First, let's check the headline. The arena might be happening, but Atlantic Yards isn't very real at all. Hamill couldn't be bothered to check, but the much-ballyhooed affordable housing is yet again delayed.
And instead of taking ten years, as Ratner repeatedly promised, the project more likely would take 25.
But that's not why--I suspect--Forest City Ratner reached out to the convenient Hamill. They need to sell some suites, and some sponsorships.
The first time I met him he was 59, and I walked with him along Dean St., where he explained his dream of building a sports arena for the "Brooklyn Nets" basketball team on this place called Atlantic Yards.There's no place called Atlantic Yards. It's the name of a project, a brand.
Today Bruce Ratner is 66, and seven years, 35 lawsuits, two architects and one economic meltdown later, he's sold off 80% of the Nets and 45% of the arena. But standing at a window 13 stories above the zigzagging yellow bulldozers and swinging boom cranes in the steel armature of the under-construction Barclays Arena, he says: "It's real."Um, 35 lawsuits? Maybe 35 rulings in about ten lawsuits.
Two architects? Nope, three. Hamill apparently missed the fact that, after Ellerbe Becket was tapped to re-engineer the arena on a budget, that design was denounced so much that a buzzy architect, SHoP, was brought in to add a facade.
Yes, it is, and next year Brooklyn will have its first professional sports team since the Dodgers left in 1957. The 18,500-seat Barclays Center will host more than 200 events, including big-name concerts, pro boxing promoted by Oscar de la Hoya, tennis, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus and Disney on Ice.What's all this about "Brooklyn" having a team? This isn't Green Bay. The team will be located here.
Hamill seems excited that the arena aims to feature a panoply of high-priced entertainment. But when the arena was first sold to the public, the promoters kept talking about accommodating such things as high school basketball, college graduations, and even Hasidic weddings.
Ratner's big investment
Was there a time when Ratner didn't think it ever would be real?On breadlines? The guy's a multimillionaire. That's about as dunderheaded as MaryAnne Gilmartin talking about cleaning ladies.
"Yeah, in October of '08," he says. "Like a lot of people, I didn't know if we'd all be on breadlines. Goldman Sachs and Barclays Bank were always our underwriters. Greg Carey at Goldman, always a very optimistic guy, told me in October and November there was no financing available at all."
He says Carey was working on getting the Yankees financing for their new stadium and told Ratner that if that happened, the Barclays Center had a chance.
"When the Yankees got financed in January '09, it was the first glimmer of hope that we'd get financed," Ratner says. "This arena we're looking at being built required $500 million in financing. A billion in total costs, including interest, land and architecture."
And guess what else Hamill missed? Forest City Ratner's attempt to sell that arena to Chinese investors seeking green cards.
But Ratner was still battling lawsuits that scared investors in 2009.The lawsuit wasn't brought by one resident, it was brought by 13 original plaintiffs. As for "mostly barren surrounding land," that's not true. There was a significant mix, especially on the Dean and Pacific Street portions taken for the arena block.
They included one brought by a vocal holdout resident who could have traded his slogan of Develop Don't Destroy for Deposit Don't Annoy when he banked Ratner's check for $3million for his condo.
The condo, which he'd lived in for less than a year when Ratner first petitioned for eminent domain for the rail yards and the mostly barren surrounding land to build his arena and a 16-building complex of affordable and market value housing.
I asked Ratner how he'd feel if someone wanted to glom his home in eminent domain.
"That's a good question," Ratner says, coincidentally watching a backloader scoop dirt where the final resident once lived. "I wouldn't be happy. On the other hand, you get paid fair market value. It's not the same as being foreclosed on and losing your equity.
Deposit Don't Annoy? Ratner's $3 million check meant 1) far less gain than that by others who left quickly and 2) far less value than the development rights Ratner secured when the state overrode local zoning.
Creating jobs at MetroTech?
"Still it's not the greatest thing. But we all move plenty of times in our lives. It's not perfect. Not ideal. But it's part of urban development. Without eminent domain, I wouldn't have been able to build Metro Tech, which created 22,000 jobs in Brooklyn."It didn't create 22,000 jobs. It mostly retained them, so they didn't leave Manhattan for Jersey City.
The CoA decision
In November of 2009, the judges on the State Court of Appeals gave their final decision that the last holdout had to move.Not exactly. That came a few months later, when a condemnation judge ruled, though the Court of Appeals upheld eminent domain.
Hamill, lazily relying on his one source, couldn't be bothered to learn that even defenders of eminent domain think the decision by the Court of Appeals leaves exactly zero leeway for condemnees and represents the nadir of eminent domain jurisprudence among the states. (More on this shortly.)
Ratner's company quickly sold $500 million in bonds. "We had three times as many orders," he says. "We broke ground last year. So it's never easy. After I built the Atlantic Center here, I couldn't get retail stores like Target and Kmart to come in the late '90s, when everybody was riding high.Oh, come now.
"Finally, Target came, and today it's one of the top 10 Targets in the country. I knew there was a need here for retail. There's also a need in Brooklyn for affordable and middle-income housing. And for a professional Brooklyn sports team. That's why I've stuck with it. Now it's real . ..."
There's a need for a sports team if they can get an arena essentially for free, subsidized by federal taxpayers, via tax-exempt bonds, by local taxpayers, via payments-in-lieu of taxes, and naming rights, given away by the state.
And there's a need for affordable housing, but Ratner's way behind on that.
Ratner stuck with it not to fulfill a need in Brooklyn but to fulfill some profit targets.