Bruce C. Ratner is renowned for taking the path of most resistance. Over 28 years of development gambits in the New York City area, the reluctant real estate mogul has created 16.7 million sq ft in 42 buildings by chasing deals with physical, financial and political potholes.
For the 68-year-old Ratner—cut from a different cloth than most developers—complexity has become the mother of many inventions. The latest gamble of the founder of Forest City Ratner Cos. (FCRC) is born out of a need to provide 2,250 units of affordable housing for Brooklyn's $4.9-billion Atlantic Yards sports village.
Once again, Ratner has exited his comfort zone. He is bent on redefining tall residential building by creating a new business brand with a union label: turnkey, modular, high-rise housing—100% steel-framed and 60% factory-made.
The Cleveland native did not plan a career in development. Though his uncles and aunt started a real estate business in the 1920s, Ratner never worked in it.
A Manhattanite since 1967, he went to Harvard College and then Columbia University Law School, graduating in 1970. For 15 years, he worked mostly in city government. But a part-time venture into real estate syndication, in 1982, grew into a career focused on urban revival.
"I had no particular interest in real estate, but, to work for the city, I had to live in the city," says the executive chairman of the Brooklyn-based FCRC, which Ratner formed in 1985 at age 40. "Because the public school system was not good, I needed [extra] money to send my daughters to private school."
Ratner also blames economic necessity for his initial attraction to risky ventures. "I couldn't compete with people who had tons of money," he says. "I needed to do something with some barriers to entry."
Ratner is described as an inquisitive problem-solver who is somewhat quirky and occasionally prickly. He is also farsighted and willing to go out on a limb.
FCRC is "very interested" in innovation and technology to manage complexity, says Christopher Sharples, a founding principal of SHoP Architects, which is the modular tower's architect.
But at his core, Ratner has the talent to see land opportunities that others do not. "Bruce is a brilliant man who envisions real estate," says David J. LaRue, the first non-Ratner president and CEO of the family business, Forest City Enterprises Inc. (FCE), Cleveland. "He also has a tremendous ability to execute his visions," says LaRue, a 27-year veteran of FCE, which has owned FCRC since 2006.