The plan to bring a basketball arena and office and residential towers to Downtown Brooklyn has received a lot of attention, and the attributes and criticisms of the project have been played out in the media. But who is the man behind the project? Developer Bruce Ratner is the subject of this week’s One on 1 with Budd Mishkin.
It may seem like an odd image: Bruce Ratner, real estate developer, builder of buildings, strictly pavement, perhaps happiest on a boat.
“East River has great striped bass fishing during the right time of year. And I have fished for striped bass in the East River with a great success on one occasion,” says Ratner.
But did he eat it?
“Yes, actually. I would say that I did eat it!” he adds.
The "discussion" about the Atlantic yards project has been quite public, and loud, and Ratner has been the subject of protests.
It’s ironic, because he himself has taken to the streets to protest, before the start of the Iraq war, and especially during his Columbia Law School days in the Î60s.
"I remember doing a march on a Wall Street,” says Ratner. “It was all power to the people and workers — and the workers were on buildings throwing things at us. So I'm not sure, you know, whether we were really representing who we thought we were representing.”
Those same financial institutions that Ratner once protested have been the backbone of his building empire. It’s just one of a number of seeming contradictions about Ratner. Here’s a man who enjoys his anonymity, then buys a basketball team to move them to Brooklyn — a move destined to put him on the front page and the back page of the paper. He’s a multi-millionaire developer who wears his progressive politics proudly.
"People see the big developer and they are thinking of certain stereotype of developer, you know, being very wealthy and not terribly concerned about the public and so on,” says Ratner. “And in fact I believe I am and people have to judge for themselves."
Ratner says his agreement with the city requires him to build low- and moderate-income housing and he believes the Atlantic yards project will create jobs.
His opponents criticize his plan to use eminent domain to clear the area of some apartment buildings and businesses, cite potential traffic and service problems and predict a drastic change in the feel of the neighborhood.
"I understand those kind of concerns, and they are not inappropriate,” says Ratner. “I understand how they would be concerned, but on the other hand I think — and it's just an opinion — I think the result will be that when it's actually built, just as Metro Tech or Atlantic Terminal overall did a positive good."
Ratner has heard criticism before. For example, on the architecture of the big box store malls he built near Atlantic Terminal. The subject brought his most passionate response during the interview.
"I'm proud of both of these, because the jobs they create number one and number two they save people money and allow people to buy good quality goods at lower prices and this serves a large part of Brooklyn. So, you know, those who focus on the architecture are frankly misguided about what's really important in this world,” says Ratner.
Perhaps that feeling stems from Ratner’s own personal style. There is a lack of ostentation, reflected in his office, also reflected in the absence of his name on his buildings.
Still, with a project as big as Atlantic Yards, you're out there, ripe for criticism and protest, as when he was honored recently at the Brooklyn Museum.
"They made caricatures. That's OK — I'm caricaturable. It was fine, really,” says Ratner. “They saw I was being honored, they didn't agree with that, they said what they had to say and that was OK.”
Ratner can travel the world in fine fashion. But it wasn't always that way.
He grew up in Cleveland. His father died when he was young, but not before establishing one motto in the home.
“My father had a fourth grade education, my mother went to vocational school rather than high school for typing,” says Ratner. “So neither had a college education and neither was terribly educated, so education was very important.”
He headed off to Harvard, and then Columbia Law School, which Ratner calls the three most important years of his life.
"I was there when the buildings were taken,” says Ratner. “I didn't take over any buildings but I was what one would call fairly progressive."
After law school, he worked for Mayor John Lindsey, running the Model Cities program and later for Mayor Ed Koch in a job Ratner remembers fondly: commissioner of consumer affairs.
“Everything from writing regulations that dealt with unfair credit practices, installment sales, door-to-door sales, fraud,” says Ratner of his job description.
Among his proposals was Beefless Wednesdays to protest rising beef prices. But not all of Ratner's efforts were appreciated.
"I remember I went after a TV repair company we had so many complaints against,” says Ratner. “The man when I went to serve a subpoena — this was my first stint in the city — the man locked me in his store and threatened to put a bullet through my head if I served a subpoena on him.”
Ratner says he eventually left city government because he had two kids and had to make more money. He started up Forest City Ratner, a New York division of his family's Cleveland-based real estate company.
Rather than be just another developer in high-priced Midtown or Lower Manhattan, he looked where others had not gone: Downtown Brooklyn.
"I could remember initially when we built the MetroTech, there were bullet halls in the glass in the office buildings where the workers were and it was a very difficult sell to get companies to decide to move to Brooklyn as opposed to moving out of the state,” says Ratner.
Even though Ratner was one of the city's most prominent developers in the Î90s, he kept a rather low profile. That changed when he bought the New Jersey Nets in 2004. The team had enjoyed playoff success in the early part of the decade. But one of its stars, Kenyon Martin, was traded after the 2004 season, and Ratner suddenly found himself on the back page of the paper, and getting lambasted on sports talk radio.
"Took me a lot by surprise. I was pretty down about it,” says Ratner. "When you haven't been through an experience, you always think you are smart enough, good enough to figure it out first time and there is no substitute — it’s like a clichŽ — for experience."
But that was about a basketball trade. The current Atlantic Yards controversy involves the future of a borough and when you build a project, every pedestrian can be an architecture critic.
“We need jobs, we need shopping that's appropriate and the right price and quality goods, we need supermarkets that provide food that is of quality and well-priced, we need housing, and you know what? The architecture is important, but it's not that important,” says Ratner.
"I want to do great architecture, but I have to say something, which is that, if one is going to boil life down to architecture, then you know what? It's not for me,” he adds.
Ratner is married to Dr. Pamela Lipkin and has two grown children from a previous marriage.
Whether you see him as a benevolent developer who is improving Brooklyn with jobs and affordable housing and a team to call its own, or as a real estate magnate who is ruining the neighborhood, there is no dispute that the Atlantic Yards project will be part of his legacy.
But he says he is not concerned with legacy.
“Nobody even knows I was consumer affairs commissioner, so you know what? I'm not building the stuff for legacy,” says Ratner. “I'm building it because I think that doing the residential we're doing, bringing the arena, bringing the team is important, and when it's built I think that'll be realized.”
— Budd Mishkin