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From Lumberer to Developer, Forest City's Roots Run Deep

When it began as a lumber business in the 1920s, Forest City Enterprises Inc. focused more on sticks than bricks. It was formed in Cleveland by four siblings of the Ratowczwer family, which took on the surname of Ratner after immigrating to America from Poland.

Today the firm is one of the nation's top real estate developers, with $9 billion in assets, and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. As of May 15, Forest City owned 35.7 million sq. ft. of office and retail space, plus close to 44,000 residential units and hotel properties with a total of 2,000 rooms.

The firm is run by several third-generation family members, including Charles “Chuck” Ratner, president and CEO, and Bruce Ratner, who heads a New York-based wholly owned subsidiary, Forest City Ratner. Forest City generated $1.2 billion in revenue during fiscal year 2006.

From lumber, Forest City segued into residential garages, as America discovered its love of cars, then into apartments, retail strip centers and prefabricated governmental housing during World War II. The company was one of the first real estate firms to go public in 1960 and began focusing on larger commercial endeavors.

Forest City's high-profile mixed-use projects include Stapleton, the massive 4,700-acre development in Denver, as well as the 1.5 million sq. ft. Westfield San Francisco Centre, which opened last year. Forest City Ratner is developing the stunning 52-story, 1.5 million sq. ft. New York Times Building in Manhattan, and Atlantic Yards, a $4.2 billion, mixed-use project in Brooklyn, which will include an 850,000 sq. ft. arena designed by Frank Gehry for the New Jersey Nets, owned by Bruce Ratner.

“We've been able to attract very bright people to the enterprise,” says Chuck Ratner, who has been with the company for 40 years and at its helm for the last 12. “Blood or no blood, we're a family that shares the same core values. They keep us focused and unite everyone.”

Besides ground-up developments, Forest City is heavily involved in adaptive reuses of obsolete properties. Current projects include the Mercantile Bank complex in downtown Dallas, which is being transformed into 375 multifamily units and 30,000 sq. ft. of retail space, and a former hospital within the Presidio in San Francisco, which is being converted into apartments.

“We can't continue to sprawl indefinitely; we have to go back to the downtowns and urban cores,” Chuck Ratner says. “Public entities have realized they have to partner with a private developer, and private developers need a public partner to make it work.” Turning around historic properties is often more challenging than building new, he adds.

Asked to name his favorite Forest City project, Chuck Ratner doesn't hesitate. “For me, it's the company itself.” His goals, he says, are to preserve an entrepreneurial culture in a firm that has 4,500 employees and to maintain Forest City's reputation in the marketplace — all the while generating solid returns.

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