How to Steal a City: Bruce Ratner and Co. Just Rolled Brooklyn

Why, Jigga, why?

Photo illustration: Ed Johnson

“We did it!” developer Bruce Ratner crowed a reported 14 times at the opening of his new Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn this weekend.

We sure did. Poor Brooklyn, always trying to develop some new civic identity all its own, and always ending up with … a Barclays Center.

What stands out most about the new home of the Nets is how little it stands out. The arena’s latticework of “preweathered” steel panels is supposed to evoke Brooklyn’s brownstone tradition. But it looks instead like one more bricked-up urban bunker from the 1970s, when panicky municipal authorities thought they’d be fighting a race war. It is almost weirdly provincial for New York, more like a college fieldhouse for a Division III school in Sheboygan.

“So, how did we get here?” an “almost giddy” Mr. Ratner asked at the Barclays ribbon-cutting.

Good question. The answer is that it’s all too typical of how we live now, a game of bait-and-switch that is slowly reducing New York to the level of any other American city, while simultaneously robbing the people who live here.

Full disclosure: my wife’s sister is married to Matthew D. Brinckerhoff, one of the attorneys who tried to stop the city’s lawless use of eminent domain to build this (very dubious) public improvement. But don’t take his word or mine for any of this. Instead, check out the immensely entertaining documentary, Battle for Brooklyn, and/or Norman Oder’s meticulously researched website, Atlantic Yards Report, a sterling example of civic service.

You’ll be appalled if you do. When it was conceived back in 2003, Barclays was supposed to be far more than a mediocre basketball and concert hall named after a scandal-ridden bank. Plans called for a $4.9 billion, 22-acre residential, retail and office complex, creating 10,000 permanent new jobs and 2,250 low-to-middle-income apartments. It would be called Atlantic Yards and would be built over a major MTA rail junction, providing the transit authority with many millions of badly needed dollars in exchange for its air rights.

No less than Frank Gehry was hired on as the project architect, and he produced a fantastic, glowing jumble of skyscrapers around a largely transparent arena with a green field on its roof. Its scale was frightening, but it was a truly audacious plan, one that would have indeed given Brooklyn a world-class, urban core.

Mr. Gehry went about talking up what a great chance this was to “build a neighborhood from scratch”—apparently overlooking the thousands of people and the scores of businesses already located in the area. This would become a common failing, but it helped Mr. Ratner secure some $305 million in state and city subsidies under the auspices of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), one of New York State’s hundreds of largely unaccountable public authorities.

Thanks to the ESDC, no elected politician ever had to take an up-or-down vote on the deal. Mr. Ratner could clear the area using the threat of eminent domain, under the guise of clearing a “blighted” neighborhood. Many of the residents forced out of their homes were, in fact, living in condominiums, but apparently, they were blight condos. Obliging judges quickly rubber-stamped the whole process, ignoring such technicalities and, well, the law.

No serious auction for the property was ever held. When one was hastily slapped together, only one other developer, the Extell Corporation, made a serious bid for one of the hottest properties in New York. Extell actually offered the city more money for the site, including $150 million for the MTA’s air rights—or $100 million more than the $50 million Mr. Ratner originally provided. The bid was still rejected. It was clear that Gov. Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg had chosen Mr. Ratner to develop the site, and no one was going to upset that arrangement.

Once the money was in place, all the grand plans fell by the wayside, and Mr. Gehry was amicably—and profitably—cashiered. Mr. Ratner deftly secured the support of the city’s construction unions by promising 17,000 construction jobs on the project. In an ugly sort of reverse Bonfire of the Vanities, local minority leaders and organizations were quickly bought off and recruited. Longtime race panderer Rev. Herb Daughtry got $50,000 for his neighborhood association, control of 54 tickets for every Nets game and a $300,000 luxury suite at Barclays. Another neighborhood group, “B.U.I.L.D.”—Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development—was created out of whole cloth, thanks to at least $1 million from Mr. Ratner, and there was even $1.5 million for the late, unlamented ACORN. Their members did their best to keep out and shout down any neighborhood opponents at public meetings.

Meanwhile, Jay-Z was brought in to give the Nets a further minority gloss, leading the Rev. Al Sharpton to sniffle that his mother used to go see Jackie Robinson play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and now, praise God, “I’m glad I lived to see the color line in ownership broken in Brooklyn, where we’ve gone from Jackie to Jay-Z, where we can not only play the game but we can own a piece of the game. So my mother saw Jackie and my daughters will see Jay-Z—we have come a long way.”

Jay-Z owns an estimated 0.15 percent of the Nets. The real owner is Mikhail D. Prokhorov, the shady Russian oligarch who obligingly took 80 percent of the team and 45 percent of the arena off Mr. Ratner’s hands for a cool $223 million.

All the rest has proved to be smoke and mirrors, too. So far, at least, there are no apartments for anyone, nothing but hundreds of parking spaces for Nets ticket-holders. There aren’t 10,000 permanent jobs for local residents or anyone else, nothing like the 17,000 construction jobs promised. Mr. Ratner is lobbying the state for another $92 million in scarce housing subsidies, saying he can’t build affordable housing with union labor. He’s proposed an alternative: a 32-story building made out of pre-fabricated, modular units, imported from China and assembled at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. This should be interesting, as no pre-fabricated building that tall has ever been erected before.

Anyway, there’s no rush. The ESDC has given Forest City Ratner at least 25 years to complete the whole project. The MTA has allowed Ratner to renegotiate his contract down to $20 million up front, with the rest to be paid over the next 22 years. It has thus left tens and probably hundreds of millions of dollars on the table. (By comparison, two developers recently agreed to pay $1 billion for the air rights over Manhattan’s Hudson Yards.) We may all be paying higher subway fares for years to come so that a Russian billionaire can have a place to party with Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

Yet while the Atlantic Yards is the most brazen and costly such scam today, it is no great departure from business as usual. One need only look at, say, Coney Island, where our permanent government recently put us through the same, depressing paces: enticing the public with fantastic visions of future development that were quietly withdrawn, enlisting local minority support that will doubtless be betrayed, and mindlessly handing over vast piles of taxpayer money to wealthy developers. There are more such projects being planned or executed all over New York. Their legacy will be a sort of public dementia, the creation of a city that we no longer recognize or comprehend.

And we did it.

How to Steal a City: Bruce Ratner and Co. Just Rolled Brooklyn