CB2 OK’s Watchtower’s DUMBO towers

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The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society moved one step closer this week toward realizing its vision of a major residential complex for its world headquarters on the edge of DUMBO.

In a split vote, Community Board 2 narrowly approved the plan 18-15 with one abstention, at a special meeting at Long Island University on July 14.

The development — on an immense, vacant plot of land bounded by Jay, Front, York and Bridge streets — would include 1,000 one-bedroom apartments divided between four towers reaching 20, 18, 16 and 14 stories. The tallest of the planned towers would be 220 feet. Four courtyards within the complex would be gated, but remain open during the day.

The plans include a three-story assembly hall with a seating capacity of 2,500, a 1,600-person dining facility and an 1,100-space underground parking garage.

At a public hearing earlier this month community some DUMBO and Vinegar Hill residents called the buildings “too tall” and “out of context” with the rest of the neighborhood and called on the religious organization to scale them down.

But in its recommendation, CB2 is only asking the Watchtower Society, the corporate entity of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious order, to shift some of the height from one building to another.

Nancy Webster, president of the DUMBO Neighborhood Association (DNA) said the community board’s recommendation did not go far enough. In a deal brokered by Councilman David Yassky, DNA agreed to throw its support behind the project, or at least not protest it, providing the religious organization agrees to renovate the York Street subway station, restore Belgian-block cobblestones along several local streets, install historic street lamps throughout DUMBO and renovate a park at Jay Street under the Manhattan Bridge.
Just before the meeting, DNA officials asked the board to include height caps of 12 stories at Jay Street and six stories on the Bridge Street side. But that amendment was struck down before the board had a chance to vote on it.

“We were very disappoint­ed,” said Webster.

Aside from concerns about height, Webster and other residents have complained that the complex will include no street-level retail, creating what they see as a potentially dangerous vacuum around its perimeter leading up to the already crime-riddled York Street F-line subway station at Jay Street.

Residents of the condominium apartment building at 79 Bridge St., across the street from the development, have remained the staunchest foes of the project, maintaining that the buildings, as planned, are too tall, out of context with the recently burgeoning neighborhood, will cast shadows and will clog the streets with traffic.

The plan now moves on to the next step in the city’s rigorous land use review process, with a public hearing before Borough President Marty Markowitz. It will then be reviewed by the City Planning Commission and City Council.

With its world headquarters just blocks away, the religious organization is looking to consolidate many of its smaller residential facilities, most of which are in Brooklyn Heights, and which house thousands of volunteers. Watchtower owns 29 properties in Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO including 21 residential buildings ranging from brownstones to apartment buildings.

Currently zoned for manufacturing, the Watchtower Society originally planned a printing facility for the site and even began demolition that has left the plot vacant for the past 12 years.

But earlier this year, the religious organization moved its printing facilities to upstate Wallkill, N.Y., and decided to use the DUMBO site for apartments instead. It currently uses the massive tract of land for parking. And in April, the Jehovah’s Witnesses entity sold its hulking, 12-story building at 360 Furman St. at Atlantic Avenue for $200 million earlier this year.

The 1 million-square-foot waterfront property had been used as a book and video distribution center. The new owners plan to develop apartments there.

In the DUMBO plan, a new Jehovah’s Witness visitors’ center would be included at street level at the corner of York and Jay streets. Some 60,000 to 70,000 people visit the headquarters each year.

Councilwoman Letitia James, whose district includes the site, held a meeting with tenants of the nearby Farragut Houses public housing complex to discuss the plan.

“Many people hadn’t been informed about it,” said James, adding that if the project is approved she is looking for an agreement from the Watchtower Society to hire locally.

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