Bruce C. Ratner, the new owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, walks into the darkened control room of a Manhattan recording studio and shakes hands with two young producers. Ratner's day job is in property development; the tie he removed en route to this evening's recording session peeks out from the pocket of his rumpled suit coat. "I'm not cool, you know," he announces as the producers cue the sample Nets jingles they've worked up in a variety of styles. Ratner, 59, perches on the edge of a couch, smiling broadly and bobbing his head as hip-hop follows rock and reggae. "Wow!" he exclaims after each version. "That was really great!"
As fans of The Apprentice know, this is not how a big time New York developer is supposed to act. Where is the preening self-importance, the pursed-lip solemnity? Donald J. Trump would have fired both of these guys just for fun. The happily uncool, spotlight-averse Ratner will never promote his name into a brand, but he is emerging as one of the most daring and prolific developers Gotham has seen in years. "Bruce is very special," says architect Frank Gehry, who is working on two projects with Ratner's firm, Forest City Ratner Cos., an affiliate of Forest City Enterprises Inc. (FCE.A ). "His curiosity and intellectual capability make him an extraordinary client for someone like me."
In contrast with his Manhattan-fixated peers, Ratner ranges far and wide throughout the city, building whatever he thinks is in short supply: movie theaters, hotels, and big-box stores, as well as the prestige office towers and apartment blocks that so preoccupy the likes of Trump. His penchant for unproven, cutting-edge locations has left him with the occasional flesh wound. He has amassed a fortune estimated at several hundred million dollars just the same since most of his buildings have proven solid moneymakers, most notably the $1 billion MetroTech Center in Brooklyn.
Above all, Ratner is the developer who has brought downtown Brooklyn to the brink of radical transformation through two decades of contrarian investment. "He really is a visionary," says Rebecca Robertson, a former New York State official who had extensive dealings with Ratner during the redevelopment of Times Square in the 1990s. "The reason you haven't seen the same sort of thing happen in Queens that is happening in Brooklyn is because Queens doesn't have a Ratner."
Over the years, Ratner's visionary quality has been conspicuously absent when it comes to matters aesthetic. Atlantic Center, a three-story shopping mall at Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, has drawn especially heavy flak. "People say it's the ugliest thing in the world," says Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. Ratner bristles at the criticism -- "it's certainly better than any strip mall," he says -- but he concedes the larger point. "The early stuff I did is not great architecture, I admit, but now I want to do good-looking buildings," he says. "We haven't built a Taj Mahal, but we're getting better and better."
"ANOTHER ROCKEFELLER CENTER"
Last year, Gehry signed on to design what promises to be Ratner's pièce de résistance: a $2.5 billion, 17-tower complex on the edge of downtown Brooklyn. The centerpiece of this colossal project, known as Brooklyn Atlantic Yards, is to be a $435 million arena for the Nets, who now play at New Jersey's Meadowlands. Unveiled in December, Gehry's preliminary design won rapturous reviews. "Those who have been wondering whether it will ever be possible to create another Rockefeller Center can stop waiting for the answer," declared The New York Times. "Here it is."
Brooklyn Atlantic Yards remains a long way from certain. Forest City must secure financing, acquire the 21-acre site (which consists mainly of state-owned rail yards), and guide its Gargantua through the usual maze of governmental reviews. Ratner can count on the support of a bipartisan phalanx of officials, including New York Governor George E. Pataki, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Markowitz, who cajoled Ratner into bidding for the Nets in the first place. However, the project does face strident opposition from neighborhood organizations that object to plans to use public financing to cover part of the cost and to condemn several residential buildings on the site's fringes. More broadly, Ratner has become a lightning rod for critics of Brooklyn's "Manhattanization."
On July 25, Forest City Ratner will unveil its newest building, Atlantic Terminal, a $200 million office tower and shopping center built above Brooklyn's biggest commuter rail station. Atlantic Terminal is far swankier than the much-reviled Atlantic Center, which is located directly across the street and soon will be remodeled. Its opening is the culmination of Ratner's long campaign to persuade Target Corp. to locate a store in the heart of New York City.
Any day now, Ratner expects to break ground on one of Manhattan's most glamorous new office towers: a 52-story, $850 million headquarters for New York Times Co. (NYT ). Designed by celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano, best known for the Pompidou Center in Paris, the building will be a slender tower of transparent glass sheathed in a webbing of white ceramic rods, with floors and stairs that appear to float. Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker's architecture critic, was so dazzled by the originality of Piano's design that he concluded that the new Times tower "bears almost no relationship to any tall building ever built in New York."
Piano won the Times commission in 2002, beating out four other world-class architects, including Gehry, who dropped out of the competition before it ended. A year later, Ratner asked Gehry if he could design a basketball arena as intimate as his acclaimed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Gehry had never designed a full-fledged sports venue and wasn't all that eager to give it a try. But the architect was intrigued by Ratner's question and, equally important, by the developer himself. "If I like the person, I'll do the work," says Gehry, who also is designing a 40-story tower in Lower Manhattan for Ratner.
The developer may have greatly upgraded the aesthetics of his buildings, but he remains indifferent to his own appearance, despite the best efforts of Dr. Pamela R. Lipkin, his girlfriend of seven years. "Bruce is anti-fashion," says Lipkin, a plastic surgeon. "He has the worst clothes I've ever seen." Ratner, a divorced father of two, beams with pleasure when Lipkin's comments are read to him. He removes the navy blazer that is loosely draped over the back of his desk chair and holds it aloft for inspection. It is corrugated with creases. "I bought this a few days ago at Brooks Brothers," he says. "Look at it now."
Ratner, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, was born into a real estate family in Cleveland. Yet he made his way into property development circuitously, via Harvard University (where he concentrated on physics) and Columbia Law School. He was just 25 and a year out from Columbia when New York City appointed him its consumer advocate in 1971. Cracking down hard on fraud in the city's poorest neighborhoods, Ratner headed a 40-person staff that put scores of scam artists out of business and wrote laws that set a new standard for consumer protection throughout the country.
In 1978, Ratner realized "a life's dream come true" when Mayor Ed Koch appointed him commissioner of consumer affairs, the city's highest consumer post. "To me, Bruce was the next Ralph Nader," says Philip G. Schraff, a law professor who had taught Ratner at Columbia and preceded him as the city's consumer advocate. But in 1982, Ratner pulled a career U-turn, resigning to become a real estate syndicator. "I was making $52,000 a year and had two kids," he says. "I had a money issue. I had to leave."
Ratner worked in obscurity until 1984, when he took over a stalled urban renewal project in downtown Brooklyn called MetroTech Center. The city had larded the blighted 16-acre site with subsidies, but no developer wanted to take on risk of such magnitude in a borough that hadn't seen a new office tower in a quarter-century. Ratner had all the right connections at City Hall but lacked money and knowhow. He turned to Forest City Enterprises, a developer founded in Cleveland in 1921 by four Ratner siblings, including Harry, Bruce's father. (Charles A. Ratner, Forest City's current CEO, is Bruce's cousin.)
Originally conceived as a 4.1 million-square-foot project, MetroTech today is 6.4 million square feet and growing, with two more towers under construction. In effect, the Ratners created a third business district within New York City by providing an alternative to New Jersey for big companies that were looking to move office workers out of high-cost quarters in Midtown and Lower Manhattan. In the early 1980s, "Brooklyn was alien territory to big companies operating in Manhattan," recalls former Mayor Koch.
Metrotech was the template for Ratner in many ways, establishing him as a risk-taker capable of getting big, difficult jobs done on time and on budget. Often described as politically connected, Ratner is well-versed in the ways of local government and has hired many a former city official. But he is also something of a social recluse who is as disinclined to rub shoulders with politicians as anyone else. "I think this mayor [Bloomberg] likes me, but I can't say we have a personal relationship," he says. "I can't remember a time when I picked up the phone and called the mayor -- any mayor."
Mayors come and go, but big real estate projects go on forever. Ratner expects to devote the next 10 years of his life to building Atlantic Yards, which is just a few blocks from MetroTech. Henry J. Stern, a well-traveled former city official who has been a friend since the 1970s, predicts rough times for the developer. "New York is the negative city," Stern says. "Everybody has a built-in 'no' reflex, and there are a lot of timid politicians."
In the end, predict Stern and others, Ratner's combination of goofy charm and relentless determination likely carry the day. Who knows, he may even end up taking a mayor or two to dinner.
By Anthony Bianco in Brooklyn, N.Y.