Back to the Future

“The Dodgers, the Dodgers, the Dodgers,” Bruce Ratner says, his voice mixed with affection and weariness. He’s talking about the baseball team that once anchored Brooklyn’s major-city aspirations and now anchors Brooklyn in the past. “That’s nice nostalgia, but we have to get beyond that. In a metaphorical way, we have to get over the Dodgers. That’s important. Because that talk represents the way Brooklyn used to be. And how one talks about the New Brooklyn is very important.”

The New Brooklyn. Get used to that phrase, because the momentum behind it is only getting stronger. If it happens—or, rather, when it happens—no one’s going to be more responsible than Bruce Ratner. Which is sort of ironic, considering how nearly invisible the press-shy developer of some of the most audacious commercial projects in downtown Brooklyn has been, even while establishing himself as a critical force in the borough’s renaissance of the past fifteen years.

Ratner has devoted his life to a vision, essentially that Brooklyn need no longer act as a living museum for your grandfather’s memories of spaldeens, stickball, and Ebbets Field on a July afternoon. Unless you’re talking the Cyclones, baseball’s pretty much a memory, too. Yes, only six years ago, then–borough president Howard Golden and then-congressman Chuck Schumer were talking about luring the Bums back from Chavez Ravine. Ratner’s never been under any such illusion. But for him, this does not mean the death of a dream. Only a reincarnation.

“Basketball is the right thing for Brooklyn now,” Ratner says firmly. “Just as baseball was the right thing when the Dodgers started up more than a century ago.”

This is the Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets that Ratner, the president of Forest City Ratner Companies, has in mind—or, soon, if Ratner has his way, the Brooklyn Nets. The team would play its home games in a spectacular arena designed by Frank Gehry, the architect who created the enviable Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. This arena would rise from a platform constructed over the Long Island Rail Road yards on Atlantic Avenue, a short stroll from the late-night halal chicken joints favored by Syrian gypsy cabbies.

Yes, it sounds like a fantasy. There are lots of reasons it might be. For starters, New Jersey isn’t likely to want to give up its champs now that they’re finally something other than a league laughingstock. Just one of the people lining up to stop Ratner is named Jon Corzine, he of the $300 million in personal wealth and the seat in the United States Senate. Then there’s Charles Wang, the Computer Associates founder, who already owns the New York Islanders and has a stadium where the Nets could play, the Nassau Coliseum.

Besides, no one has been able to get a major-league sports facility built in New York since the sixties. And everyone’s tried—the Mets, the Jets, the Yankees. George Steinbrenner couldn’t do it, not with Rudy Giuliani, as much a Yankee at heart as Derek Jeter, in Gracie Mansion for eight years during a historic economic boom. Brooklyn has been rolling its collective eyes at Ratner’s schemes for years (see MetroTech, the Atlantic Center shopping mall, and the under-construction Atlantic Terminal office-retail complex), yet he’s scarcely missed on one yet. No wonder one prominent Brooklyn-bred businessman is so bullish on the plan.

“Bruce Ratner believes that Brooklyn can be a great city. Yes, city,” says this sometime associate. “Ratner believes this in the year 2003, which some people might find humorous. But in the year 2012, if he’s able to do what he wants to do, then people will say, ‘Hey, remember 2003, when all of this seemed crazy?’ He has 8.2 million square feet of prime real estate in downtown Brooklyn connected to the biggest subway and commuter-rail hub in New York. In that 8.2 million square feet, you’re going to see a new basketball arena, designed by Frank Gehry, the rest commercial real estate and housing. What you’ll see there is not typical Brooklyn brownstones. There’s a skyline to this. This is the future. This is Robert Moses. This is Levittown.”

“Even in my own office, they thought I was absolutely crazy,” says Ratner, who along with the other two investment groups submitted bids two weeks ago. A decision can come anytime from next week to three months from now, insiders say. “My lawyers thought I was crazy. But we have a decent shot. We may not get it. But I’ll tell you, no one ever thought I would get this far.”

The skepticism is understandable. Typically, it’s not easy to carry off a pro team to a neighboring market. But then, the Nets have never been typical.

The Nets were first the New Jersey Americans in 1967, an original franchise of the freewheeling, if short-lived, American Basketball Association. They moved to Nassau County in 1968 and rechristened themselves the New York Nets. On Long Island, the team established itself as both a high-wire act and a powerhouse, thanks in large part to Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who played his most gravity-defying games for the Nets back when the ball was tricolored and the home court was the Nassau Coliseum. Then, in 1976, the struggling ABA merged with—in essence, succumbed to—the mighty NBA. The next year, the Nets again hopped a couple of boroughs and two rivers and landed back in New Jersey. There, they attempted to build a new fan base in the recently constructed, and quite sterile, Brendan Byrne (now Continental Airlines) Arena, across the parking lot from Giants Stadium in the swampland of East Rutherford.

As a Jersey institution, the Nets never quite clicked. They began losing games—often in the secluded privacy of a half-filled arena—and, worse, their identity. Twice, they changed uniforms, and they very nearly changed names, to the, ahem, Swamp Dragons. Salvation supposedly arrived in 1998, when a new ownership group headed by two do-gooder-type real-estate moguls, Lewis Katz and Ray Chambers, bought the franchise. Soon, they announced plans to build a sparkling new $355 million arena in Newark’s dire downtown that would feature all the skyboxes and luxuries needed to pay the modern NBA’s eight-figure player salaries.

The Newark plan was a variation on the very nineties build-it-and-they-will-come concept of urban renewal, a notion that swept the country after new ballparks in Baltimore and Cleveland reinvigorated once-desolate urban cores. But Newark has never quite materialized.

“The New Jersey market has not been one that they’ve been able to ignite,” says sports economist Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College, a leading authority on the economic impact for cities of stadium construction. “The Nets have had a very good team for a couple of years now, but I know a lot of people in Manhattan who still talk about going out to Nets games almost as if they’re going to Philadelphia. I’m not sure Newark wouldn’t be worse. I don’t see either of the New Jersey options. The market there just doesn’t have the same cachet that Brooklyn would have.”

The Nets themselves did their part. Once the team traded for star point guard Jason Kidd in 2001, they marched to consecutive conference championships. But even success failed to push the Nets into the black, as they continued to attract some of the smallest crowds in the league. Worse, the new commitment to winning came at a price. This past summer, the team committed $125 million over the next six years to lock down two players alone—Kidd and former All-Star center Alonzo Mourning.

And the ownership had grown vastly more complicated following a 1999 merger with, of all people, George Steinbrenner. At the time, Steinbrenner was planning his own cable channel, the YES Network, to broadcast Yankees games. The Boss, however, needed winter programming. Soon, the Boss and the Nets and even hockey’s New Jersey Devils were squeezed shoulder to shoulder into an ungainly entity known as YankeeNets. In the days of corporate synergy, the idea sounded intriguing, in an AOL Time Warner sort of way.

And it worked out just about as well. The personality clashes between the blustery Steinbrenner and the quiet, philanthropic Chambers and Katz are said to have been pronounced. There were reported tussles over the network and team management. By this past summer, it appeared, everyone wanted out.

Much to the shock of everyone, a low-key developer out in Brooklyn suddenly wanted in.

Owning a sports team is usually a job for blow-dried nouveau-ultra-riche narcissists. Think Jerry Jones. Think Mark Cuban. Not only does Ratner show zero interest in earning face time on ESPN’s SportsCenter, but he practically never speaks to the press about anything, although he did come out of his shell a bit with a showy press conference at Junior’s last week. In this interview with New York, Ratner declined—in accordance with a confidentiality clause issued by the investment banks handling the sale, Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers—to talk about any specifics relating to his bid, his strategies to build support within City Hall, or his potential ownership group (Ratner, according to one report, is looking to put up $75 million of his own money into a team that could go for $250 million).

Yes, Ratner, now 58, did serve for a time as Consumer Affairs commissioner under Ed Koch. He has served as chairman of the board of bam. But for a guy who’s already transformed the landscape of downtown Brooklyn with massive projects, he’s almost invisible. At some point soon, “New Brooklyn” may indeed need a cheerleader, a Trump all its own. But it won’t be Bruce Ratner. “That’s the last thing I’d want to do,” he says a bit awkwardly. “It’s not my nature, and at the end of the day, I’m a real-estate developer.”

But then he proceeds to cheerlead. “There are still people who say, ‘What, Brooklyn?’ They don’t get it,” Ratner says. He envisions the triumphant arrival of the Nets—and maybe even the NHL-champion Devils—at a gleaming pleasure dome on the very site where the O’Malleys once dreamed of building a new Ebbets Field. It would be the crowning achievement of his real ambition, he says, which is to help bring about one of the country’s great urban renaissances.

In fact, the biggest thing Ratner might have going for him is that his plan turns the build-it-and-they-will-come model, which is always a bit of a gamble, on its head. Ratner’s idea is more they’ve-already-come-so-let’s-build-it. The they in this case is the invigorated new population that has simply transformed the borough in the past five years.

“Five years,” he marvels. “I can’t believe my eyes, the changes.” Absurd Manhattan real-estate prices pushed an entire generation of creative, educated, and solidly middle-class New Yorkers across the East River. It’s a historic shift of intellectual and financial capital, and a striking reversal of the hemorrhage that sapped Brooklyn during the decades of suburbanization. If you’re looking for evidence that Brooklyn is once again a major-league town, perhaps you need look no further than the price of brownstones in Park Slope, some of which have tripled in value in the past ten years.

“You talk to old Brooklynites, a lot of them almost never went to Manhattan their whole lives,” Ratner says. “For them, the world started and ended in Brooklyn. They talk about the ‘good old days,’ when Brooklyn had everything, because it did have everything. Downtown Brooklyn once had fifteen theaters!”

“It’s not an accident it’s all coming back,” Ratner enthuses. “Just like the Russian immigrants would move here and bring their families over, now it’s the intellectuals who move here and bring their friends over. Brooklyn has become a brain drain on the rest of the city. In fifteen years, this place will be everything it was and more. You can just see it.”

Ratner, of course, is not everyone’s idea of a philanthropist visionary. In business, he can play hardball as fiercely as Ty Cobb. Five years ago, a rival developer, Millennium Partners, had already started on a gleaming entertainment complex with a 22-screen multiplex and a 50-lane bowling alley down near the Gowanus. Ratner, however, filed suit, claiming rights to the land. In the end, Ratner won out, though the same might not be said for Brooklyn, which will end up with another big-box chain store—Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse.

Nevertheless, Ratner sees his mission as more than mercenary. “I was never interested in traditional real estate—you know, luxury high-rises in Manhattan,” he says. “I mean, there are lots of ways to make money. I found my niche, creating buildings that keep jobs in this city.”

“Everything he’s doing is just homogenizing,” says an activist. “This is just one more step in the Manhattanization of Brooklyn.”

Ratner grew up in a progressive family in Cleveland. His boyhood idol was Indians outfielder Larry Doby, the first black player to cross the color barrier in the American League, Ohio’s own Jackie Robinson. “Bruce is an old lefty, he’s an old hippie,” says one friend. A nephew of powerful Cleveland developer Max Ratner, Bruce Ratner enrolled in Columbia Law School after graduating with honors from Harvard, and planned a career in public-interest law.

“I was a storefront lawyer for the Model Cities program in Queens, which deals with consumer-fraud issues,” explains Ratner, who later taught law at NYU for five years. “I had no interest in business.” In 1982, Ratner, concerned with “family finances and so forth,” decided to try real estate. “My intention was to go into this for a short time.” With backing from the Ohio Ratners, the neophyte developer almost instantly turned his sights on the least-promising terrain around.

“I remember walking downtown one time with my cousin Albert,” recalls Ratner. Albert Ratner is chairman of Forest City Enterprises, the family’s original Ohio company. “I was new to the business and hadn’t built anything yet. We came upon the MetroTech site. If you could only see pictures of it back then. It was the worst precinct in the city. I suddenly got really nervous that MetroTech just couldn’t be done. I turned to Albert and said, ‘Am I crazy?’ Albert just said, ‘Bruce, stay the course.’ ”

Over the next fifteen years, Ratner found plenty of opportunities to test his sanity. “I used to get guffaws,” he recalls. “I would be giving a presentation to a company and I would say, ‘Downtown Brooklyn is the best downtown in America. You’re going to laugh, but I’m going to take the next twenty minutes to prove it to you. We have 32,000 college students, more than Cambridge, Massachusetts. We’ve got the cultural institutions, the transportation. I’ve been all over the country, and this downtown is going to be the very, very best.’ ”

But how could New Jersey let its first native pro franchise go, just at the cusp of greatness? “I for one always assumed that Jon Corzine and Jim McGreevey would never let them leave,” says Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce president Kenneth Adams. “But when are they going to start playing defense? So far, anyway, Ratner is playing offense quite successfully.”

For the record, everyone in New Jersey insists he’s working hard to keep the Nets in Springsteen Country. The question is, at what cost? Both Nets ownership and elected officials in Jersey insist the Newark arena is not dead. The problem is, team owners have asked for more than the $210 million in public funds originally agreed to, and neither the city of Newark nor the state says it can spare the money.

Meanwhile, current Nets ownership remains deeply divided. Ray Chambers appears ready to sell. Katz is rumored to have thrown in his lot with Ratner, though neither will comment. Jersey’s best hope appears to rest with developer Charles Kushner, now backed by Corzine. That duo brings tremendous clout, both political and financial, but even they appear to be pinning their hopes on securing up to $100 million to renovate Continental Arena, and no one yet has figured out where that will come from. Wang, for his part, is thought to be interested only to the extent that he can get public money to spruce up the unloved Nassau “Mausoleum”—unloved by Kidd and Mourning themselves, who have already spoken out against any fast-breaks out to Long Island, though not necessarily to the 718 area code.

And then there’s Brooklyn, a sports town waiting to happen if ever there was one. “Brooklyn long ago established itself as a good borough for professional team sports,” says Zimbalist, a sharp critic of some other cities’ stadium plans, “and hasn’t been given much of a chance since 1958.

“With arenas,” he explains, “as opposed to outdoor football stadiums, you ought to be able to get much more private financing. The basketball team alone gives you 41 dates, and that’s even if the Devils don’t come. A football stadium gives you ten dates, and there’s not much else you can do there to create revenue except maybe have Billy Graham come and speak, or Bruce Springsteen give a concert.”

The question of how much money the city gets from a new team depends on how much it puts in. That’s where the idea of “incremental” tax revenue comes in. The Bloomberg administration has a policy for any team wishing to build in the city: It’s only willing to kick in money for construction that wouldn’t otherwise be available to the city if the stadium didn’t exist.

An arena, in other words, will inevitably generate new tax revenues—from tickets to basketball games, concerts, even the circus, as well as income taxes from employees who work there. That projected future income is what the city is willing to lend. “What we’re going to use is those extra taxes that would not have existed otherwise to pay for our contribution,” explains Daniel Doctoroff, deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding. “And hopefully, we’re going to have some left over, too.”

It’s the same deal the city is working out with the Jets, who are making good progress toward a West Side stadium with a retractable roof that would double as an arena and convention center. The problem with Steinbrenner’s now-defunct dreams for a West Side stadium were twofold, Doctoroff says. First off, the Yankees draw 40,000 to 50,000 fans a game, and there are 81 home games a year. That’s a lot of extra activity for midtown Manhattan. Also, moving the Yankees from the Bronx to Manhattan doesn’t bring a net gain for the city. It only robs Peter to pay, well, George.

Bringing the Nets to Brooklyn makes more sense, Doctoroff says. Basketball games attract at most 20,000 fans, and to a far less congested area served by nine subway lines. New Jersey would be the loser here, not a rival borough. Yes, the Knicks might not want a champ in their own backyard, but they don’t have much of a voice in the matter. The NBA decides on such moves by a three-quarters vote of its teams. “The Knicks,” says league spokesman Tim Frank, “would have the same vote as the Phoenix Suns.”

These days, however, there is still no shortage of Brooklynites who don’t care to look into Ratner’s crystal ball. Just last week, a group calling itself the Prospect Heights Action Coalition was outside the Junior’s press conference picketing Ratner’s New Brooklyn vision, which some consider obscene.

“Everything he’s doing is just homogenizing. He plops down this massive suburban-mall architecture in the middle of the neighborhood. It creates walls between the communities. Atlantic Center was built to be unfriendly. Atlantic Terminal, which is going up now, just looks shabby. And does anyone in Brooklyn really want a Chuck E. Cheese?” fumes the group’s Patti Hagan, a 24-year neighborhood resident. “One of the nice things about Brooklyn always was that the Williamsburgh Savings Bank was the only tall building around. This was big-sky country. This is just one more step in the Manhattanization of Brooklyn.”

Ratner’s opponents predict a plague of potential problems, from rats nibbling on trash left behind by basketball fans to asthma exacerbated by fumes pouring from fans’ SUVs. More generally, the quaint quarters of the borough still teem with resentment of the invading “yuppie hordes.” Ratner’s proposed site is surrounded by a standing army of seventies-era urban homesteaders, many of whom are also “old lefties” and ex-hippies, which gives the current debate a little extra juice—it’s left vs. lefter. Hagan, for example, decries government support for pro-sports arenas as “corporate welfare,” and believes city money would be better spent on housing for seniors, public schools, or perhaps a playground for children built on a platform over those very rail yards.

If one concern unites skeptics across the political spectrum, however, it’s traffic.

“Most people in Brooklyn take public transportation,” Ratner insists. “City rules said we had to build MetroTech assuming that 11 percent of the people who worked there would travel by car. In reality, I don’t think it’s 3 percent.”

Neighbors scoff, but evidence suggests the concept is not, on the face of it, absurd. A few years ago, the San Francisco Giants built a scant 5,000 parking spaces for their new 41,000-seat PacBell Park downtown (their old park, Candlestick, had 20,000). The team boldly predicted that an astonishing 50 percent of their game-day fans would use public transportation, which in the Bay Area is feeble indeed compared with New York’s. San Franciscans predicted disaster. In the end, however, the park not only kick-started the once-desolate China Basin district but exceeded the team’s optimistic transportation goals.

Ratner believes a lot of community resistance, however well-intentioned, is ultimately misguided. Narrow anxieties about traffic miss the larger peril that the city is hemorrhaging jobs—just the sort of back-office jobs that complexes like MetroTech are designed to retain. In the months following 9/11, downtown Manhattan alone lost an estimated 25,000 employees to the suburbs, and not just because companies were fleeing Osama.

“In ten years, we lost 12 million square feet of office space to New Jersey, which is huge!” exclaims Amanda Burden, New York’s planning commissioner. Indeed, that space represents perhaps $150 million in lost tax revenues. “Guess why. We didn’t have any sites to build an office building. Downtown Brooklyn had only one available site. Only one! The rest of it is still zoned for medium-density, and ten-story buildings just aren’t going to do it.”

That will almost certainly change by this time next year, Burden says. The Bloomberg administration is feverishly pushing the interagency Downtown Brooklyn Development Plan, which would rezone significant swaths of the city’s commercial quarters, mostly around Fulton Mall, to accommodate as many as ten Manhattan-style commercial skyscrapers, plus new parks and housing. All of this could—should—happen over the next ten years, Burden says. The idea is to “knit” together all of Brooklyn’s isolated assets—from the hip bistros of Smith Street to the design studios in Williamsburg to the ever-expanding bam to the ambitious waterfront parks planned to stretch from Brooklyn Heights to Greenpoint—into a cohesive bloc. “This is an absolutely huge priority,” Burden says. “Downtown Brooklyn is a key element of the administration’s citywide economic-development strategy. The city is very prepared in order to attract this growth, and we are willing to invest scarce public dollars and public open space to catalyze this growth.”

Ratner figures to be a serious player in this redevelopment. Adjacent to a new arena, Ratner plans to build a $2 billion, 21-acre development featuring both retail and office space and some 5,500 units of housing, which he says will come in various-size buildings and serve various income levels.

“We’re going to get hemmed in by all these high-rise luxury buildings,” worries Prospect Heights resident Muriel Tillinghast. “And a 20,000-seater arena is really over-the-top.”

Of course, it’s not as if the proposed development site is exactly Parisian in charm. Ratner himself considers the arena site—a gaping pit of naked railroad tracks ringed by barbed wire—a “scar.” Indeed, stand in front of Atlantic Center and survey the terrain. Few would mistake the Atlantic-Flatbush junction for the Jardin du Luxembourg. All Ratner asks is that potential neighbors of the arena consider the potential. “Frank Gehry recently bought a lot to build on in Venice Beach,” he offers. “The two lots next door tripled in value.”

Then again, turn around and you’ll see part of the problem, not the solution. Brooklynites almost universally consider Ratner’s Atlantic Center a dreary, big-box eyesore. Ratner? Well, he sort of agrees.

“When I started, I did not have any understanding of the importance of architecture,” he admits sheepishly. “So honestly, Atlantic Center is not something that we’re terribly proud of. But I’ve evolved, I think. Now Frank Gehry is for me an idol, like Larry Doby when I was a kid. Listen, if I have something to do with a new arena, it’ll be radical,” he says deliciously.

The hidden gamble for Ratner is that he’s going to have to try to buy a basketball team without any guarantee of a permanent home. Yes, the team has a lease at the Meadowlands until 2008 and could actually pull out of it when a Brooklyn arena is completed, which Ratner says could take three years. As a worst-case scenario, Ratner has not ruled out a privately funded arena. It might not come to that. City and state officials appear amenable to helping out with an arena, at least under the right framework. The likes of Doctoroff and Burden certainly seem to see an upside.

The question is whether the borough will, too. In a sense, it all comes down to, yes, the “vision thing.” Out West, they dream big dreams and build big stadiums, stadiums with sushi bars and swimming pools. Brooklyn, sturdy and soulful as it is, has been out of the vision business for close to 100 years. But maybe that’s changing, too.

Borough President Marty Markowitz is as Old Brooklyn in manner as a Junior’s egg cream, but he lights up when talk turns to the New Brooklyn Nets. “Brooklyn is the only location that works for the Nets,” enthuses Markowitz. “They left Long Island for a reason. They wouldn’t even be thinking about New Jersey if they realized that the natural fan base is here. All we can do is hope. Football, we don’t have room for an 80,000-seat stadium. Baseball, the Mets and the Yankees have complete veto power over a third team in New York City. The only sport is basketball. If we don’t get this team, the next time this comes around probably will not be in our lifetime.”

Back to the Future