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Uninformed sycophancy: Charlie Rose interviews Bruce Ratner about "Atlantic City Yards" (sic), betrays zero recognition of controversy

Charlie Rose's first-ever interview with real estate developer Bruce Ratner, conducted 3/9/12, was spectacularly uninformed sycophancy, as Rose asked virtually no hard questions, and seemed completely unaware that Ratner's Atlantic Yards project had generated sufficient controversy to spur a documentary film and play.

Rose began with a forceful intro: "He is one of the nation's most successful urban real estate developers. Twenty-five years ago, he saw the potential to revitalize Brooklyn. That ambition led to the MetroTech center, a 16-acre corporate campus that has produced more than 20,000 jobs. Today, his attention is focused on redeveloping the Atlantic Yards site, at the center of that project is the Barclays Center."

Wow, that's a potted history. Rose might have said that Ratner saw the potential for office space in Brooklyn. The borough, at least in certain neighborhoods, was already revitalizing.

And, as even Ratner acknowledged later in the interview, MetroTech has not "produced more than 20,000 jobs," since many were retained, moved from Wall Street thanks to subsidies aimed at keeping them from going to Jersey City.

Ratner is not "redeveloping the Atlantic Yards site," because he doesn't yet control all of the Atlantic Yards site. Atlantic Yards is a brand name for a project involving 22 acres, including an 8.5-acre MTA railyard (the rights to which Ratner controls only in small part), formerly private property, former public streets, and extant private property.

The interview: about 23 minutes

A "civic" developer

Noting that "we do lots of architects on this program," such as Ratner's friend Frank Gehry, Rose noted that few developers appear.

"Tell me how you see developers, and what do you think of the role of developers," Rose asked. "And why should we admire them and why should we not so very much admire them?"

"That's a very, very good question," replied Ratner, almost purring. "First of all, the way I think about myself as a developer is as a civic developer. We do a lot of civic projects. And every project that we do has to have some civic component. It can be architecture. It can be economic development. Or it can be something like the arena, where we're providing entertainment, where it's in some sense a public building."

Ratner's been using the word civic a lot, but it's a weasel world. It means "relating a city," or to citizenship, but it does not necessarily denote the public interest. Ratner seems to be saying that, as long as he's building in the city, he's somehow helping the city. The reality is a bit more complicated, having to do with things like public subsidies, tax breaks, and eminent domain.

"So what we really do is civic development," Ratner continued. "Now that's not all developers. But we all need places to live, we all need office places, to work, and we need places to shop. So developers are obviously a necessity. Then obviously we vary like everybody else, whether it be journalists or whether it be doctors, we vary from the very good to the not so very good."

"Define the very good," Rose requested.

"To me a very good developer is someone who feels a responsibility of the public," Ratner said, awkwardly, "where the feeling that what you're doing is something that's going to live for a long time, it's going to be there for a long time, and it has some other aspect other than just making money."

Let's recall scholar/writer Fred Siegel's characterization of Ratner in the 11/30/05 Cleveland Plain Dealer: "He's the master of subsidy."

Ratner claims other developers less holistic

"That's what you want to believe," responded Rose, in what began as a potentially challenging question but turned into a windbag statement. "That somehow the developer has some instinct beyond money, that respects history, that respects location, and respects the sense of the future and something that people will look at and say, that's more than a building, that is something that lives and breathes as a sense of where civilization was and where it might be going."

"You're absolutely right, Charlie," responded Ratner, "and of course, the problem is, most developers really don't look at the whole, in a holistic kind of way. They look at more, I think, the economics."

Wow--is that why Ratner stopped Frank Gehry's Beekman Tower (aka 8 Spruce Street) midway to renegotiate with the unions? Or why Ratner has been unwilling to hire the Independent Compliance Monitor required by the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement? Or the developer's posture, as per Greg David, "See no evil, hear no evil."

But rather than give Rose a chance to follow up, Ratner rushed into his next sentence: "Now, people will disagree as to whether what's good and what's bad, and whether or not what I do, they like it, they don't the architecture, they don't--but at least the intent, is always try and have an aspect of it, it has a civic component, it has some economic development, or some architectural, some aspect that really contributes back."

In other words, if a building has no economic development aspects, like, say, Gehry's tower--subsidized by Liberty Bonds but without any affordable housing--the architectural value makes it civically worth it? (Nicolai Ouroussoff surely would agree.)

His background and Brooklyn

Asking Ratner about his background in Cleveland, Rose made a rather awkward statement, ""Your father was the largest developer in Cleveland."

Ratner handled it well: "My father actually died when I was 16, but family members... He was an immigrant, he came here when he was 20, in 1921, started as a water boy, then learned welding, it's an American story.. started a small business, building supplies."

"So why Brooklyn?" Ratner asked rhetorically. "Brooklyn, I think growing up for me, I grew up in the 50s, you had the Brooklyn Dodgers, everybody great that I knew of, whether it be Jackie Gleason, or Walt Whitman, who I read about in college and high school, everybody seemed to come from Brooklyn."

"Norman Mailer," interjected Rose.

"Norman Mailer," Ratner continued. "That's correct. Aaron Copland."

"Truman Capote lived in Brooklyn," added Rose.

"That is correct," Ratner said. "Barbra Streisand lived in Brooklyn. We can go on and on and on."

And yet Ratner, loving Brooklyn so much, doesn't live here.

"I got to travel all over the city, I fell in love with Brooklyn: the transportation, the parks, the museums, just everything, the brownstones," Ratner said. "And so, very early on, I said, in 1984-85, this is a place I want to develop, because I believe in this place, I believe this place will come back. So that's really what it was."

Or, perhaps, Ratner wisely observed that, given the transportation and the reinvestment in the neighborhoods around downtown--neighborhoods already "coming back"--he could build in Downtown Brooklyn.

"Atlantic City Yards"

"What is about Atlantic City Yards?" Rose asked, mangling the name. "What's that about?"

"Atlantic Yards," Ratner gently corrected him. "Atlantic Yards is a 22-acre project. It has a new arena, the Barclays Center, which I think will be one of the most important civic buildings in the city. I think it will be the most important arena built in the last half-century in this country."

"A place that basketball people will love," Rose eagerly continued.

"Basketball people will love. Boxing people will love. Boxing people will love. Circus people will love," Ratner said. "It's going to have something for everybody."

Affordable housing

"And then it's going to have 6400 housing units, of which 2200 are affordable. That was a very important commitment from Day One," Ratner said.

"That's probably assisted by the planning commission," interjected Rose, whose off-and-on companion, Amanda Burden chairs the New York City Planning Commission.

"Actually, it was not," Ratner said. "The first announcement I gave--you have understand, I grew up in the 60s, as I know you did. I went to law Columbia in the Vietnam War. So I kind of came away from that, with a sort of social democrat, if I may, sense. When we announced that project, i said there will be a significant amount of affordable housing."

Rose then tossed a softball: "You did that out of some instinct for, there ought to be public housing, rather than, what can I do that will give them an opportunity to give the go-ahead to my project?"

(Actually, what Rose calls "public housing" and Bruce Ratner calls "affordable housing" are not at all the same. Those eligible for public housing would be eligible for only about half the amount of subsidized housing planned for Atlantic Yards.)
"Absolutely. First day I started developing, I said to myself, everything I've got to do has to have a public component. I don't just want to build a luxury residential building, I don't want to that," Ratner said, then pivoting internally, apparently to think of 8 Spruce Street, "If do it, it's got to have architecture."

But of course the affordable housing was key to public support for the project and Ratner hasn't built any, despite many promises to get it off the ground. And his company has retreated from its pledge to ensure that 50% of the subsidized units, in square footage, would be larger (2BR and 3BR) units.

The arena and Gehry

Ratner then talked up the arena, built like "the Conseco Center" in Indianapolis, with its tight sight lines.

(It's much like the Conseco Fieldhouse, now BankersLife Fieldhouse, because it was modeled on Conseco. Then, after that leaked design was slammed by New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, Ratner hired SHoP to put a new skin on the building, thus earning some praise from the critic.)

"We have about 100 suites," he added. "And you have to have that, one, because people want it and, honestly, to make the economics work today, in an arena, you have to have suites."

But Rose was troubled that Ratner dumped Frank Gehry.

Ratner explained that, when "the world falls apart" in Octuber-November 2008, they needed to decouple the arena from the four towers-plus-arena composition that Gehry did.

"We wound up parting company, he wound up doing another building for us, we wound up using ShoP architects," Ratner said. "The wonderful thing is we remained very good friends."

They did not, of course, wind up using only SHoP. First Forest City planned an Ellerbe Becket arena but, after designs were leaked, hired SHoP as the facade architect to improve the exterior. But still Ratner said, "We're left with a beautiful arena designed by SHoP architects."

He called it "really the first building built in the city since the year 2000 that is really a contemporary building," which of course ignores the Gehry building his company built.

Ratner, in what may have been a telling slip, said, "eventually there will be 16 [towers]  built, there will be three on the arena block."

But there are supposed to be four on the arena block, and there's no way to get to 16 without those four. And that fourth tower was the one with office space and the "jobs" promised as part of the project.

Other issues and the Times

Ratner talked about "Michael" Prokhorov, Jay-Z, and then the New York Times building, designed by, as Rose put it, "the great Renzo Piano."

Rose, however, was dismayed that Gehry didn't feel he could do what he wanted and withdrew from the competition. But he recovered.

"The Times is happy?" Rose asked

"The Times is very, very happy," Ratner responded. The statement was a wee bit chilling, however, if you think how Ratner's been gently treated by the newspaper.

Ratner also talked up modular construction: "I think we'll change construction in the city."

Ratner's dream

"So, tell me about your dream?" Rose closed, in an odd formulation.

"What is my dream? That's a very good question," responded Ratner. "My dream is always about people... it's about people using the things that I'm able to build, it's about people using an arena, coming, being entertained, creating happiness in the arena. It's about people living in a building like the Gehry building and feeling wonderful about it. It's about going to the New York Times building and seeing that news is produced there. It's about Metrotech, and saving jobs and making sure to maintain jobs. I've done a lot in retail in New York City, in the boroughs, it's about people, from my consumer background, being able to buy things that are quality and are less expensive. It is always for me, about people. Y'know, I don't get as a big a charge as people might think about the fact that I build these buildings. I'm proud of it, yes. I always get a wonderful feeling when I walk in my MetroTech project and I see people, on a summer day, outside, going to work. That's what makes me happy. As long as I can keep doing buildings that people use, in a good way, and that contribute and that look good and are part of the environment, that makes me happy."

Hearing Ratner say, "It's about going to the New York Times building and seeing that news is produced there" was again a bit chilling.


  1. Anonymous12:53 PM

    Thank you Mr. Oder for illuminating thre very important facts, namely:

    1- That Bruce Ratner's developments are, as Gilbert & Sullivan so aptly put it "Things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream".

    2- That unfortunately Emperor Charlie has no clothes.

    3- Sadly, it does seem apparent that either Charlie Rose can be easily had or else that Charlie can appear very wise and very smart to viewers who like him but know nothing about a subject and also would bother not to do anything but cursory research or preparation for an interview.


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