have backed alternative plans for the site, including proposals by rival developers that would include mostly low-rise buildings and would not require eminent domain."

That continued the false dichotomy. Opponents have helped formulate the UNITY (Understanding, Imagining, & Transforming the Yards) plan, which serves as a set of principles for development, not a funded alternative. UNITY plan principles were adapted by the Extell Development Corp., the sole developer that responded to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's RFP for the Vanderbilt Yard. The coalition behind the UNITY plan is not a developer. So there were not "rival developers," just one developer.

As for "mostly low-rise buildings," the UNITY plan would be mid-rise, not low-rise (like the Dean Street buildings at right recently demolished by Forest City Ratner for a planned 322-foot tower). The Extell plan would be high-rise, but not so tall and dense as Forest City Ratner's plan, as explained below.

However, my request for a correction was resisted with some of the obfuscation and unwillingness to check facts that the Times too frequently employs.

A letter to the Times

I wrote to the Times on 5/12/06:
Developer Defends Atlantic Yards, Saying Towers Won't Corrupt the Feel of Brooklyn states:
"They [opponents] have backed alternative plans for the site, including proposals by rival developers that would include mostly low-rise buildings and would not require eminent domain."
Actually, there's only been *one* proposal from a developer on the table, from Extell Development Corp. The Times, in a 7/7/05 article headlined Brooklyn Plan Draws a Rival, And It's Smaller, described the plan as "11 buildings ranging from 4 to 28 stories."

However, Real Estate Weekly, in a 7/13/05 article headlined Ratner's Brooklyn dream being hijacked by Extell stated:
Extell's plan calls for 10 high-rise apartment buildings and one four-story building marked for community use...

So the phrase "mostly low-rise buildings" deserves correction, as does the term "proposals."

The article also states:
"But in an hourlong presentation, Frank Gehry, the project's architect, and Laurie Olin, its landscape designer, emphasized details that they said would harmonize the project's scale with the neighborhoods it would border. They described shorter and thinner buildings on Dean Street, where the project abuts a mostly low-rise neighborhood..."

This was imprecise: the thinner buildings would be the four on the eastern end of Dean Street. Of the three on the western end of Dean Street, none would be thinner, and one would be shorter and the other taller (than the previous iteration). The Forest City Ratner project fact sheet focused on the height and density of the buildings on Dean between Carlton and Vanderbilt.

It would have been more precise to say: They described shorter and thinner buildings on part of the Dean Street segment of the site.
Even if one building on the western end of Dean Street has been reduced to 322 feet doesn't mean it would harmonize with the bordering neighborhood.

The Times responds

I got a response Tuesday from the Times's Karin Roberts:
I am the corrections editor for the Metro department of The Times. Your e-mail was forwarded to me for review. After consulting Nicholas Confessore, the reporter for this article, I have determined that no correction is warranted. There were in fact two rival proposals for the Atlantic Yards project: Extell's and the UNITY plan, which called for mostly low-rise buildings. (Although the backers of the UNITY plan are not developers in the strict sense of the word, it is broadly accurate to refer to them that way, in the interest of shorthand.) The phrase "including proposals by rival developers that would include mostly low-rise buildings" is therefore accurate.

The reference to the buildings on Dean Street was likewise accurate; it is needlessly wordy to say they were on "part of the Dean Street segment of the site."

In an article on any topic as complicated as this, we aim to be concise and try not to overwhelm readers with extraneous information. To do that, we use shorthand language when it will not impede clarity or accuracy. In this case, the language chosen met both requirements.

Laying it out

I wrote back yesterday, focusing on the "low-rise" issue:
Thanks for your response. While I recognize that newspapers must use shorthand, I think some of the shorthand here is inaccurate. Even accepting the strained characterization of the UNITY plan backers as "developers"--shouldn't developers have a source of capital?--the UNITY plan does not consitute a low-rise plan (though it certainly is a lower-rise plan). The Art & Architecture Thesaurus defines low-rise as up to five stories.

The community-derived UNITY plan proposed buildings five to 10 stories, or five to 12 stories, as noted in the articles on p. 13 here. Architect Marshall Brown, in one of those articles, uses the term "mid-rise," which the Thesaurus defines as five to nine or 10 stories.
[An example: the Atlantic Terrace development planned by the Fifth Avenue Committee for Atlantic Avenue just east of the Atlantic Center mall, right.]

As for the Extell plan, it would encompass 2.7 million square feet on 8.3 acres. See the third PDF page here. Forest City Ratner's plan would be 8.6 million square feet on 22 acres. You can see that the plans are roughly equivalent in terms of density, though Extell's would be less dense. Even Forest City Ratner's Jim Stuckey acknowledged in a radio interview Monday that the Extell plan represents another high-rise proposal. Scroll down to the heading marked "The Extell bid."

Even if one believed that the UNITY plan was "mostly low-rise," rather than the more accurate mid-rise, the Times employed plurals in the phrasing at issue: "including proposals by rival developers that would include mostly low-rise buildings." The syntax misleadingly suggests that more than one developer (including Extell) proposed mostly low-rise buildings.

Here's the sentence at issue:
They have backed alternative plans for the site, including proposals by rival developers that would include mostly low-rise buildings and would not require eminent domain.

Here's a crack at more precise phrasing:
They have backed a community plan for mid-rise construction, as well as a rival developer's proposal for high-rise buildings, and neither plan would require eminent domain.

Or, alternatively:
They have backed a community plan for mid-rise construction, as well as a rival developer's proposal for high-rise--but not as tall--buildings, and neither plan would require eminent domain.

The Times stonewalls

Roberts responded later in the day:
Thanks for writing. As I said, we've determined that no correction is warranted, and I understand that you disagree with that decision. But I have to handle many duties here, so I am not able to engage in an extended debate about this particular matter. We do appreciate the feedback.

But this is no disagreement over opinions, but rather one over easily verifiable facts.
1) There's one developer, not two.
2) There's a mid-rise community plan and one developer's proposal for high-rise buildings.
3) To avoid the false dichotomy between low-rise and high-rise plans, the need for concision could have been accommodated with a rephrased sentence one word longer.

Whatever happened to the "journalism of verification"?


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