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Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park infographics: what's built/what's coming/what's missing, who's responsible, + project FAQ/timeline (pinned post)

Bruce Ratner says unfinished Atlantic Yards is "not the end of the world." Deflecting past promises, he says it's government's job to build affordable housing.

WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show on May 1 hosted Bruce Ratner on Early Cancer Screening:
Bruce Ratner, real estate developer, philanthropist, founder of the Michael D. Ratner Center For Early Detection of Cancer (CEDC), and co-author of Early Detection: Catching Cancer When It’s Curable (OR Books, 2024), argues for earlier and more equitable cancer screening.
In the last three minutes of the show, however, Lehrer turned to Atlantic Yards, and generated a rather cavalier and evasive response from Ratner regarding the project's unfinished state, 20 years after its announcement, with 3,212 of 6,430 approved apartments built, and missing income-targeted affordable housing. (Of 2,250 promised units, 876 remain, or 38.9%.)

Ratner on Inside City Hall
Asked if criticism of broken promises was fair, Ratner responded," It's fine to say. First of all, we did build 3,000 units of which 30% were affordable." 

What do you mean, "we"? Forest City, either by itself or in a joint venture with Greenland USA, an arm of Shanghai-based Greenland Holdings, built three towers with a total of 782 affordable units. Other developers built the remaining 592.

"Number one, that's a lot of units. Two, we built the Barclays Center, which I think everybody agrees has been really important to Brooklyn. Yes, we sold our company in '18," he continued. "What happened is the Chinese company that bought it wasn't able to finish it. And that's a shame. It's not the end of the world, though. There were 3,000 units. We did get a Barclays Center, and sure, I'm unhappy that they didn't finish it. But, y’know, that really isn't the problem."

What's the problem?

"The problem we have in this city is just not enough low income housing, period," he continued. "That's really where the focus ought to be, instead of worrying about whether the units got finished. I'm not—I’m happy to take-- y’know, blame, it's not the issue really. I don't care. We need housing."

Wait a sec: "whether the units got finished" includes 900 low-income units promised as part of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park. So far, only 254 have been built, which means the income-linked "affordable" units skew significantly toward those aimed at middle-income households earning six figures.

Deflecting responsibility

As to the provision of affordable housing, Ratner continued to deflect responsibility: "We're getting fooled, frankly. It's got to be the government and it always has been."

Wait another sec. The whole point of Atlantic Yards was to provide such housing, including low-income housing, as guaranteed in 2005, purportedly, via a Memorandum of Understanding signed with housing advocacy group ACORN and then a Community Benefits Agreement signed with ACORN and seven other groups.

The agreement aspired to “maximize the benefits of the Project to residents of Brooklyn, as well as minority and women construction, professional and operational workers and business owners and thereby to encourage systemic changes in the traditional ways of doing business on large urban development projects.” 

"The Developer and the Coalition will cooperate to include long-term affordable housing in the residential portion of the Project in order to stem the growing trend of displacement through gentrification in Brooklyn," it also stated.

Wait one more sec. In June 2014, Ratner's firm accepted a state requirement that the 2,250 affordable units would be built by May 2025. That deadline won't be met, and the current--and perhaps--future developer surely wish to evade the $2,000/month fines for each missing unit.

What about the railyard?

Also, six of the seven remaining parcels are development sites over the Vanderbilt Yard, the “blight” of which was a justification for eminent domain.

In April 2012, I critiqued a New York Times article focusing on retail changes before the arena's planned September 2012 opening, headlined Impact of Atlantic Yards, for Good or Ill, Is Already Felt. From the article:

For Forest City Ratner, the developer of the project, which was strongly backed by many city leaders, the changes are evidence that the arena has already met its goal of transforming a dreary section of Brooklyn — the Long Island Rail Road’s rail yards and surrounding industrial buildings, which the company’s spokesman described as “ a scar that divided the neighborhood.”

“That’s a sign of economic vitality, something that’s good for the borough,” said Joe DePlasco, the Ratner spokesman.

In other words, that sounded like the project had successfully removed the blight that was the justification for eminent domain. It hadn't, and it still hasn't.

What's affordable

Ratner, somewhat confoundingly, told Lehrer, "First of all, the word affordable means relatively high income. It used to be up to 130% of AMI or $100,000-plus dollars."

That's misleading. The definition of "affordable" is that tenants pay about 30% of their income in rent, and they can be low-, moderate-, or middle-income. So while "affordable" encompasses "relatively high income," it's not a match.

Yes, thanks to the 421-a tax breaks, the last four Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park buildings have "affordable" units only at 130% of AMI, aimed at middle-income households. But the MOU and CBA had promised an even number of low- and middle-income apartments.

"Even if you built— we can build 20,000 or 30,000 housing units a year in this city. Take a fourth of that number, that's 7,000 low-income or rather affordable units a year," he said. "That is not enough. The history of low income housing and very low income housing has always been government. Every country in the world builds very low-income housing and low income housing by the government."

Policy recommendation

Asked his policy recommendations, Ratner said that first, the city and state have to fix public housing, "which will cost $10 to $20 billion over a period of four or five years. On a $250 million combined budget, they can afford to do that." (Some say the cost is much higher.)

"Number two, they have to build thousands and thousands of units of low income and very low income. It cannot be done by the private sector at 25% of 30,000 units a year. It's only 7,000 units a year," he said. "So even if everybody did everything they thought they could do, they would be quote 'affordable' and not very low income. We're getting fooled, frankly. It's got to be the government and it always has been. The history of this country is that it's been the government. Most people don't like government. Sorry."

Well, the government was certainly helpful to Atlantic Yards.

Past enthusiasm: 2008

When the project seemed stalled, Ratner proclaimed, in a May 4, 2008 New York Daily News op-ed headling, Atlantic Yards dead: Dream on:
We're still building all 6,400 units of housing - including 2,250 affordable units. We're still building the iconic Miss Brooklyn tower and the state-of-the-art Barclays Center, the future home of the Nets.
Past enthusiasm: 2012

Watch Ratner talk enthusiastically about affordable housing at the Dec. 18, 2012 groundbreaking for B2, the modular building later designated 461 Dean Street.

"This type of construction is very exciting, but what is most important and what I care most about is that it is affordable," he said, as shown in the video below. "That is the most important thing. Fifty percent of the units in B2 will be affordable to low-, moderate- and middle-income New Yorkers. Fifty percent. That's 181 units spread throughout the building."

"We were asked many times, where is the housing you promised and it was said that we would build the Barclays Center and walk away," he continued. "We said we'll build this housing and we will build something that Brooklyn is proud of. And now for any of those who doubt it we did it and we are here. We're here [clapping] at the groundbreaking of B2. And it's just the beginning of our journey. It's the beginning of 2250 affordable units that will be built at Atlantic Yards. It's the beginning of a new home for thousands of Brooklyn residents."

Past enthusiasm: 2016

Watch Ratner talk enthusiastically about affordable housing at the Dec. 15, 2016 groundbreaking for the 535 Carlton, the first of two "100% affordable" towers skewed to middle-income households.

Ratner cheered "a building that will be `100% affordable"--in carefully chosen language"--for a wide range of New Yorkers. "One hundred percent affordable! Two-hundred and ninety-eight units of affordable housing."


"The housing, and the most important part of this project, has been the affordable housing," he continued. "It's been an important part from the very beginning." He thanked Mayor Bill de Blasio for helping make it happen.

His "consumer advocate hat"

Ratner's book, spurred by the death of his older brother Michael, makes the surely worthy argument that the health care system should put more effort and money into early detection than treatment.

During the WNYC interview, Lehrer asked Ratner how he could write the book without a professional background in the subject.

"First of all, I was a science major once in my life"--note, he didn't graduate as one--"and I have followed medicine. I've been on the board of Sloan Kettering for 20 years and Weill Cornell in the same period of time, plus I put my consumer advocate hat on and I got angry. Then I had a, um, a helper in [co-author Adam] Bonislawski. Adam was very helpful. He helped me do the research. I talked to—we interviewed over 100 different doctors and scientists. That's how we were able to do this. It's a really important subject."

I'd be curious to see what percentage of the interviews Ratner actually did. He's a busy guy. Bonislawski is a veteran science journalist.

Later, Ratner lamented to Lehrer that "only $600 million is spent on early detection. It's honestly, again, putting my consumer hat on, I'm angry about it, and it really has to be changed."

Fair enough, but Ratner has no trouble taking off his "consumer hat" when it comes to Atlantic Yards.

(Ratner's other recent media appearances, on NY1's Inside City Hall and CNBC's Squawk Box, did not get to Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park.)

About the book

EARLY DETECTION: Catching Cancer When It’s Curable, is credited to BRUCE RATNER and ADAM BONISLAWSKI, the latter described as a veteran science writer, with "scientific and media contacts at many of the major cancer and academic research centers in the United States and Europe" and "also writes about business and real estate for the Wall Street Journal, New York Post, and Commercial Observer."

Ratner's bio states:
Bruce Ratner (right) has led an eclectic life. After focusing much of his undergraduate coursework on math, biology, and physics, he started his career in law and public service as an assistant professor at New York University Law School and Commissioner of Consumer Affairs under Mayor Ed Koch. In his late 30s, he moved into real estate, becoming one of the city’s largest developers. In 2016, Ratner’s brother, Michael, died of metastatic cancer. Through this tragedy, Ratner came to realize that early detection was the key to reducing cancer mortality. Following his brother’s death, he founded a non-profit, the Michael D. Ratner Center for Early Detection of Cancer, to research and promote better cancer screening. He is on the boards of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Weill Cornell Medical Center, and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
Note: according to a May 2011 article in The Real Deal, Ratner went to Harvard expecting to become a doctor but switched to English literature.

The book comes with blurbs from filmmaker Ken Burns, TV veteran and author Katie Couric, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee, who wrote, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

The book's Amazon page also adds blurbs from the President and CEO, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, as well as that center's former Chairman. Ratner remains on the board there.

Already a bestseller?

The book, with an announced publication date of June 11, according to Amazon at least, is currently the #1 bestseller in the Biomedical Engineering category.

Given that book did not get pre-publication reviews in industry stalwarts like Kirkus Reviews or Publishers Weekly, nor are there any user reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, I'd guess that outreach to Ratner's own network--family, friends, professional contacts, including in the hospital world--has generated the sales needed for that ranking.

Presumably a not inconsiderable effort is being to promote the book--hence Ratner's recent media appearances.

Note: the book, as noted on Goodreads, was initially published--or, at least, announced--for January 1, 2022.

Why this publisher?

Publisher OR Books "is a publishing company that embraces progressive change in politics, culture, and the way we do business. 

The first nine featured titles on the publisher's catalot page include, along with Ratner's book: NATO:What You Need To Know; THE INCARCERATIONS: BK16 and the Search for Democracy in India; ABOLITION LABOR: The Fight to End Prison Slavery; BECKETT'S CHILDREN: A Literary Memoir; FLIGHTS: Radicals on the Run; RESISTING THE RIGHT: How to Survive the Gathering Storm; DELUGE: Gaza and Israel from Crisis to Cataclysm; and LEONOR:The Story of a Lost Childhood.

If Ratner's new title doesn't exactly fit, note that OR published his brother Michael Ratner's posthumous memoir, Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer, which would've put the family and the publishing house in contact.