Thursday, September 27, 2012

Front-page New York Times profile of Bruce Ratner buries the lead: "promising anything to get a deal, only to renegotiate relentlessly for more favorable terms"

A front-page New York Times profile of Bruce Ratner, headlined Nets Helped Clear Path for Builder in Brooklyn, contains enough criticism (and one new revelation about Ratner tactics) to avoid being a puff piece, but it barely touches on all the reasons for criticism.

But what if the article had proceeded from the observation lower down in the article, regarding "his reputation for promising anything to get a deal, only to renegotiate relentlessly for more favorable terms"? That might have led to the Culture of Cheating.

Ratner claims “We’ve kept every single promise we’ve ever made,” which is simply a lie. Consider two self-sabotaging--if rather little-noticed--statements:
  • he repudiated the ten-year timeline to build the project previously endorsed by his company and the state
  • he claimed that high-rise, union-built affordable housing isn't feasible, even though that's what he long planned and the state approved twice
Leading off

The article begins by describing the strategic purchase of the Nets:
“So, how did we get here?” Mr. Ratner asked last week, almost giddy, at the ribbon cutting of the nation’s most expensive basketball arena, the Barclays Center. “We first needed to buy a basketball team, and against all odds we did it.”
That acknowledgment highlights a characteristic that emerged again and again over the past nine years: Mr. Ratner, one of the most prominent and polarizing figures in real-estate-mad New York, may portray himself as a reluctant developer, but he will do what is necessary to get a deal done.
“By nature he’s a very generous guy,” said Stuart Pertz, an architect who worked for Mr. Ratner in the 1980s but opposed his arena project. “Once he’s in business, he deals with the business at hand.”
Now I don't know the context of Pertz's quote, but Ratner is only generous when he needs to be, for business reasons.

His company never hired the Independent Compliance Monitor required under the "historic" Community Benefits Agreement. It tried to get out of paying for trees that were removed. It tried to get more city subsidies for affordable housing and plans to cut costs by using modular construction. It consistently flouted rules regarding construction practices to get the arena done in a tight time frame.

And, as the article indicates, Forest City renegotiates whenever possible.

Bait and switch?

The article states:
Since the inception of the Atlantic Yards project in 2003, Mr. Ratner, 67, has revised his plans and timelines so often that critics say the whole thing amounts to an enormous bait and switch. He has spent millions lobbying politicians and donating to civic groups to smooth the way. He persisted through lawsuits, protests, financial problems and the chilling doubts of his relatives. His supporters laud his vision, saying it promises local jobs and affordable housing and creates a new center of gravity in Brooklyn. His critics, citing many of the same facts, deride him for overrunning the neighborhood with a Manhattan-size behemoth.
This is "he-said, she-said" with a twist. First, the promises of local jobs and affordable housing have, in fact, too often been talking points than actual results. And the "same facts" lead not so much to concerns about a "Manhattan-size behemoth" but concern about what I call the Culture of Cheating.

On Friday, Mr. Ratner will find some measure of vindication as the glass-and-rusted-steel home of the rechristened Brooklyn Nets — situated at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues — opens with a week of concerts by Jay-Z, whom he recruited to buy a tiny stake in the team.

Grumbling residents?

The article notes:
Though groundbreaking on the first of those buildings is scheduled for November, already 18 months behind schedule, neighborhood residents grumble that the area is destined to remain a construction zone in perpetuity.
Why shouldn't they grumble? Forest City kept saying it would take a decade. Then the state agency overseeing the project, Empire State Development (ESD), withheld the Development Agreement that gave Forest City 25 years, and the developer and ESD ultimately lost a lawsuit requiring a Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement. That goes unmentioned in this article.

Ratner winding down?

The article suggests that Ratner "may be winding down his career," as he has "no other major developments in the pipeline," though I'm not sure that trying to complete Atlantic Yards--and launching a potentially transformative modular business (also unmentioned) is "winding down.".

Keeping promises

The article states:
In a recent interview, Mr. Ratner acknowledged that Atlantic Yards had been “the most difficult, bruising development project I’ve done, or could even imagine doing.” He bristled at the criticism and lamented the damage that critics had inflicted to his reputation, insisting that he had always sought to “make something wonderful and terrific.”
“We’ve kept every single promise we’ve ever made,” he said. “We’ve built the arena. They said we’d never build it. And I’m going to build the affordable housing.”
Not so, as noted above.

His new mantra, apparently, is "they said we'd never build" the arena. No one ever counted that as a promise. Rather, he promised, "Jobs, Housing, and Hoops." He got rid of the office jobs, plans to cut down the construction jobs, fudged about the arena jobs, etc. Culture of Cheating.

Obligatory "neighborhood critics"

The article states:
“Mr. Ratner portrays himself as a liberal do-gooder type, but this is as phony as the arena’s rust,” said Candace Carpentor, a spokeswoman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, one of the groups representing residents of the surrounding neighborhoods.
“He garnered political support and taxpayer favors with the promise of huge benefits, including 2,250 affordable-housing units and 10,000 permanent jobs. But the only benefit we have received is a traffic-choking, noise-generating, taxpayer-money-losing white elephant and acres of vacant lots where a thriving, multiethnic community once stood.”
He said, she said.

Bruce the liberal

The article takes the conventional view of stating that Ratner "has held onto his liberal politics," ignoring the fact that he plays hardball when it counts, contributing, for example, to New York state Senate Republicans.

The article mentions Ratner's history of public-private partnerships, his vision in recognizing big box retail in the boroughs, his work on Times Square, and describes the "busy, fortresslike collection of shopping malls" near the arena "that he built in the 1990s" (actually, just one) simply via this quote: “People thought they’d be a failure." (What about "the ugliest building in Brooklyn"?)

The CBA

The article states that "the criticism is rarely as fierce as it has been with Mr. Ratner over the Atlantic Yards project," adding:
Initially, his plan to move the Nets from New Jersey to a Brooklyn railyard and surround it with thousands of apartments garnered effusive support from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki, who helped clear the way for the use of eminent domain and provided $305 million in grants. Mr. Ratner formed an alliance with housing and community groups, some of which he financed. He was also among the biggest spenders in the state on lobbying politicians.
He promised 10,000 office jobs--not merely apartments--and 15,000 construction jobs.

As for the "alliance," that's the Community Benefits Agreement--and he financed all of those groups.

So maybe the criticism had some merit.

Changing plans

Here's the toughest paragraph:
His willingness to change plans — abandoning an expensive Frank Gehry design and building a smaller railyard — solidified his reputation for promising anything to get a deal, only to renegotiate relentlessly for more favorable terms. In separate encounters in meetings over the Atlantic Yards project, Mr. Ratner loudly berated Rafael E. Cestero, then the housing commissioner, and Seth W. Pinsky, president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, after not getting his way.
Shouldn't this be the frame?

Tinged by scandal

The article notes that "Mr. Ratner’s projects surfaced at the edge of political scandals," involving lobbyist Richard Lipsky and Sen. Carl Kruger:
Neither Mr. Ratner nor anyone at his company was charged with wrongdoing, and there was no evidence that he knew of the scheme.
Fair enough, but unmentioned is that Ratner's deputy Bruce Bender asked Kruger for $9 million in state money to relieve the developer's obligation to pay for reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge.

The article states:
(A few months later, a former Yonkers councilwoman and a political operative were convicted of bribery and extortion in a case involving another Ratner project, the Ridge Hill mall.)
Actually, in the part of the case involving Ridge Hill, the charge was corrupt payments. Unmentioned is that Ratner's deputy Bruce Bender and his deputy Scott Cantone led the political operative, Zehy Jereis, to believe he'd get a no-show job at Forest City as a reward for flipping the councilwoman's vote, and that both Bender and Cantone left the company around the time of the trial.

Chairman Chuck Ratner

The article quotes Ratner's cousin:
“We all feel a great deal of concern over how Bruce has been treated on this and how we as a company have been vilified,” said his cousin, Charles A. Ratner, chairman of Forest City Enterprises, a publicly traded company based in Cleveland. Forest City in New York represents one-third of the company’s assets
“But at the end of the day, if you believe in what you’re doing, you deal with it.”
Chuck Ratner in 2007 candidly said Atlantic Yards would take 15 years, then recovered to claim, not so credibly, that it would take ten years.

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