The Real Deal New York

A heavenly portfolio

Jehovah's Witnesses mull more Brooklyn divestments

July 01, 2010 07:00AM
By C. J. Hughes

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25-30 Columbia Heights contains all of the Watchtower organization’s administrative offices.
The
Jehovah’s Witnesses, famous for their door-to-door proselytizing, were
originally based outside Pittsburgh, where founder Charles Taze Russell
handed out his first magazines in 1879.

But Russell reasoned that the organization could reach far more
people, and ship literature overseas more easily, if it were by a busy
port. So, in 1909, he moved the operation to Brooklyn Heights.

Over the next decades, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, as
it is officially known, bought up some incredibly valuable real estate
as its operation expanded. Today, the organization’s portfolio totals
25 Brooklyn properties — brownstones, Beaux Arts multifamilies, modern
high-rises and parking lots — that are said to be worth at least $1
billion.

But the Heights’ largest landlord may soon be its biggest property
seller. Continuing a trend that started in 2004, when the Witnesses
sold a warehouse that became the condo One Brooklyn Bridge Park, the
group has been steadily downsizing in order to relocate upstate.

Indeed, the Witnesses have built a new printing plant in Wallkill
in upstate New York, and an educational center across the river in
Patterson. It’s also planning an $11.5 million facility in Warwick. If
that proposal gets a green light and market conditions improve, a slew
of properties in Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn and Dumbo could
soon change hands.

While none of the properties on the below list have been marked for
sale, many are slated to be put on the market once economic conditions
improve, so they’re worth keeping an eye on (see images of the
properties in PDF below).

Hotel Bossert, 98 Montague Street

Arguably the Witnesses’ premier property, this 14-story, 224-room
Renaissance Revival confection, with a marble lobby and coffered
ceilings, was once home to a few of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who also
partied in its upper-floor restaurant.

Leased by the Witnesses in 1983, and purchased soon after, the
190,000-square-foot building was almost sold in 2008 for $100 million
to RAL Companies, which planned to redevelop it as a dorm, according to
news reports.

“They’ve really done just an impeccable job of restoring it,” said
Sandra Dowling, principal of Brooklyn Heights Real Estate, who has
never sold a building on the Witnesses’ behalf, but is familiar with
many of their properties. And because the Bossert now sits just blocks
from the recently opened Brooklyn Bridge Park, “it will be very
interesting to see where this one goes once the market comes back,”
Dowling said.

85 Jay Street

Not all the Witnesses’ holdings are buildings, like this parking lot in
Dumbo next to a large support structure for the Manhattan Bridge.
Initially, the three-acre parcel was considered for the printing plant
that ended up in Wallkill, but it was too small.

Still, “you’re looking at 880,000 zoning square feet, and they
could all be residential feet,” said Richard Devine, a Witnesses
spokesman. That could translate into about 800 roomy one-bedrooms.

161, 165 and 183 Columbia Heights

These three properties, which sit on a tree-lined street that
serves as the spine of the Witnesses’ organization, would likely hit
the market as a block. They include a five-story brick Greek Revival
apartment building (No. 161), a Gothic Revival carriage house (No.
165), and a seven-story Beaux Arts building detailed with garlands (No.
183). They were marketed together for a possible auction in 2007, but
were never sold. And the asking price was never made public.

In fact, during the boom, the Witnesses preferred to auction off
their properties, believing that would yield higher prices. “The market
was so unpredictable during that time, we found it better to not put a
ceiling on price,” said Devine, who nevertheless added that his group
may use a broker this go-around.

117 Adams Street

The five yellow-hued concrete buildings here, split down the middle
by Prospect Street in Downtown Brooklyn, were built by the Witnesses
starting in 1927. Until 2004, this was the site of the Witnesses’
printing plant. Today the buildings, which have a combined 861,000
square feet, function as a warehouse.

25-30 Columbia Heights

This L-shaped, 644,000-square-foot complex, which connects via a
sky bridge over Columbia Heights, is the heart and soul of the
Watchtower organization, containing all its administrative offices.
It’s perhaps best known, though, for its glowing red sign, which also
dispenses the time and temperature to Manhattanites.

Built by Squibb Pharmaceuticals in the 1920s, these concrete
structures were the drug company’s main manufacturing plant until the
1960s, when the Witnesses bought them. They also lie outside Brooklyn
Heights’ restrictive landmark district.

Because the huge structures belong to a religious group, they
currently aren’t generating tax revenue, so “it would be great for the
city to have them back,” Dowling said.

105 Willow Street

This five-unit mid-block brownstone was marketed briefly in 2007,
but pulled when there was little interest in its $4.95 million price,
said Devine, who noted that the Witnesses plan to shop it around again
once the market improves.

34 Orange Street

Another property that was briefly listed, but then pulled as the
housing market turned, this four-story redbrick row house with an
angled façade is also slated for an encore. The property, which the
Witnesses have owned since the 1940s, would likely be marketed as a
single-family home.

And it’s likely to be in great shape. The Witnesses win universal
praise for their renovation and preservation skills. “Their floors were
clean enough to eat off of” at 360 Furman Street, which became One
Brooklyn Bridge Park, said Highlyann Krasnow, a broker who sells there.

25 Clark Street

A fanciful 16-story structure with a stone base and Moorish-style
towers, this was once the Leverich Towers Hotel, one of several former
residence hotels from the 1920s that the Witnesses later bought. Its
225 units were upgraded in a 1998 gut renovation.

The building resembles the former Standish Arms Hotel at 169
Columbia Heights, which was sold in 2007 to Taurus Investment Holdings
for $50 million. It’s now a 100-unit rental where studios start at
$1,900.

Pat McGrath, a Taurus principal, was circumspect about whether
Taurus might snap up other Witness buildings, but he likes the area.
“The Heights was always a nice place to live,” McGrath said, but with
the new park and Governors Island ferry stops, “it’s become an awesome
place to live.”

107 Columbia Heights

This 11-story building is one of the few residences the group
actually built, in 1959. Devine, who lived here for a six-month stretch
in 1979, also calls it home today. Never marketed, the 163-apartment
high-rise, with a street-level garden, was renovated in 2004, which
suggests it could command a high price, said Joseph Di fiore, manager
of Arlene Realty of Carroll Gardens.

Di fiore said a parcel he listed for sale in Park Slope, zoned for
a 106-unit condo, is asking $14 million, “and it’s just a lot and
plans,” he said. “This is a more prestigious address.”

124 Columbia Heights

One of the first buildings that the Witnesses constructed in
Brooklyn, this apartment building went up in three sections: in 1911,
1927 and 1949, though its redbrick façade is distinctly postwar. It
contains 224 studios. In exchange for helping run the organization,
members receive room, board, medical care and a “small reimbursement,”
said Devine, who adds that the average stay is 10 years.

119 Columbia Heights

Somewhat at odds with the Heights’ antique streetscapes is this
clearly modernistic dark-brick corner building from 1969, which was
also built by the Witnesses and designed by architect Ulrich Franzen.
Today it contains apartments and a library.

97 Columbia Heights

Facing the neighborhood’s promenade and the Lower Manhattan skyline
is this brick and glass high-rise, which the Witnesses purchased in its
construction phase, in 1986. It has 110 studios and one-bedrooms. The
organization enjoyed a growth spurt in the 1980s, when many of its New
York properties were acquired, even though it had incorrectly predicted
that the world would end in 1975.

173, 177 and 185 Front Street

Alone, these Dumbo parking lots are probably too small for
buildings, but if combined with adjacent parcels, they could be large
enough to develop.

90 Sands Street

More of a Downtown Brooklyn property, this high-rise built by the
Witnesses in 1993 is the group’s largest residence, with 501
apartments. The 30-story building, which has a plain façade, is also
connected by sky bridge to the Adams Street complex.

44-45

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