Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Lifting the Markowitz fig leaf from the Atlantic Yards creation myth

Updated 5/10/11 with graphic and clarification.

According to at least two accounts, Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner didn't start thinking about an arena near the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues until the summer or fall of 2002.

And, according to Borough President Marty Markowitz, Ratner needed prompting from him to consider the opportunity.

That's highly unlikely--and it seems to contradict been backed up by some recent statements by Forest City Ratner lawyers. They have claimed, in oral argument and legal papers in the Atlantic Yards eminent domain case, that the developer did not, as charged, initiate the project.

I had written that the claim seemed true only if it were narrowly interpreted as reflecting Markowitz's idea for an arena, since surely Markowitz didn't initiate the idea for a 22-acre development. Now it's questionable that Markowitz even initiated the idea for the arena near Downtown Brooklyn.

The March 2002 registration

See, Forest City Ratner was thinking about basketball a lot earlier. The original Atlantic Yards web site, bball.net (which now resolves to AtlanticYards.com), was registered by Forest City Ratner on 3/27/02 . That was just five days after Markowitz issued a press release urging that the planned SportsPlex in Coney Island be outfitted to attract a National Basketball Association team.

So, if Forest City Ratner wasn't gearing up for an arena near Downtown Brooklyn at that point, at the least the developer had a Coney Island arena in mind. Either way, company head Bruce Ratner had his mind on basketball.

"Bruce had no interest"

That bball.net registration contradicts Markowitz's account in Rebecca Mead's 4/25/05 New Yorker profile, Mr. Brooklyn: Marty Markowitz-the man, the plan, the arena:
When he was campaigning for the borough presidency, Markowitz said that he wanted to bring an N.B.A. team to Brooklyn, and the idea was taken about as seriously as his appeals for Brooklyn’s secession. But in the fall of 2002, when it became clear that the New Jersey Nets were likely to come on the market, Markowitz picked up the phone....

Markowitz said of his Nets-related scheming, “I thought to myself, Who can I call who has a dedication to Brooklyn, and that has got the economic ability, because, let’s face it, someone who builds two-family homes is not going to be in a position to buy a team and to build an arena.” He considered Donald Trump, but feared that Trump might move the team closer to Atlantic City and his casino investments. Markowitz did, however, call Bruce Ratner, whose company, over the past two decades, has built the massive Metro Tech development—more than two million square feet of office space—not far from the proposed site of the arena. “Bruce had no interest, absolutely no interest,” Markowitz said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at this fella and know that he’s not a jock.” (Ratner, who is sixty, looks more like the Consumer Affairs Commissioner he was during the Koch administration.) “But I was very persistent with him, and didn’t take no for an answer.”

(Emphases added)

As the bball.net registration showed, Bruce had interest.

1990s plans

Actually, as I noted last September, an even earlier idea for an arena had been entertained by Forest City Ratner, according to a master's thesis by Columbia University graduate student Shirley Morillo:
In the early 1990s, in the midst of the Downtown Brooklyn planning and building cycle, the New Jersey Nets approached Forest City Ratner with a radical proposal – that he buy the team and build them a new arena on his project site. The developer initially dismissed the idea knowing that past stadium schemes had been attempted in the past and that they had failed.

Where exactly was the "project site" mentioned? It's not specified, but I assume it was the location of what is now the Atlantic Center mall.

Doctoroff involved

Chris Smith's 8/14/06 New York magazine cover story, The Battle for the Soul of Brooklyn, offered some skepticism about the creation myth:
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.


Smith also nudged the timing back to the late summer or early fall of 2002, though not to March:
...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.”

Markowitz on Coney

Meanwhile, Markowitz was maintaining straightfaced support for Coney Island as an arena site. As I wrote last June, on the day of his 1/23/03 State of the Borough Address, the New York Daily News reported (Marty’s Minding Our Manners, 1/23/03):
The borough president also goes to sleep dreaming of bringing a National Basketball Association team to Coney Island.

The same day, in his address, Markowitz devoted six consecutive paragraphs to Coney Island, and in the fourth of those paragraphs said:
And, some will laugh, but I'll keep on saying it. Brooklyn deserves a sports team on a national stage. Major league sports owes Brooklyn for the great theft of 1957, when the devil O'Malley stole the Dodgers out of Brooklyn in the middle of the night. That's why, until the door is finally slammed in my face, I will continue to fight for a NBA team for Brooklyn.

Revising the myth

Let's recap. First, it's clear that, as of early 2003, despite his rhetoric, Markowitz was not dreaming of bringing an NBA team only to Coney Island. He had to be thinking about a site involving the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard.

Second, it's clear that Ratner didn't need Markowitz to figure out that there was some valuable land near the transit hub for a development; he knew that all along.

Third, Ratner didn't need a call from Markowitz in the fall of 2002 to become interested in a sports arena; the bball.net registration had been in place some six months earlier. The developer was already in the driver's seat.

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