Jehovah's Witnesses mull more Brooklyn divestments July 01, 2010 07:00AM By C.J. Hughes
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 StreetArguably 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 Brooklyn 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 HeightsThese 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 StreetThe 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 HeightsThis 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 StreetThis 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 StreetAnother 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 StreetA 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 HeightsThis 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 HeightsOne 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 HeightsSomewhat 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 HeightsFacing 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 StreetMore 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.