The Man Who Brought the Nets to Brooklyn

In an excerpt from the book "The Brooklyn Wars", author Neil deMause details how developer Bruce Ratner plotted to build the Barclays Center in order to attract the Nets to Brooklyn.

by Neil deMause
Sep 28 2016, 1:00pm

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Vice Sports contributor Neil deMause spent the better part of the last 15 years watching as his home borough of Brooklyn was utterly transformed by new residents and new development projects — including the arrival of Brooklyn's first major-league pro sports team since the Dodgers left in 1958. In this excerpt from his new book The Brooklyn Wars, he recounts how a singular developer used his political connections to change forever the local basketball landscape, and the physical one as well.

Talk of moving the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn first emerged in the summer of 2003, when word began to spread that developer Bruce Ratner, who had previously evinced zero enthusiasm for basketball or any other sport — the adjective that invariably leapt to mind when describing him was "nebbishy" — might be interested in buying the team and relocating it to the city.

The Nets, originally a member of the upstart American Basketball Association — the team won two titles in the league with the red-white-and-blue ball, before having to sell off star player Julius Erving to afford the admission fee for joining the NBA and sinking into decades of mediocrity — had been through as many owners as it had arenas, drifting from New Jersey to Long Island and back to New Jersey again. In 1998, real estate developers Raymond Chambers and Lewis Katz bought the team and set out to get a new arena built at public expense in Newark, joining with the New York Yankees to form a holding company called YankeeNets that would launch their own sports cable network. The TV network, YES, was a success, but neither the Newark arena campaign nor the partnership could make the same claim, and within five years the Nets were back on the block. And Ratner, as out of character as it seemed, had expressed interest in becoming the latest member of the NBA owners' club.

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If the goal was to make a splash to get the attention of Brooklyn elected officials, it worked like a charm — at least as far as Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz was concerned. Markowitz, an effusive borough booster who'd long recounted his childhood bitterness when the Dodgers left town in 1958, told Bloomberg News he would "do somersaults'' if the project earned Brooklyn a new sports team: "All I'm prepared to say is that Brooklyn would be the greatest franchise for any sports team in America." In fact, Markowitz later insisted, the hoops piece of the puzzle was his idea to begin with. "My initial conversations with [Ratner] were not met with enthusiasm," Markowitz told the online magazine Bklynr in 2013. "He said to me, 'Marty, I don't build arenas, and I don't buy teams. I build commercial; I build office towers and shopping malls. I don't build residential, and I certainly don't buy teams. I'm not even into sports.' And I explained to him, 'Neither am I.' He was not a jock; I'm not a jock. He wasn't into basketball; I'm not into basketball, believe me."

What Ratner was into was real estate development, particularly the kind that could be built on land controlled by public entities. The scion of a Cleveland real estate family (the "Forest City" in their realty firm name was a reference to their hometown's nickname), he attended Columbia Law School in the 1970s, but then swerved into a brief career in politics, serving as director of consumer protection under mayors John Lindsay and Ed Koch. In 1982, however, Ratner left the city's employ to take up the family real estate business, branching out to seek opportunities in his adopted home.

From the start, political connections were key to Ratner's real estate career. His first major project in Brooklyn came about in the 1980s when Polytechnic Institute, an engineering school originally founded by a group of Brooklyn businessmen in 1853, was toying with a move to Long Island. Instead, university officials concocted an alternate plan: The city and state would help turn several blocks of downtown Brooklyn into a new technology center that would support the school while simultaneously restoring Brooklyn's downtown to some semblance of its commercial heyday. The notion soon took hold with the remnants of Brooklyn's business community, particularly local banks and the utility Brooklyn Union Gas, which unlike universities or businesses couldn't up and move to Long Island in search of greener pastures. The idea, recalled then-Brooklyn borough president's office chief of staff Marilyn Gelber, was "to promote the idea that Brooklyn was a great place to invest in, and deserved at least as much attention as some of what was going on in Manhattan."

What eventually took shape was a plan to have the city-run Public Development Corporation seize multiple blocks of downtown Brooklyn by eminent domain and convert them into eight new office towers and a central plaza. Forest City Ratner, which had just constructed its first Brooklyn project — One Pierrepont Plaza, built atop what had been a city-owned parking lot — jumped in with the winning bid to be the developer for the project.

Metrotech, as the development became known, was immediately controversial, thanks in part to the 250 residents and one hundred businesses that would have to be displaced to turn a neighborhood of row houses and loft buildings into giant commercial blocks. Project opponents pointed out that Ratner, who was one of only two bidders on the project, had not only until recently been in city government, but was a significant donor to the political campaigns of Mayor Ed Koch and Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden; a Ratner spokesperson countered that the contributions were solely due to his "interest in ensuring good government.''

The state and city didn't help only in clearing land and relocating residents, however: The government also offered cash subsidies to help ensure that Ratner could attract new tenants. Then-governor Mario Cuomo convinced Chase Manhattan Bank, which had been rumored to be considering a move to New Jersey, to instead relocate several thousand of its back-office workers to a Metrotech building in exchange for a full property tax break, as well as breaks on sales tax on construction materials and on subsidized electricity; the total cost to taxpayers ended up being $235 million. Meanwhile, the promised 5,000 Brooklyn jobs, 1,450 of which were supposed to be new hires, never materialized: After Chase cut its city workforce by 10 percent in 1999, its Metrotech staffing settled in at a mere 2,500, helping contribute to the complex remaining half-empty for the better part of a decade.

By then, Ratner had moved on to seek his next conquest: erecting a pair of mall buildings — with a small office tower on top of one — at a former Long Island Rail Road terminal site that had been targeted for redevelopment as far back as the 1950s, when Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley briefly pursued building a domed stadium there to replace Ebbets Field. By the 1980s, poor maintenance had closed the terminal's main waiting room with its fifty-foot-high ceiling and led to calls for the site's redevelopment. Then, in 1994, Mario Cuomo was defeated in his re-election campaign for governor of New York by George Pataki, an upstate Republican who just happened to be Ratner's law school classmate.

By now, Ratner was openly identifying himself as the savior of his adopted borough. In 2003, the developer boasted to New York magazine of a coming "New Brooklyn" that would not only put the trauma of losing the Dodgers behind it, but would create an entirely new identity, for a new class of Brooklynites: "Just like the Russian immigrants would move here and bring their families over, now it's the intellectuals who move here and bring their friends over. Brooklyn has become a brain drain on the rest of the city. In fifteen years, this place will be everything it was and more. You can just see it. "

For his latest project, Ratner had turned his eyes to a previously ignored plot of land south across Atlantic Avenue from his malls, where trains emerged from the terminal into an open-air series of state-owned rail yards squeezed into a one-block-wide strip between Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street. It was ripe for development, certainly — the biggest stretch of undeveloped property for miles around — but also only about 200 feet wide, and a basketball arena would require twice that amount of space. To the north was Atlantic Avenue, a major thoroughfare. To the south was the narrower Pacific Street, across which sat an entire block of buildings, all owned not by the state but by private entities, and occupied by several hundred people and businesses. If a new arena was going to rise in Brooklyn, somebody else was going to have to go.

While most of the buildings were small row houses occupied by renters, there were a few exceptions, notably an old Spalding sporting goods factory — where the famed pink "Spaldeen" balls integral to stickball had once been manufactured — that had more recently been converted into condos, as well as a garment-factory-turned-lofts at 475 Dean Street, plus 636 Pacific Street, an eight-story storage building that had only recently been converted to a condo development dubbed Atlantic Arts.

Among the inaugural batch of Atlantic Arts residents were a young web designer named Dan Goldstein and his fiancée Echo, who had just moved into a seventh-floor apartment after several years of searching brownstone Brooklyn for the ideal home. "I remember looking in the Newswalk building [on the next block of Pacific Street] right after 9/11, within weeks of it, and the discussion of what that was going to do to what was a booming market," recalled Goldstein. "It's a great location — you can easily walk to Park Slope, and the transportation, and it was a nice new building that seemed to be in good shape." It didn't hurt that the neighborhood, at the northern edge of once black middle-class but now increasingly whitening Prospect Heights, seemed ripe for takeoff: "I was looking for a home, not an investment, but I was pretty sure it was a good investment."

Goldstein and his partner moved into their new home in May 2003, along with the other residents of the newly renovated building. "That fall, probably September, there were rumors" about Ratner building an arena, said Goldstein. "I remember thinking, 'He's never going to get the Nets. There's no way.'"

As it turned out, Ratner had no intention of waiting out the long NBA purchase process before getting hold of the land he'd need for his new project. He approached the newly arrived owner-occupants of Atlantic Arts and offered $1 million a pop for their apartments — in exchange for which they would agree to sign a gag order prohibiting them from speaking out against the arena project, or donating money to groups that opposed it. Each building's board would also be required to designate two homeowners to testify in favor of the project at hearings and to the press. By April 2004, the entire Atlantic Arts building had taken the buyout offer, except for Goldstein. Soon, he'd joined with other local residents and business owners in the proposed project footprint to form Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, and set out to challenge the tactic that most directly threatened themselves and their neighbors: any possible use of state eminent domain powers to seize private buildings and raze them on Ratner's behalf.

They were soon joined by city councilmember Letitia James, who took office in 2003 following one of the oddest, ugliest moments in the city's long and twisted political history, when her predecessor James Davis was shot to death by a political rival inside the council chambers, James immediately set out to take on the Atlantic Yards battle as a personal priority. One of her first acts after taking office as councilmember was to convene a meeting of neighborhood residents and urban planners to determine what could be done with the rail yards property. The result was what became known as the UNITY Plan, proposing a one-block-wide strip that included a hotel, new schools, a public library branch, and parks and recreation space. There was no pro sports arena, and none of the seizure of property or demolition that would be required to make one fit.

There was also no one actually offering to build it. Bertha Lewis, the ACORN leader who had allied with Ratner after he agreed to include affordable housing in his project — and allow ACORN to run the lottery determining who would receive apartments — immediately seized upon this after watching architect Marshall Brown's UNITY Plan presentation: "I saw architects, I didn't see any developers."

Eventually, another interested developer emerged: Extell Development Company, another major player in the emergent New York City real estate world, which agreed to put forward a competing bid that would not require demolition of existing buildings and would be vetted by the city land use process, including a full environmental impact statement and public hearings — something that, as a state-run project, the arena didn't require, needing only a decision by a Metropolitan Transportation Authority board appointed by Pataki before deciding which developer to sell its land to.

Bruce Ratner had been trying to get the Nets to Brooklyn since 2003. Photo by Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

After a long battle, Ratner finally won the MTA's nod in September 2005 for control of the rail yards in exchange for $100 million — double what he had initially offered, but far less than Extell's offer of $150 million, let alone the MTA's own $214 million appraisal of the property. The only objection on the MTA board had come from Mitchell Pally, a board member from Suffolk County. "The MTA, alone, would never have built any modifications to the Atlantic Yards," he said, indicating that he'd looked into the twenty-year projected needs assessment for the agency, and it mentioned nothing about upgrading the Long Island Rail Road yards at Atlantic Avenue. "[The rail yard] works fine the way it is. Forest City Ratner money is not being used to substitute for projects the LIRR wants to do. We're now going to spend money on projects we don't want to do, never wanted to do and don't need? It makes no sense."

Sense or not, on September 28, 2012, the Barclays Center arena opened its doors for the first time, for a concert by co-owner Jay-Z. Outside, concertgoers mingled with a few dozen protestors and various onlookers, including a Columbia University class on urban design. Inside, ticket buyers ogled the black-and-grey color scheme and three layers of luxury suites — two forming a vertical wall between the lower and upper decks, the other ensconced at floor level and dubbed "the Vault," with a half-million-a-year price tag — while high-definition video boards flashed a pre-show message of gratitude: "Thank You Bruce Ratner."

By the time Bruce Ratner sold the Nets and the Barclays Center to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov in early 2016, he had walked away with anywhere from a few hundred million to a couple of billion dollars worth of land, cash, and tax breaks, depending on whose accounting you chose to believe. He'd also spent $300 million on a sports franchise that he had seemingly no interest in, plus about $900 million more on an arena, and received something less than that in return — though one could argue that the lure of the Nets had at least helped him get his hands on some lucrative property, and the state eminent domain powers needed to pry it loose from its private owners. As deals went, it was pure Bruce Ratner: He may not have turned a huge profit, but he'd leveraged his political connections to put his stamp on his adopted borough — and Brooklyn would never be the same again.

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