“We are Trying to be Better”
Forest City Enterprises, Inc., one of the nation’s oldest and most respected real estate development organizations, and company co-chairman Albert B. Ratner have been named as the joint recipients of the 2005 Urban Land Institute J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development.
The Nichols Prize recognizes a person or a person representing an institution whose career demonstrates a commitment to the highest standards of responsible development. The prize honors the legacy of legendary Kansas City, Missouri, developer J.C. Nichols, a founding Urban Land Institute (ULI) member considered to be one of America’s most influential entrepreneurs in land use during the first half of the 1900s. Ratner and Forest City were awarded the prize at a celebratory luncheon today in New York City.
Ratner believes firmly in creating positive change in communities. For example, he declined the prize’s $100,000 stipend and requested that ULI apply the funds to create a program of work to help plan a revitalization strategy for storm-damaged New Orleans. In addition, the Ratner family and Forest City made a donation of $100,000 to support ULI’s work in New Orleans.
“If people say to me, ‘You’ve built this great business,’ to me, that is no big deal,” Ratner said. “It (the business) is a wonderful thing if other things go with it—a great family, and a great community.”
Forest City, founded in 1921 by Ratner’s father, two uncles and an aunt, got its start building and selling two-car garages for $179.50; it has grown exponentially into a highly respected $7.4 billion real estate development organization with close to 300 projects in nearly 150 communities in 20 states. Ratner, 77, has worked at Forest City for 55 years, and has had a prominent role in the company’s many contributions to America’s urban areas. “We don’t have a great company, we have a good company, and we are trying to be better,” Ratner said. “Once you are a great company, what else is there to do? There are a lot of things we have to do that we don’t even know about.”
Forest City’s developments are in both downtown cores as well as suburban greenfields. Stapleton in Denver, the transformation of the city’s former airport into a 4,700-acre multipurpose community; and Terminal Tower, the renovation of Cleveland’s most famous building, rank among Forest City’s best-known endeavors. The company’s flexibility is illustrated by its wide variety of developments, ranging from Metrotech Center in Brooklyn, a 16-acre office campus that is one of the largest developments in New York City; to University Park, a mixed-use complex at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge (the project was a 2004 ULI Awards for Excellence winner); to Ohana Military Communities near Honolulu, a modernization of military family housing in Hawaii.
However, Forest City’s roster of work contains smaller projects in addition to the larger ones, many of which are in edgy inner-city neighborhoods of both strong and weaker cities. “They look at the tough places, where there is no market,” said 2005 Nichols Prize Jury Chairman Joseph E. Brown, president and chief executive officer of EDAW, Inc., in San Francisco. “They go in and create markets for housing, office and retail, and they believe in what they can do. Considering all the components needed to make it workxit is not easy. But they have shown that they can be ahead of trends, and can reshape the market in not just one location, but in different locations.”
In addition to Brown, other Nichols Prize jury members are: Robert Campbell, architectural critic for the Boston Globe; Bonnie Fisher, principal and director of landscape design at ROMA Design Group in San Francisco; A. Eugene Kohn, president of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates PC in New York City; and Christopher B. Leinberger, partner at the Arcadia Land Company in Albuquerque, N.M., and director of a new graduate real estate development program at the University of Michigan. “Cities consider themselves blessed if Forest City comes to town,” said Leinberger. “They know how to create a tremendous value through place, and how to build a sense of community. They get it. What they do gives us (the development community) legitimacy to try new things.”
According to James Ratner, chief executive officer of Forest City Commercial Development Group and Albert’s cousin, the company’s willingness to develop in iffy locations can be attributed to Albert Ratner’s contrarian nature. “When everyone else said the urban markets of America were places you didn’t want to be, and that the only place to be was in the suburbs, Albert took exactly the opposite tack,” he said. “The trick is not to go where everyone else is going. The trick is to have the foresight to understand where people will go if you can create the place.”
Creating long-lasting, mutually beneficial partnerships with the public sector and other private companies is a long-standing tradition at Forest City, noted Charles Ratner, president and chief executive officer of the company and another cousin of Albert’s. “We are not really a real estate development company, we are a community development company. We believe strongly in relationships with both the private and public sector in every community we work in,” he said, pointing to the company’s success in Brooklyn with Metrotech. “We don’t just do a project in New York City. We do community development in New York City with New York City as our partnerxTo stay in the business, your projects have to work financially and work for the community as well.”
Ronald Ratner, president and chief executive officer of Forest City Residential Group, Inc., and also Albert’s cousin, said, “The business of making money is not at odds with community interests. You can’t be part of a community if you are only looking at quarterly reports,” he says. “Albert’s legacy is that you can bring integrity into real estate. He has shown that it (development) can be a profession that can have a positive impact, and that there does not have to be an adversarial relationship with the community.”
To shape Forest City’s culture of teamwork and collaboration, Albert Ratner has drawn heavily on lessons learned from his parents. “My mother said, ‘There is no limit to what you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.’ My father said, ‘If you remember where you came from, you will always know where you are going,’” he said. “If you combine those two principles, you have not only a good business, but a good life, because you know what’s important.”