The Real Deal New York

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Brooklyn holdings

After more than a century in the borough, the group is cashing out
By Farah Halime | April 01, 2016 01:00PM
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ headquarters at 25-30 Columbia Heights

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ headquarters at 25-30 Columbia Heights

In 1969, the Jehovah’s Witnesses made their presence in Brooklyn Heights known with 10 blazing red letters: WATCHTOWER. After buying a massive pharmaceutical manufacturing plant for $3 million, the Witnesses installed the electric sign atop the roof. It quickly became a landmark — visible from the Brooklyn Bridge and from across the river in Manhattan. “The public now knows that this group of buildings belongs to the Watchtower Society,” wrote the Witnesses’ then-president Nathan Knorr, referencing the group’s official name. Now the Witnesses are shopping around that iconic asset — which sits at 25-30 Columbia Heights and serves as their international headquarters — along with two other buildings. The Witnesses’ move to sell the sites comes after a decade of unloading its prime Brooklyn real estate in preparation for a move to greener (and cheaper) pastures upstate. At one point, its portfolio totaled 37 properties in Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo — including a pack of six buildings that sold for $375 million to a team led by Jared Kushner and RFR Realty, who are now developing the site as a tech hub called Dumbo Heights. While the market may be dipping a bit now, the Witnesses, who first arrived in the borough in 1909, have nevertheless capitalized on the Brooklyn development boom. “They’re credible, astute real estate players,” said Tucker Reed, president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. “It’s a good time to be a seller when the whole world is looking to Brooklyn.” 

$1 billion

The total amount three buildings owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses — 25-30 Columbia Heights, 124 Columbia Heights (a 10-story residential building) and a giant parking lot at 85 Jay Street in Dumbo — could fetch. The properties came on the market in December.

$11.5 million

The estimated construction cost of the Witnesses’ new world headquarters in the upstate town of Warwick, N.Y. The 253-acre site was purchased by the group in 2009. Around 1,000 Witnesses will live and work at the new complex, which will include a museum on the group’s history. It is set to be completed in 2017.

34%

watchtowerThe increase in the median sales price of a home in Brooklyn from 2005 to 2015 — the period during which the Witnesses began to sell their properties. The median sale price was $650,000 in the fourth quarter of 2015 vs. $485,000 in 2005.

$3,963

The average monthly rent of a one-bedroom in Dumbo in February 2016. It is the most expensive rental market in Brooklyn. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom in Brooklyn Heights was $2,877.

7.98 million

The number of global Witnesses spread across 239 countries. By comparison, there are 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Witness membership has increased more than 2000 percent since the 1950s, when it was around 330,000.

$368 million

The amount the Witnesses saved in taxes on their Brooklyn holdings over the last 12 years because, as a religious organization, they are exempt. A recent study also estimated that transfer and capital gains taxes for 21 of its sites sold since 2004 would have added up to about $230 million. 

$54,484

The amount of money the Witnesses paid the city in 2013 to use four secret pedestrian tunnels under Orange Street, Columbia Heights and Willow Street. The group has 10-year agreements with the city to use the passageways. Any new owner will likely shut them down for security purposes.

9

The number of sites the Witnesses still own in Brooklyn (not including the three-pack of buildings currently on the market). All nine are in prime locations. They include two vacant lots at 67 Furman Street and 1 York Street, three apartment buildings on Columbia Heights (97, 107 and 119), one apartment building at 21 Clark Street and two small buildings at 80 and 86 Willow Street. They also own a dorm at 90 Sands Street, but Kushner and RFR have a contract to buy it once the Witnesses relocate.

watchtower-sign20%

The potential population spike in Dumbo if a residential development at 85 Jay Street, which has nearly 1 million square feet of development rights, is built. The massive parking lot could be home to a 20-story tower with 1,000 residents. Brokers say the condos could sell for more than those at the nearby Pierhouse, where units start at $2.85 million.

15 feet

The height of the red illuminated “WATCHTOWER” letters atop its headquarters. The sign replaced the neon Squibb logo that belonged to the building’s former owner, Squibb Pharmaceuticals.

$5.5 million

The amount of money the Witnesses finally agreed to pay in January for the renovation of Bridge Park II, a dilapidated public space. The deal was part of a 2004 rezoning of 85 Jay. However, the renovation hit a roadblock after various disagreements with the city. A new plan has yet to be approved.