Sunday, December 04, 2005


The Courier-Life's softball interview with Bruce Ratner: an analysis

Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner is not exactly known for talking to the press, as noted in Chapter 8 of my report. The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently published a major series on the Cleveland-based company Forest City Enterprises, the country's largest publicly-traded commercial real estate company (of which Bruce Ratner's New York arm is but a part). The 11/30/05 article, headlined Ratners target New York, noted that Bruce Ratner "declined to be interviewed for this story."

Given that the Atlantic Yards project has both grown and been questioned significantly, a new interview with Bruce Ratner could be news. However, as I'll detail below, Ratner added little to our knowledge. I don't know the ground rules of the interview (which was conducted by email after a lunch with Ratner), but it's possible the questions were prescreened--and apparently there was no chance at follow-up questions. After all, Ratner was interviewed by the Courier-Life chain, which has provided less critical coverage of the Atlantic Yards project than the rival weekly the Brooklyn Papers.

[Here's some background. The Brooklyn Papers suggested in in a 4/23/05 article headlined "Chamber bows to Ratner, that the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, whose chair was Courier-Life co-publisher Dan Holt, agreed to bar residents and merchants critical of Atlantic Yards from a meeting with Ratner officials. Then-Courier-Life columnist Erik Engquist, in his 5/30/06 Brooklyn politics column, noted that Holt "does not interfere with our reporting of the Ratner plan or anything else. Most newspapers have a wall between the business and editorial departments. I’m not sure if that’s the case at the Brooklyn Paper, where Ratner’s people believe publisher Ed Weintrob assigns and rewrites his reporters’ stories to give them an anti-Ratner slant."
Engquist also pointed out that Weintrob bought the URL and redirected all visitors there to his paper’s own Web site. Engquist's back and forth with project opponent Phyllis Wrynn concerns the character of the neighborhoods; he argues that creating affordable housing units near public transportation is better than sprawl but says he doesn't support tax breaks for the developer--an interesting prelude to the still-unresolved questions of the proposed project's costs and benefits.]

The 12/02/2005 interview, headlined "Q&A With the Man Who Would Remake Bklyn," begins with a biographical sketch cribbed directly from Forest City Ratner's web site. For example, the article states:
It was while at consumer affairs that Ratner became interested in how major national retail outlets had long underserved inner-city residents and how the city itself had failed to utilize major business and transit hubs to offset corporate flight to New Jersey and the surrounding suburbs.

Ratner's official biography states:
While at Consumer Affairs, Mr. Ratner also became interested in how major national retail outlets had long underserved inner-city residents and how the City itself had failed to utilize major business and transit hubs to offset corporate flight to New Jersey and the surrounding suburbs.

The Q&A leads off:
Stephen Witt: You have been developing in Brooklyn for about 20 years. What are your views toward the future of Brooklyn and how it should be developed?
Bruce Ratner: Brooklyn is a dynamic place, very much its own city with tremendous variety in neighborhoods and people and yet a strong, cohesive character. Clearly, the borough has an amazing future as people from around the world create homes in a place that has already provided other generations with hope and opportunity. The challenge for developing in Brooklyn – for developing anywhere, really – is to respect the character of the place while providing for the needs of today and tomorrow, in terms of housing, work and retail space. That is why we believe the Atlantic Yards project is so important to the continued economic growth and strength of the borough.

Left unsaid is whether and how projects like Atlantic Yards should be evaluated by public agencies. And, as No Land Grab points out, respect and eminent domain don't necessarily mix.

Q: Critics charge that the Atlantic Yards plan is out of character with the neighborhood and that you are changing the Brooklyn skyline. What is your response to these critics?
A: I think if you take a look at what Frank Gehry and Laurie Olin are doing, even in these early stages of design, you will see that they are very sensitive to the design motifs in the surrounding communities without artificially trying to historicize the development. While we are building at a larger scale – don’t forget over a 10-year period – they are designing the project to accent other landmarks and to connect streets with open public spaces.

Are they? It's still under development.

Q: Several neighborhood groups say that FCRC should pay for an independent consultant to help during the EIS process on the project. What is the FCRC position on this?
A: As you know, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) is responsible for overseeing the EIS process. As part of the process, the ESDC has hired its own independent consultants which, by law, FCRC pays for. In addition, FCRC is in the process of hiring some of most respected and renowned consultants in the city to work on traffic and related issues.

Ratner hasn't answered the question, since the neighborhood groups want consultants separate from the ESDC, whose chairman, Charles Gargano, has already declared his support for the project as is.

Q: Eminent domain remains a thorny issue. What is your view of the New London case recently heard in the United States Supreme Court and how do you think it pertains to Atlantic Yards?
A: Over a year ago, we made a pledge to do everything possible to avoid the use of eminent domain. As of now, we own or control 92 percent of the private residential units on the site, 63 percent of the rental buildings and around 65 percent of the commercial spaces and we are continuing to negotiate with the remaining owners as we are very serious about our pledge. I cannot comment on the New London case. However, I understand the sensitivity when it comes to private property – especially residential property – and that’s why we made our pledge and paid higher than market rate for the properties we purchased. As you know, we have also created a relocation program for renters and will give them – and other residents – homes to live in while the project is being built and the opportunity to live in new apartments in the Gehry-designed buildings.

Again, Ratner hasn't really answered the question--and the interesting thing about the New London case is that, even though the Supreme Court narrowly approved the exercise of eminent domain, it did so because there was a legislative process behind the redevelopment project--something absent in Brooklyn.

Q: There has been some talk of the affordable housing component moving off-site. Does the commitment remain for the affordable housing on site as agreed with ACORN and are there any plans to developing more affordable housing off site?
A: Our agreement with ACORN has not changed in any way. All of the affordable rental units (roughly 2,250 units) will be located on-site within Atlantic Yards. In addition, we are looking at adding an additional 600 to 1,000 affordable homeownership units either on- or off-site.

Unmentioned is that the housing Memorandum of Understanding states:
It is currently contemplated that a majority of the affordable for-sale units will be sold to families in the upper affordable income tiers.
The upper-affordable income tiers include families earning more than $100,000 a year.

Q: What do you like about the CBA [Community Benefits Agreement] and do you feel that such agreements are the future of urban developments as private/community-based-organization partnership?
A: As far as the CBA being a model for other developments, it is not for me to say, but I do think the ideas behind it are key and that our CBA is a very important step in the right direction. As a company, FCRC has always tried to ensure diversity. We have among the highest percentages for minority- and women-owned business participation. It’s something we’re proud of. We also utilize only union labor and work with the unions to bring in new members. It’s an investment in the quality of our construction but also the quality of our communities.

While Ratner avoids claiming the CBA as a model, the developer's Brooklyn Standard calls it historic, as have several public officials. Perhaps Ratner is mindful of significant criticism of this CBA.

Q: Manhattan-based sports columnist Mike Lupica has taken a very anti-Nets-coming-to-Brooklyn stance, making me wonder if he has something against the borough having a major sports team. He has also personally attacked your commitment to the Nets. What is your commitment to the Nets and response to these columns?
A: I’m not going to comment on what he’s written. He has a right to his opinion, even though I adamantly disagree with most of what he has written, and look forward to talking to him one day to explain why. I am very proud of our team and I would not put all the time, effort and money into this team if I was not in it for the long haul.

Ratner may disagree with Lupica, but some issues in dispute are facts rather than opinion.

I'll ignore the final question about how Brooklyn sports and basketball fans might get season passes to detail what more might have been asked, besides the obvious follow-up questions noted above:
--what do you think about the New York Times's editorial that said that the project should proceed without $200 million in subsidies from the city and state?
--what do you think of critics, such as Cooper Union history professor Fred Siegel, who say your projects rely on subsidies? ("He's the master of subsidy. No one does it better," Siegel told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.)
--what profits do you expect from the investment, given that you did not release, as required by the MTA, your 20-year cash-flow assumptions (see p. 15, or PDF p. 18, of the RFP)?
--what would be the total public cost of the project in its new configuration (note that Jim Stuckey estimated $1.1 billion over 30 years, at the City Council hearing last May, as noted in Chapter 3 of my report)?
--why would the arena be the most expensive ever in the country?
--why do you require those who sell property to you to sign confidentiality agreements that prevent them from criticizing the project (as noted in Chapter 7 of my report)?
--why don't you talk to other press outlets or meet with the public?

Thank you for your critique on my interview with Bruce Ratner.
As a fellow reporter, access is a crucial tool to reporting, which I’m sure you are well aware.
Rest assured, should I have another opportunity to interview Ratner, I'll take your criticism into consideration.
Thanks for reading.
-- s.w.
but Steve, why wasn't the interview you published straight from your lunch with Bruce instead of by email with someone who might have been bruce or might have been his PR flack?
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