“Big things happened in Brooklyn. Jackie Robinson! Do you know how important Jackie Robinson has always been in my family? Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey! Maybe it was down now, but something had been there before. Something that mattered. That’s how I knew it could come back.”
Asked if he recalled the first time he ever set eyes on Atlantic Yards, Ratner took a deep breath. “Oh my God, yes. After we built MetroTech, Jonathan Rose came to me. He was the designated developer of Atlantic Yards. He said, ‘Bruce, we’ve spent ten million bucks and nothing’s happening. We give up. Want to give it a try?’ I looked at the site. A hole in the ground in a dangerous area, some train tracks. But I liked the idea. I wasn’t thinking residential. I didn’t know residential. I was thinking outlet retail. Big-box stuff. That was where my liberalism came in. I thought if you brought in a big retailer, people would save money over the bodegas where they went shopping. It would be like giving everyone a raise. I took the head of Kmart to the top of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank and said, ‘Look down … Look at this great piece of land. You can build the biggest Kmart in the world right here.’ He looked at me like I was crazy. Even Kmart was turning up their nose at Brooklyn.”
When I asked if he expected such vehement opposition to his proposed development, a plaintiveness came into Ratner’s voice. “No. You know, I wasn’t exactly a naïve developer. I’d already completed 22 separate projects in New York. There’s always problems. But nothing like that … not that kind of relentless, searing, personal attack. That was the last thing I expected.”
Ratner mentioned his now near-legendary one-on-one matchup with Daniel Goldstein, the tenacious thirtysomething leader of the main Atlantic Yards opposition group. Goldstein became something of a folk hero for refusing to move out of his $590,000 condo, slated to be torn down to make way for what would become Barclays Center. Living with his wife in his otherwise completely empty eight-story building, Goldstein single-handedly held up the project for years.
“I couldn’t believe that guy,” Ratner said, still not quite over the confrontation. “I don’t think I could have done what he did, staying in that building alone all that time. That takes a special kind of person. I wish he’d have done something like that against the Iraq War or something … but tactically, he did a great job. That movie, The Battle for Brooklyn, was incredible. Everything he said was a lie, but how smart was that—making it personal, attacking me like that, making me into the villain? Smart, really smart.”
I thought this was menschy of Ratner, allowing that if Robert Moses had had his Jane Jacobs, Bruce Ratner had his Daniel Goldstein. Besides, whatever his motives, no one could say Ratner hadn’t gone the limit to bring professional sports back to Brooklyn. He bought the nomadic, identity-less Nets for $300 million. He pulled who knew how many strings with the stadium-mad Bloomberg caliphate, getting every sweetheart deal in the book. Later, with the whole thing threatening to fall apart during the crash, his window to cash in tax-free bonds closing, Ratner dug up Mikhail Prokhorov, a six-foot-eight Russian billionaire with a basketball jones, to take 80 percent of the Nets off his hands.
It was an impressive feat of deadline wheeling and dealing, especially for a guy from Cleveland who speaks fondly of his late-sixties days at Columbia Law School, when Mark Rudd and Kathy Boudin were “big figures.” Even the great Power Broker himself (whose post–Robert Caro “reappraisal,” Ratner said, was “overdue”) never worked that hard, thought that fast. For his efforts on Brooklyn’s behalf, the developer might well have expected a parade down Flatbush, to be hailed as the anti-O’Malley, the man who lifted the curse. Instead, he got all this tsuris, his name shouted down with raspberry opprobrium at community-board meetings.
Still, it was a good story—a Brooklyn story!—Ratner had to admit. Besides, it had worked out. The delays that once loomed so ruinous had only increased the value of his 22-acre Atlantic Yards portfolio. Land prices were going up by the day. “Look what’s happened to Brooklyn in the interim,” Ratner exulted. “Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Fort Greene. Four, five years ago, if I asked someone to sponsor Brooklyn, there would have been resistance. Now you say ‘Brooklyn’ and everyone goes, ‘Great!’ ” Indeed, Ratner said, it wouldn’t be long before New York developed into two major commercial and entertainment nodes, one in midtown, the other a seamless merger of lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn.