When the Jehovah’s Witnesses put three of their prime Brooklyn properties on the market in December, we knew the opportunity would be a siren song for developers large and small. With bids due this week, new details have emerged about the possible uses of the sites, what they might fetch, and who is angling to acquire them.
Read Part 1 of this story.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses — aka the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society — first came to Brooklyn in 1908, in hopes of having their sermons syndicated in newspapers alongside the writings of the borough’s most famous pastors. It was under the Watchtower’s autocratic second leader, Joseph F. Rutherford, that the religious group truly began practicing the art of Brooklyn real estate.
This is the 100-year story of how the Jehovah’s Witnesses grew to be a global phenomenon and came to own some of Brooklyn’s most valuable properties.
Here’s a fun blast from the past. After reading our post last week on how the Jehovah’s Witnesses came to Brooklyn, a Brownstoner tipster sent us the 1969 letter mailed out by Witness President Nathan H. Knorr when the organization bought their largest buildings in Brooklyn Heights.
Posted to church members around the globe, the letter thanked everyone involved for helping purchase the former pharmaceuticals complex — which was promptly put to use as paper storage. The letter also mentions the installation of the now-iconic Watchtower sign.
Read Part 2 of this story.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been making headlines in Brooklyn since they moved their headquarters here in 1909. Back then they were called the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, led by a charismatic man named Charles Taze Russell.
In the last five years, the Witnesses have been in the news for selling off an impressive portfolio of Brooklyn real estate — like the soon-to-be finished Dumbo Heights complex, 200 Water Street and 85 Jay Street in Dumbo.
But how did this all this come to be?
Talk about a quick turnaround. Just three weeks after local pols called for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to make once-promised repairs to Dumbo’s Bridge Park II, the religious organization pledged $5.5 million to overhaul the park.
Or is it a long-delayed turnaround?
Not long ago, you couldn’t be faulted for confusing the asphalt-covered Bridge Park II for an empty parking lot. But last week, a large-scale activity mural began taking shape at the site, and at the nearby Bridge Park 3.
Regardless of the new paint, a controversy over who is responsible for larger fixes at the park has only just begun.
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.
Right now, it’s just a parking lot. But when 85 Jay Street went on the market two weeks ago, every developer in the city took notice.
Residential development at the site — which takes up an entire block — could increase Dumbo’s current population by 44 percent. And condos there could sell for more than those at the nearby Pierhouse — where apartments start at $2,850,000.
When we talk about 85 Jay Street, we’re talking about a big building. And even bigger money.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses will have sold upwards of $1,000,000,000 worth of Brooklyn property by the time they complete their move upstate. But the plan to sell one site in particular — 85 Jay Street in Dumbo — has some locals fuming over profits on allegedly broken promises.
In the midst of crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, tourists and locals alike often wonder at the sign perched atop a Brooklyn warehouse proclaiming “Watchtower.” But not for much longer.
The iconic HQ of the Jehovah’s Witnesses at 25-30 Columbia Heights has just hit the market, along with two other Witness-owned sites in Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights. “These kinds of properties are once-in-a-generation in Brooklyn,” Watchtower spokesman Richard Devine told Brownstoner. “Because of their location and size, we expect considerable interest.”
Yes, we can practically hear the developers salivating.