Won't Comment on Rumors of Possible Move of Headquarters Out of Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Daily Eagle/October 20, 2009

Brooklyn Heights - Reports of an additional acquisition of property near its Wallkill, N.Y., printing plant complex have been confirmed by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

However, rumors that the religious group, also known as the Jehovah's Witnesses, will move its world headquarters from Brooklyn Heights to that location were not confirmed.

"It's so early in the process, it's not possible to say," said spokesperson Richard Devine, who is in charge of real property for the organization.

David Semonian, in the public information office, confirmed the new acquisition for the Eagle, saying in an e-mail, "I can verify that we have acquired additional property outside of New York City in New York State, in the Town of Warwick in Orange County. This is in addition to property recently acquired by the Witnesses in the Town of Ramapo, in Rockland County."

As reported in the Eagle in March, the Ramapo property is a 248-acre site (291 acres with a perpetual conservation space) where the Watchtower plans an administrative complex with about 850 volunteer workers onsite.

"It will be a live-in and work complex similar to what we have in Brooklyn Heights so there will be both residential and office space. Everyone who is assigned there will live there," Devine said at the time.

The organization's plan submitted to the town of Ramapo has not yet received its final approvals, requiring zoning change and environmental reviews, as well as a religious-use tax exemption.

"It's moving along. But it tends to be a long process," said Devine.

Plans for the new acquisition in Warwick are similar.

"We have applied to the town for an office and residential complex," he said. It will also have to go through a similar review process.

He describes the property as a 253-acre site with structures originally built 50 years ago for the International Nickel Co. (now known as INCO) for its research and development division. The company closed that division in 1983.

King's College owned the property for awhile in the 1980s and had received approvals for its plan to develop a 1,600-student campus there. But the college dropped those plans and the property had changed hands several times since then, according to Devine.

"We actually bought it from Touro College," Devine said.

According to Semonian's statement, the Watchtower's primary objective in acquiring the two properties is to locate complexes in closer proximity to its Shawangunk/Patterson printing plant complex in Wallkill. Devine said the sites are only one and a half miles apart.

Even if all approvals fall into place in Ramapo and Warwick, there's still a matter of the current state of the real estate market.

"We have eight smaller buildings [in Brooklyn Heights] we have yet to sell," Devine said. "Because of the market we are not actively promoting their sale. We've even started using the Bossert [Hotel] again on a limited basis."

As previously reported in the Eagle, the Bossert was going to be acquired by Robert Levine, president and CEO of RAL Companies & Affiliates, and developer of the former Watchtower shipping complex at 360 Furman, but he backed out of the deal.

The other buildings still on the market include 165, 161 and 183 Columbia Heights, 105 Willow St. and 34 Orange St., all residential buildings that are now vacant except for some tenants that pre-existed Watchtower ownership.

As regularly chronicled in this newspaper, the religious organization has been reorganizing and consolidating a number of its operations in Brooklyn Heights and transferring some to Walkill since 2004, when the printing and shipping operations were moved.

"Those adjustments resulted in a decrease in our Brooklyn staff, reducing our need for residential space," Semonian said at the time.

Like the 12-story, 960,000-square-foot former shipping complex on Furman, the world headquarters and administrative offices at 25 and 30 Columbia Heights are also massive buildings - they are 13 and 10 stories, respectively, and 304,650 and 402,300 square feet.

As previously reported, there are currently about 1,500 volunteer workers at the Brooklyn Heights headquarters. If the Ramapo plan for 850 volunteers goes forward and the Warwick plan, too, with its unknown quantity, it seems obvious there would no longer be a need for offices in Brooklyn Heights.

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