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Third act: Bruce Ratner as "developer and philanthropist," catalyzing major Holocaust exhibition (but let's not forget Culture of Cheating, charity strategy, and business setbacks)

Bruce Ratner, well into his post-Forest City career as a macher in the charitable world, has redefined himself. Wikipedia declares him "an American philanthropist, real estate developer, and former minority owner of the NBA's Brooklyn Nets." Philanthropist first--that's interesting.

Wikipedia is hardly perfect; I'd say building the Barclays Center ranks higher than his ownership of a basketball team, especially since, as former star Kenyon Martin remembered his cheapskate boss, "you cheated Nets fans." Also note: Ratner was majority owner before he sold 80% of the team to Mikhail Prokhorov, and he/his company retained 20%, before selling that remainder to Prokhorov.

These days, after the absorption of Forest City Realty Trust (parent of Forest City Ratner/Forest City New York) by Brookfield, Ratner's essentially out of the real-estate game, with several charitable roles, at least one of them quite major, as Chairman of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which is organizing a much-lauded exhibition on Auschwitz, titled “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away."

More on that admirable contribution below, but first, this video, with Rosanna Scotto of Good Day NY (always a Ratner ally):


Beyond philanthropy

It's hard to begrudge someone donating money or helping raise money for worthy causes, especially this one (!), even if recent work by the journalist Anand Giridharadas points to the need for us to prioritize democracy over philanthropy. Ratner surely seems committed to service beyond business and profit.

Still, charity, as I describe below, was used by Forest City as a strategy. Today it might help reshape the image of a shrewd but not always sweet individual, a self-proclaimed "civic developer," whatever that means.

Remember, Ratner was willing to say things--like claiming Atlantic Yards would be built in a decade (by 2018!)--that he knew weren't true and to pursue what I call the Culture of Cheating. But he charmed New York Magazine's Will Leitch in 2012, who wrote: "We talked to a ton of people for this story, but without question, the most pleasant and affable person we talked to was ... Bruce Ratner."

Then again, during a dispute over the stalled modular tower, Forest City and its partner/contractor Skanska clashed bitterly. Skanska executive William Flemming, meeting with Ratner, blamed cost increases on Forest City’s designs. Ratner—according to a later Skanska legal filing—responded with a "vulgar street epithet,” adding "I don't care if it costs you $50 million to finish the project ... I'll see you at the grand opening.”

There was Ratner's influence in getting a former executive, who'd left under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations, a new job. And then there was the unseemly support Ratner (and other Jewish leaders) offered for the brazen, hypocritical criminal William Rapfogel, who looted his charity. The late Wayne Barrett called such posture "a triumph of congeniality over conscience.

How big a philanthropist?

How much of a philanthropist is Ratner? In some cases, clearly a significant one. In 2016, Memorial Sloan Kettering reported that Ratner gave between $5 million and $10 million. (Surely his role on the board has been more to raise money than help guard against the conflicts that have recently plagued the institution.)

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) counts him as a donor of at least $1 million to the BAM Endowment Trust. Forest City Ratner Companies--not Bruce himself--gave $500,000– $999,999 in 2016-17 to the Metropolitan Museum.

In 2017-18, The Bruce Ratner Family Fund gave $50,000-$99,999 to the Cancer Research Institute. Two years earlier, Ratner himself gave $25,000-$49,999. In 2016-17, Ratner gave $5,000 to $9,999 to the New York City Bar Fund. He's among Founding Benefactors of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park.

Given how much his company also contributed to charity, it's not clear how much Ratner himself has given over the course of his charitable career. (He also got some publicity for some smaller but notable efforts, as when he was "quietly" helping a blinded Sudanese ex-slave.

He's helped raise money for Brooklyn Community Services, which at its 2016 gala took in more than $1 million, as Forest City Ratner, among other honorees, gained the BCS Corporate Leadership Award. Borough President Eric Adams, citing Ratner's support for new housing (built by BCS?), said "Some of the people who will live in this new housing believe that they were not deserving of having a quality life. They felt that displacement was equal to development and Bruce changed that.”

(Putting aside the seeming malapropism--shouldn't it be "they felt development was equal to displacement"?--it's hard to acquit projects like Atlantic Yards from displacement.)

But I'd like to make two more points.

Some Ratner context: charity as strategy

First, when Ratner led Forest City, charity was very much a strategy, with donations to local nonprofits a way of extending influence and tamping down potential pushback.

As I wrote in April 2008, the company's shadowy foundation, established in 2004, had a vague, almost tautological mission: "The Foundation has been established by Forest City Ratner Companies... for the charitable purpose of stimulating and encouraging charitable contributions and activities as well as directing and concentrating FCRC's own charitable activities."

Forest City gave more than most Brooklyn companies--a greater sense of civic obligation (such as after Superstorm Sandy) or a greater need to curry favor? Maybe a bit of both.

And, of course, Forest City gave to Mayor Mike Bloomberg's pet projects, as Matthew Schuerman, then of the New York Observer, wrote in April 2007:
In December 2005, right as the debate over the Atlantic Yards complex was heating up and before the city made several crucial decisions about the project, Forest City Ratner gave between $450,000 and $1 million to a nonprofit closely associated with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The donation came six months after a meeting with Mr. Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris that Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner reported was a lobbying contact—although the parties now dispute that it should have been characterized as such.
Some Ratner context: real estate success and setbacks

Secondly, the "real estate developer" made a lot of money for himself and his company by building malls and projects like MetroTech, with the latter parent Forest City Realty Trust's biggest cash cow.

With buildings like the New York Times Tower, 8 Spruce Street (aka New York By Gehry), and the Barclays Center, he made a mark with marquee architecture, and won awards like the controversial Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal, from the Municipal Art Society.

But--shhh--in the end, he didn't do so well running Forest City. Despite the New York City malls and MetroTech, the losses on Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park and the Ridge Hill mall in Yonkers--both, curiously enough, projects with significant taint--hurt his company and helped dislodge an entrenched, family-led board.

And that, in turn, led to Forest City's ultimate demise, as the reconstituted board, by a narrow vote, agreed on the Brookfield sale.

In other words, he's lucky that the ever-diminishing press didn't keep watch on that.

A number of boards

When Ratner joined the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Board of Trustees in March 2018, the press release noted that he served on the boards of Weill Cornell Medical College, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer.

"Often credited with spurring the renaissance of Downtown Brooklyn, Ratner developed Barclays Center and MetroTech Center," the generous press release noted. (Ratner's MetroTech was a crucial catalyst, but Downtown Brooklyn's renaissance has proceeded in stages, with multiple factors.)

He chaired the board of the Brooklyn Academy of Music from 1992 to 2001. Board membership has various obligations, including offering direction and raising money, often more of the latter.

At the Museum of Jewish Heritage

Ratner's most significant role is surely at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Lower Manhattan. A 1/23/19 New York Times article, The Horrors of Auschwitz at a Museum in New York, explained how a new exhibit opening May 8 at the museum "will mean ripping out the museum’s permanent collection for an exhibition designed to provide a vivid sense of the Nazi death camp."

"The exhibition... is aimed at refocusing the heritage museum," the Times reported, citing the leadership of "Bruce C. Ratner, the developer and philanthropist who is chairman of the Museum of Jewish Heritage."

From an Associated Press article published 4/2/19 describing the delivery of a windowless German train car, one of the most notable of the artifacts in the exhibit, to the museum:
The collection of prisoners’ personal items includes a comb improvised from scrap metal; a trumpet one survivor used to save his life by entertaining his captors; and tickets for passage on the St. Louis, a ship of refugees whom the United States refused to accept, sending them back to Europe where some were killed by the Nazis.
The materials are on loan from about 20 institutions worldwide, plus private collections...Thousands of survivors live in New York City, among the last who can offer personal testimony.
And that’s why the exhibit is important, said real estate developer Bruce Ratner, the chairman of the museum’s board of trustees.
“While we had all hoped after the Holocaust that the international community would come together to stop genocide, mass murder and ethnic cleansing, these crimes continue and there are more refugees today than at any time since the Second World War,” said Ratner. “So my hope for this exhibit is that it motivates all of us to make the connections between the world of the past and the world of the present, and to take a firm stand against hate.”
On 4/25/19, public TV's MetroFocus ran an interview with "Philanthropist and Real Estate Developer Bruce Ratner and Dr. Ruth Westheimer," previewing the exhibit.

"Developer and philanthropist"? Or vice versa?

A 10/10/17 press release from the Cancer Research Institute Genentech stated that "CEO Bill Anderson and Philanthropist Bruce Ratner" would receive a major award. The press release also described him as "real estate developer and philanthropist Bruce Ratner."

Will his legacy description be "developer and philanthropist," or "philanthropist and developer"?

They're not undeserved. They're just hardly the full story.

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