The Land 'Lord'

'Witnesses' cash in on Brooklyn

The New York Post/May 14, 2007
By Rich Calder

Jehovah's Witnesses might be better known for Bibles than buildings, but the religious sect's vast real-estate portfolio in Brooklyn would make even Donald Trump salivate.

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the Witnesses' publishing arm, says that while it's not planning a mass exodus from Brooklyn, it is selling six of its 18 Brooklyn Heights buildings. Those include four on Columbia Heights, the borough's priciest street, which overlooks New York Harbor and the Manhattan skyline.

Watchtower owns 30 meticulously kept buildings and three lots in affluent Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO worth hundreds of millions of dollars that brokers say are more valuable than ever with ground breaking this summer on the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park project.

The Witnesses say they are not using an outside agent and haven't set asking prices, but one local broker estimates they can rack up more than $60 million for just the six sites they have announced.

"It's such a windfall of property," said J. Jean Austin of Brooklyn Bridge Realty.

Austin estimated that the largest of the six, the 12-story Standish Arms Hotel building at 169 Columbia Heights, could command $35 million alone.

The Witnesses have been a mainstay in Brooklyn Heights since setting up their world headquarters there in 1909. With a need to house its growing membership, the sect began gobbling up properties, both in the Heights and neighboring DUMBO, in the 1980s and early '90s, when real-estate prices were relatively cheap.

But in 2004, the Witnesses slowly began moving some of their operations north, relocating their Bible- and magazine-printing business upstate to Wallkill. At the same time, the Big Apple's real-estate market was booming - particularly in Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO.

That year, they sold their former book plant at 360 Furman St. for $205 million - more than 50 times the $3.9 million they paid for the 14-story building in 1983, according to records. The site is being converted into a 449-unit luxury-condo complex within the planned Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The Witnesses also made hefty profits last year selling a 76-unit building on Livingston Street for $18.6 million and a 42-unit building on Hicks Street for $14 million.

"They bought their buildings for their own use, not looking to cash out, at a time when the market was dead and you couldn't give real estate away in this area," said Andy Gerringer, managing director of Prudential Douglas Elliman Developments. "I don't know if it was savvy investing, luck or divine intervention."

The buildings for sale include the hotel on Columbia Heights, between Clark and Pierrepont Streets, which is being sold in a portfolio with seven- and four-story apartment buildings on the same street.

Three 19th-century properties - a two-story carriage house on Columbia Heights, a four-story brownstone on Willow Street, and a four-story brick house on Willow Street - are being sold separately.

"The Heights has always been a desirable place to live, and Brooklyn Bridge Park will even accent that more," said Richard Devine, Watchtower's property manager.

But he added that the timing of the park's construction "has nothing to do with the sale of the properties."

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