The story of Atlantic Yards starts back in 1957, when the Dodgers left for Los Angeles, breaking the heart of a 12-year-old Marty Markowitz. It took a while, but he got the chance to do something about it in 2002, when he noticed that the New Jersey Nets were for sale. Markowitz, Brooklyn’s borough president and corniest booster, began hounding Bruce Ratner, telling him that he was the perfect guy to bring big-league sports back to Brooklyn. Finally, as much to get Marty off his back as to enter the ranks of NBA ownership, Ratner launched a bid, bought the team for $300 million, and then set about figuring out what to do with his new prize.
At least that’s the story both men have told. It’s always struck me as a convenient creation myth, akin to Abner Doubleday’s inventing baseball in pastoral Cooperstown. Ratner didn’t get to be a multimillionaire by operating on whims. He’d long been aware of the gaping space stretching east beyond the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. He built two large projects overlooking that congested hub and the LIRR yards: Atlantic Center mall, in 1996, and Atlantic Terminal mall, in 2004.
Ratner, 61, doesn’t have the biography of a greedy developer. His father founded Forest City in 1921 and turned it into one of Cleveland’s biggest companies. Bruce’s siblings are all confirmed lefties: His brother, Michael, runs the Center for Constitutional Rights, and his sister, Ellen, created the Talk Radio News syndicate and is one of Fox TV’s token liberals; she’s also openly gay. Even Bruce had such a zeal for public service that, after graduating from Harvard and then Columbia Law, he was touted as “the next Ralph Nader” during his four years as head of consumer affairs under Koch. But in 1982, Ratner decided he needed to make more money than his $52,000 civil-service salary, and he joined the family business, eventually running the New York chapter, Forest City Ratner. To this point, FCR’s biggest New York project has been Metrotech, 6.4 million square feet of office and retail space between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, opened in 1990, before Brooklyn’s boom began.
Ratner himself lives in Manhattan, on East 78th Street, in a $2.6 million townhouse. He owned a five-bedroom house in East Hampton, which he sold around the time his first marriage ended in 1999, and now has a 194-acre estate in Ulster County. His longtime girlfriend, Pamela Lipkin, is a Park Avenue plastic surgeon. And Ratner has two daughters, Lizzy, a reporter for the New York Observer, and Rebecca, an actress.
Ratner declines almost all interview requests and usually appears only at staged promotional events. He’s described himself as “an old lefty.” But old lefties in middle age are often the most voracious capitalists. For all his devotion to progressive causes, Ratner can play rough. He’ll sue when he thinks he’s been wronged, and he explained the forbidding design of Atlantic Center in harsh terms: “Look, you’re in an urban area, you’re next to projects, you’ve got tough kids.”
With Atlantic Yards, Ratner envisioned lifting those kids up instead of keeping them out—doing good and making money. According to his aides, Ratner directed that the project be structured according to seven social goals, including increasing minority employment and boosting the borough’s supply of mixed-income housing. Giving Brooklyn a new architectural icon was on the agenda as well, perhaps to atone for the design of his previous buildings, and so he turned to Gehry, the reigning king of statement architecture, who would appeal to Brooklyn’s growing aesthetic class (though Gehry’s few public appearances on behalf of Atlantic Yards have not gone well: At a press conference in May, he blasted the project’s opponents, saying, “They should have been picketing Henry Ford”). The final list of goals and projections for Atlantic Yards is impressive: 15,000 union construction jobs, billions in tax revenues, upgraded transit infrastructure, and seven acres of publicly accessible open space.
Ratner is more astute politician than saint; he surely knew the do-gooder goals would help sell the project. He also has impeccable timing. While there was no public hint of Ratner’s interest in either the Nets or the Brooklyn rail-yards site until late July 2003, the developer had been meeting with Bloomberg nearly a year before that, according to Dan Doctoroff, the city’s economic-development czar. Bloomberg, a political novice but a billionaire businessman, had been elected largely on the hope he’d rescue the city’s economy. Doctoroff was orchestrating the campaign for the 2012 Olympics and to build a West Side stadium for the Jets, controversies that provided invaluable media cover for Atlantic Yards, percolating in the background. “We did not require a lot of convincing as to the conceptual merits of Bruce’s plan,” Doctoroff says. “We’ve been involved in it from almost day one. I was advising Bruce on his purchase of the Nets. Clearly, he was going to use it as a centerpiece for a significant development over the yards. The mayor was always very intrigued by the design. He’s in favor of big statements. What you’ve got now is an opportunity to have an independent economy in Brooklyn.”