The iconic former headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which dominated the Brooklyn landscape from its highly visible perch in Brooklyn Heights close to the Brooklyn Bridge for decades, will take on a new life as an office and retail campus, its owners, who include Jared Kushner, announced Wednesday.
Dubbed Panorama, the project consists of five buildings — two from the 1920s and three smaller brick and timber structures that date to the 19th century — at 25, 29 and 30 Columbia Heights and 51 and 67 Furman Street.
When the interconnected complex’s makeover is complete, it will have 635,000 square feet of office space, and room for some 5,000 workers. At street level, there will be 35,000 square feet of retail, arts and culture space, and lobbies and terraces open to the public. The complex will have 20 terraces in all and views of the East River and Manhattan skyline.
Developer Columbia Heights Associates, a joint venture of CIM Group, LIVWRK and Kushner Companies, started renovations in April, a spokesperson told Brownstoner. Plans include new mechanicals, lobbies and elevators. Construction will take at least another year to complete, he added.
Some of the most interesting existing features of the complex will remain, including the sky bridge, double-height assembly spaces and parking garage.
“Panorama will be more than just a place to work — it will be a thriving community offering the best visibility and views in New York City, world-class office space, and an opportunity for tenants to infuse the campus with their culture from the very start,” said LIVWRK CEO Asher Abehsera in a statement.
A rendering depicts the complex lighting up the neighborhood against the Manhattan skyline. A view of the complex at street level shows transformed buildings newly open to the street and surrounding neighborhood rather than closed off from it.
People stroll about and ascend an inviting staircase leading from the street to terraces and offices above stores, all with lots of big windows. Interestingly, the iconic old yellow-ish paint (and green trim) have given way to shades of gray.
Unusually, the complex’s buildings are some of the few structures in Brooklyn Heights outside the historic district, so the renovation will not require approval from Landmarks.
Gensler is leading the design. Founded in 1965 and based in San Francisco, Gensler is known for large scale projects, including the redevelopment of JFK Airport’s Terminal 5. The firm recently won a Building Brooklyn Award for the NYU Tandon MakerSpace in Downtown Brooklyn.
The five buildings being redeveloped were originally part of the Squibb Pharmaceutical site; the Witnesses bought them in 1969. The complex became known as the Watchtower buildings, and sported several prominent Watchtower signs, including a brightly lit one that could be seen across the East River at night. In the years following, the buildings came to define Brooklyn Heights in the coming decades, and became some of the most valuable real estate in the entire borough.
Many of the Jehovah’s Witnesses properties are connected to each other via private underground tunnels, the subject of much neighborhood speculation and urban myth, including 25 and 30 Columbia Heights. One of the tunnels was recently filled in.
In 2011, the Witnesses started putting their considerable Brooklyn holdings up for sale, estimated to be worth well over $1 billion, in preparation for a move upstate to Warwick, N.Y.
Columbia Heights Associates bought the Witnesses headquarters in August for $340 million. The sale did not include underground rights, public records show.
The group of properties is one of several owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights that have been sold and redeveloped.
The same partners in Columbia Heights Associates bought the huge parking lot at 85 Jay Street in Dumbo from the Witnesses in December for $345 million. A mixed-use development planned for it could rise as high as 20 stories and increase Dumbo’s current population by 44 percent.
Kushner Companies and partners RFR Realty and LIVWRK already own a similar office and retail complex fashioned out of five former Jehovah’s Witnesses properties in Dumbo, called Dumbo Heights. Its $375 million purchase was the biggest New York City real estate deal of 2013. The complex opened in 2015, and tenants include Etsy, WeWork and Frog Design as well as a row of restaurants.
Kushner’s Brooklyn holdings consist mainly of former Witnesses properties, all acquired in recent years, including the most significant Witnesses properties.
Fast Company speculated Wednesday Kushner’s ownership could make leasing difficult for Panorama.
Kushner’s involvement in a property has proven problematic when it came to at least one prospective tenant. In March, the Guardian ditched a plan to move to Kushner’s Dumbo Heights after reporters expressed concerns about spying, Buzzfeed reported at the time.
The news of the redevelopment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters into Panorama comes at a moment when office space in Brooklyn is rapidly undergoing transformation. At May’s Brownstoner Real Estate Conference a panel of experts said tenants looking in Brooklyn want locations that enable them to work in a culture of “making,” with spaces tailored to their needs. Panorama appears set to do just that.
At the same time, increased competition and more and better space has led to increased availability over the past few years in the borough. Quite a few large projects are in the works, including Heritage Equity Partners’ 25 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, which started leasing last week.
And while the borough is set to add nearly 7 million feet of commercial space in the next few years, so far few big-name tenants have signed on, according to a recent Bloomberg story. Time will tell if projects like Panorama can turn that tide.
Typical floor plates in Panorama will range from 23,000 to 37,000 square feet, enough for roughly 250 work spaces per floor, and rents will be “competitive,” said a spokesperson for Columbia Heights Associates. Potential tenants range from “creative economy firms to traditional companies,” he added.
The development is important because it signals yet more change on the Brooklyn waterfront and a changing of the guard along the East River. The Jehovah’s Witnesses properties defined the waterfront for years, and as older spaces have been redeveloped into modern ones throughout Brooklyn, a new cohort of businesses with a creative or technology-forward identity have begun to fill spaces formerly occupied by more traditional manufacturers and warehouses — Empire Stores in nearby Dumbo being a prime example.
The complex, when it opens, has the potential to bring new stores and businesses and thousands of workers to Brooklyn Heights, a historic and mostly residential enclave. They are likely to be more visible than their predecessors and the complex more accessible and open than the Witnesses’ operation.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]
- Kushner Wraps 85 Jay for $345 Million, Big Deal to Bring Thousands of Residents to Dumbo
- A Not-So-Secret Jehovah’s Witnesses Underground Tunnel in Brooklyn Heights Is No More!
- How the Jehovah’s Witnesses Acquired Some of Brooklyn’s Most Insanely Valuable Properties