Say what you will about mega-developer Bruce Ratner; he’s not afraid to wear a big hat. Last month, as part of his campaign to buy the New Jersey Nets and shift them to Brooklyn, Ratner hauled in a passel of NBA senior citizens—the press called them “stars,” but that’s a bit much to pin on the likes of Pearl Washington and Sidney Green—for a photo op at Junior’s, where Ratner promptly slapped World B. Free’s too-large fedora on his own balding pate and left it there while enthusing about the glories of bringing pro hoops to the Borough of Kings.
For those who’ve followed Ratner’s career as the self-anointed savior of Brooklyn, the only surprise might be that there’s any hat too large for his noggin. Soft-spoken and nebbishy he may be, but this, after all, is the billionaire who dropped Metrotech on an unsuspecting populace, who boasted to New York magazine that he hoped to forge a “New Brooklyn” out of the dross that is there today. When George Steinbrenner’s YankeeNets announced last summer that the NBA Eastern Conference champs were on the block, Ratner was first in line, promising a $500 million development at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush. The complex he envisions would cover almost a million square feet of Brooklyn, with 5,500 units of upscale housing and a basketball arena designed by Frank Gehry, the architect who has given the world such renowned shapeless lumps of metal as the Guggenheim Bilbao and Seattle’s Experience Music Project.
If you don’t have to live next to it, there’s certainly plenty of reason to be excited at the prospect of a second NBA franchise within the five boroughs. (Or, depending on how you count the Knicks, a first.) So perhaps it’s understandable that little notice has been paid to the likelihood that Ratner’s dream could cost New Yorkers—before a single Nets ticket is sold—close to $1 billion.
When you look at the Brooklyn skyline, much of what you see is the work of Bruce Ratner. Downtown, the gargantuan Chase logo marks the site of Metrotech, built largely by his Forest City Ratner development company. Farther south, at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush, Ratner buildings rise like foothills in front of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower: the Atlantic Center Mall, built amid much community uproar in the early 1990s; a smaller retail building across Flatbush that obliterated much of a community garden; and the newest addition, the Atlantic Terminal building, a 15-story eruption of glass and brickface that is set to house the Bank of New York headquarters.
It is here that Ratner has pledged to build his Nets arena, atop the LIRR yards south of Atlantic and east of Sixth Avenue. (There’s a persistent journalistic legend that this is where Walter O’Malley wanted to build a stadium for the Dodgers; in fact, that site is now occupied by the Atlantic Center.) At first glance, it’s not a promising place for a sports complex: long and sinuous, just one 200-foot-long block wide, barely half what’s needed for an NBA arena.
“We’re concerned that the building of the stadium might involve taking properties by eminent domain,” says Jezra Kaye of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, which has been dogging Ratner’s arena pronouncements with lively protests. “Certainly the people who live on Pacific Street, which directly faces the site, have reason to be concerned.”
While Ratner is hardly the only city developer to benefit from public largesse, that doesn’t make his record of government subsidies any less impressive. (A former consumer affairs commissioner under Ed Koch, he left the city’s employ in the early 1980s to take up the family real estate business, where he has been a major campaign donor to mayors ever since.) For starters, being the champeen of Brooklyn development comes with some built-in perks: Since the 1980s, the city has offered 13-year property tax exemptions for all outer-borough development. To that, add more than $300 million in city rent subsidies to prime Metrotech tenants Chase Manhattan and Bear Stearns, and $114 million in tax-exempt Liberty Bonds—earmarked for rebuilding lower Manhattan—for the Bank of New York tower. In perhaps his most audacious project yet, Ratner used the state’s eminent domain powers to obtain land for the new New York Times building off Times Square at below-market prices—then requested an additional $400 million in federal Liberty Bonds when he couldn’t find tenants.
Ratner has persistently ducked questions on who would fund his half-billion-dollar arena complex—spokesperson Joyce Baumgarten tells the Voice, “Our position is that it’s premature for any of this until we have a team”—but a few hints have emerged. Ratner and Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff have each publicly suggested using “incremental tax revenues,” a kissing cousin to the tax-increment financing (TIF) that has generated so much criticism for Doctoroff’s proposed Olympic Stadium in Manhattan. For a Nets arena, instead of property taxes, Doctoroff would simply take sales taxes on tickets and income taxes on Nets employees and turn them back over to Ratner so he could pay off his construction debt.
The idea is that since the city can tax tickets only if the team moves here, these are “extra taxes that would not have existed otherwise,” as Doctoroff has explained. It’s an argument that doesn’t hold much water with sports economists. “It may be a zero-sum game, where money spent at the ballpark is not spent somewhere else,” says Joe Cortright, a former economist for the Oregon state legislature who scrutinized that state’s plan to use incremental taxes for a big-league baseball stadium. “That has the effect of lowering tax revenues invisibly elsewhere.”
Then there’s the land. MTA spokes-man Tom Kelly has twice told reporters that the MTA board had granted Ratner an option to build on the LIRR site. When pressed by Richard Brodsky, chair of the state assembly’s committee on public authorities, Kelly protested that he’d been misquoted. Development experts say air rights for a 21-acre project like Ratner’s could easily be worth half a billion dollars or more to the cash-strapped agency.
Ultimately, the decision will rest largely with people who seldom set foot in Brooklyn: George Pataki—a Columbia Law School classmate of Ratner’s—and the MTA board, which, as city residents have become all too aware, is beyond the reach of local lawmakers. But first, it’s up to another noted New York George to determine whether Bruce Ratner beats out fellow billionaires Charles Wang and Jon Corzine to become the next owner of the Nets. Will Steinbrenner balk at delivering the Nets to a man who’d compete for city dollars with his dormant dreams of a new Yankee Stadium? Will he succumb to the lure of a big payday from a Ratner bid, juiced by the promise of public arena funds? For answers to these questions and more, stay tuned to a sports section near you.