City Downplays Ratner's Role In Carousel Recovery

Photo by: Norman Oder
In 2005, three Forest City affiliates donated between $450,000 and $999,997 for the carousel via the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York.

The developer defrayed the city's costs, helping to save the treasured ride but amplifying questions about whether private donations to favored causes influence policymakers.

By: Norman Oder

One highlight of Coney Island's new summer season is the city's restoration and relocation of the legendary B&B Carousell, now occupying a pavilion in the new Steeplechase Plaza adjacent to MCU Park.

Lost in the hoopla, however, is how at least one private party, leading Brooklyn developer Forest City Ratner, helped in the carousel's revival.

Unveiling the new plaza last week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg's office stated in a May 24 press release, “The carousel operated on Surf Avenue for seventy years until it was nearly sold in pieces at an auction in 2005. The City of New York instead purchased the carousel to preserve this important piece of Coney Island’s history and restore it to its former glory.”

While the city did write a $1.8 million check for the carousel, taxpayers didn't pay for it all. Barclays Center developer Forest City Ratner contributed a good chunk, at a time when it was likely a wise business move to deliver for Bloomberg.

On Aug. 9, 2005, when Bloomberg announced the agreement to buy the carousel, the city more candidly acknowledged, “The $1.8 million purchase price will come from City funds; however the City [is] in discussions with potential private donors to defray some of the cost.” At a press conference, Bloomberg noted that $300,000 had been secured by local Council Member Domenic Recchia.

There was surely an appetite for the use of private funds. While Bloomberg's plan to preserve Coney history was mostly applauded, Council Member James Oddo (R-Staten Island) told the New York Post that the money could have been used to save firehouses, while Democratic mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer suggested that Bloomberg should push as hard for affordable housing.

At least one donor came through. On Dec. 5, 2005, three Forest City affiliates donated between $450,000 and $999,997 for the carousel via the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York, according to Conflicts of Interest Board documents cited by the New York Observer. Company CEO Bruce Ratner had been on the board of the Mayor's Fund since 2003. Now, as Chairman of Forest City, Ratner's still on that board, along with other leading developers and business people.

While the billionaire Bloomberg never needed contributions for his self-funded campaigns, critics have long argued that such charitable donations—involving far larger sums than the $4,950 campaign cap—could serve to build or strengthen relationships with the mayor. (In his 1997 book Bloomberg by Bloomberg, as noted by the blog Noticing New York, the then-business mogul observed, “People need to understand that life, like it or not, has to be quid pro quo.”)

Forest City's role as private donor in another marquee Coney project—a statue of Brooklyn Dodgers baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson and his teammate Pee Wee Reese—also has been obscured. A lengthy mayoral press release in November 2005 stated that 110 donors contributed nearly $1.2 million for the new statue, placed on Surf Avenue outside the baseball stadium. Cited were Ted Forstmann, the Mets, the Yankees, a group of schoolchildren, and Bob Daly, former Managing Partner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who'd given $200,000, the largest gift.

There was no mention of Ratner, though, as the New York Daily News reported in 2005, the Bloomberg administration had raised more than $60,000 from Ratner for the “long-stalled statue” and other projects. Gifts from Ratner and others doing business with the city troubled good government groups.

Bloomberg had long supported Forest City Ratner's plan for an arena and 16 towers, announced in December 2003 and first approved by the state in December 2006. While there's no proof of any quid pro quo, Bloomberg in early 2007 more than doubled the city's $100 million contribution to Atlantic Yards. (City officials now put the total at no greater than $179 million.)

The mayor himself also may have contributed to the carousel project. Bloomberg in 2005 wouldn't comment on whether he'd give, but the Post quoted an “insider” as expecting a sum from the mayor. Bloomberg has contributed his own funds to numerous projects he's championed, such as the Young Men's Initiative.