A handful of local figures and politicians — including Steve Levin, Laurie Cumbo, and Letitia James — are calling for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to fulfill promises the group made in 2004 to fix a Dumbo park and subway station.
The politicians sent a letter to Richard Devine, spokesman of the Brooklyn-based religious group, on December 22. You can read the full letter below, but the gist of it closely echoes the call for improvements made by former New York City Council Member David Yassky.
Here’s the short version: The Witnesses made a promise to improve Bridge Park II and the adjacent York Street subway station in 2004 in exchange for an upzoning for their now-for-sale 85 Jay Street site. They haven’t made those improvements yet. But they still can. And the letter senders believe they should.
It’s important to note that the Witnesses had the site rezoned for a massive new headquarters that was never built. The organization decided in 2011 to instead sell off their many Brooklyn properties and relocate upstate. In December, they announced that three of their high-value sites were going on the market — including 85 Jay.
The upzoned 85 Jay Street is far more valuable today than if its zoning hadn’t changed in 2004.
Here’s the letter in full:
Dear Mr. Devine,
We understand that the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society plans to sell many of its remaining properties in DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights, including the large site at 85 Jay Street. We write to seek the Watchtower’s commitment that before leaving the neighborhood, the Watchtower will fulfill its obligation and make good on its promise to make significant contributions to the surrounding communities. This includes, but is not limited to, the renovation of the Bridge Parks in DUMBO and Vinegar Hill, to which you previously committed, plus additional commitments to desperately needed local infrastructure.
At the time of the 2004 rezoning, approved after a lengthy public process, the Watchtower stated that it sought additional development rights in order to construct a new world headquarters in Brooklyn. Significant additional density, now worth many millions of dollars to the Watchtower and any future developer, was granted upon the express representations by the Watchtower that it would be used for construction of this not-for-profit center.
As elected officials and community stakeholders, we weigh the impact of development carefully and work closely with the local community boards, the Borough President, the Department of City Planning, and other City agencies to ensure that there is commensurate public benefit and infrastructure investment and improvement included with any new residential and commercial density. Certainly, we would seek to strike such a balance with a rezoning of the size that was granted to the Watchtower in 2004.
Now that the Watchtower plans to relocate to upstate New York and sell its properties for the highest and best use allowed by zoning (i.e. market rate housing), the Watchtower stands to make potentially hundreds of millions of dollars while generating no public benefits for residents of the surrounding neighborhoods.
This is frankly unacceptable and goes against the public commitments that the Watchtower made in 2004. Just steps from the development site at 85 Jay Street lies Bridge Park II, which is mapped parkland. In a letter dated November 29, 2004 the Watchtower makes clear its commitment to renovate Bridge Park II by saying “we have agreed to, and have begun working with the Parks Department, to provide for the renovations of Bridge Park II.” It is unacceptable that since the Watchtower committed to work with the Parks Department, over eleven years have passed, the site has seen no improvements, and remains a piece of barren asphalt. The commitments that the Watchtower made in 2004 were explicit, and the Watchtower is duty-bound to renovate Bridge Park II.
Across from the 85 Jay Street site lies an entrance to the York Street Subway Station. The Watchtower made commitments to improve security and lighting at the York and Jay Street intersection, as well as for security cameras and patrols in the vicinity. We are glad the Watchtower acknowledged at the time that added density and activity in the neighborhood would tax an already strained infrastructure, but neglecting to fulfill the promise is unacceptable.
Additionally, as 85 Jay Street was to be used for not-for-profit use only, there were no commitments to provide affordable housing as part of the 2004 rezoning. This means that if 85 Jay Street is conveyed to a residential developer under the current zoning, that developer will be under no obligation to build a single unit of affordable housing. This would be a terrible outcome for the community, as the affordable housing shortage in Brooklyn and throughout the City has reached a crisis point. If 85 Jay Street were rezoned today, it is very likely that affordable housing would be required in some form. In addition, given the neighborhood’s thriving tech and creative sectors, a mix of zoning to also encourage the construction of office space would also merit consideration.
Lastly, the communities surrounding the Watchtower’s properties are grappling with a host of education and equity issues as the residential population has grown rapidly in recent years. There is an overcrowding crisis in local elementary schools. New residential development on this site will bring even more school-age children to the area, making the need for forward-thinking school capacity planning and investment even more urgent. The current plan does nothing to address this pressing community need.
Brooklyn and the City of New York have provided a welcome home for the Watchtower’s world headquarters for decades, and the Watchtower has been a good neighbor during that time. The Watchtower has said it intends to leave, and it appears that it will do so with potentially more than $1 billion in proceeds from property sales, thanks in large part to the value created by the City through the 2004 rezoning. We feel it is appropriate to suggest that now is the time to take action to leave these communities with a legacy worthy of the Watchtower.
We respectfully request that the Watchtower meet with us in the coming days to discuss the sale of the properties and identify a plan that both fulfills the intent of rezoning and meets the commitments made to the community.
Stephen T. Levin Council Member, 33rd District
Laurie A. Cumbo Council Member, 34th District
Alexandria Sica Executive Director DUMBO Improvement District
Letitia James New York City Public Advocate
Velmanette Montgomery 25th Senate District
Doreen Gallo Director, DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance
Daniel Squadron 26th Senate District
Jo Anne Simon, 52nd Assembly District
Aldona Vaiciunas President, Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association
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