Brooklyn's 'holy' land

New York Post/February 25, 2010

Some of the most coveted properties in the city - offering breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline and New York harbor - could be hitting the market if a small town upstate opens its arms to the Jehovah's Witnesses.

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the legal and publishing arm of the religion, confirmed it is planning a mass exodus out of its longtime base in Brooklyn Heights and neighboring DUMBO to relocate to new digs in Warwick, NY.

Watchtower is currently seeking approvals from Warwick officials to build a new world headquarters for its members on a 253-acre site it owns in the sleepy municipality in Orange County.

Watchtower - which set up shop in Brooklyn nearly a century ago and greatly expanded its holdings there in the 1980s and 1990s - owns 30 meticulously kept buildings and three lots worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the two affluent neighborhoods.

Watchtower property manager Richard Devine said the religious group is waiting for the dwindling real estate market to improve before marketing any of these properties but would "listen to any offers." Currently, the Witnesses operate their main headquarters out of two massive buildings at 25 and 30 Columbia Heights near the Brooklyn Heights promenade.

Other prime properties include the historic Hotel Bossert - where the Dodgers celebrated their only World Series win in Brooklyn in 1955 - a vacant three-acre lot on Jay Street in DUMBO that is among the largest undeveloped parcels in the city, and some magnificent 19th-century Brooklyn Heights brownstones and carriage houses, many of which offer breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline and East River bridges.

Devine said the Witnesses have been "very happy" in Brooklyn for many decades but that it didn't make economic sense to remain in the borough after their printing operation moved upstate six years ago.

While the approvals needed in Warwick "are not guaranteed," Devine said Watchtower has developed a "very good working relationship" with town officials.

The Witnesses house 1,450 of its members in Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO, and Devine said the anticipated relocation would be a long process if the plan to relocate to Warwick gets approved.

One issue that must be resolved: the Warwick development would house 850 people who would live and work out of the site, so plans would have to be made to move another 600 Witnesses elsewhere.

Judy Stanton, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, said the Watchtower Society have been "excellent neighbors" and their potential move would likely lead to a wave of new families hitting Brooklyn Heights that should serve as a wake-up call to the city to increase the neighborhood's public school capacity.

The Witnesses have been a huge part of Brooklyn Heights since setting up their world headquarters there in 1909. With a need to house its growing membership, the group began gobbling up properties, both in the Heights and 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 has since been converted into a 440-unit luxury-condo complex within the planned Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The Witnesses also made additional hefty profits before the market fell, unloading the 12-story Standish Arms hotel in Brooklyn Heights in 2007 for $50 and other properties, including a 76-unit building on Livingston Street for $18.6 million in 2006.

A deal to sell the Hotel Bossert to Robert Levine, the same developer who purchased the Furman Street building, fell apart in 2008.

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