Marty gives thumbs down to Witnesses plan

The Brooklyn Paper
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Calling it out of scale with the DUMBO and Vinegar Hill neighborhoods it would straddle, Borough President Marty Markowitz this week disapproved a plan by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society to build a major residential complex on a long-vacant lot at 85 Jay St.

The plan, which was approved in July by a narrow 18-15 vote of Community Board 2, consists of four towers — on an immense, vacant plot of land bounded by Jay, Front, York and Bridge streets — containing 1,000 one-bedroom apartments for the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious order.

With a maximum height of 220 feet that would descend in steps from 20 to 14 stories, the towers would be home to 1,800 volunteers and members in a facility that would provide for all their meeting, eating and parking needs with a 2,500-seat hall, a 1,600-seat cafeteria and 1,100-space parking garage.

None of the facilities would be accessible to the public, except for four gated courtyards that would be open during the day.

Markowitz released his decision five working days before the Watchtower Society’s proposal was brought before a City Planning Commission public hearing as the next step in the city’s land use review process.

The borough president maintained that, to gain his approval, Watchtower would have to provide significant evidence that it will address the concerns of the community. He suggested scaling down the development by 60 percent, restricting the height of the proposed buildings to 120 feet at the tallest and 70 feet for the rest, and if they are not providing public access to the parking garage, to cut its size in half.

Markowitz also expressed concern about the lack of retail space on the ground floors, which the Watchtower Society had said would conflict with its religious mission.

“These changes would promote responsible development of DUMBO and Vinegar Hill while making substantial efforts to preserve the character of this unique community,” he said in his decision.

The lot upon which the development is planned, one of the largest undeveloped parcels in the city, has been vacant for 12 years, ever since the Watchtower Society’s original plans for a printing facility in the manufacturing zone were dropped. It is currently used by the group as a parking lot, which is ominously covered on all sides by sheet-metal fencing.

Residents, many of whom were surprised to hear about the Watchtower Society’s plans when they were released earlier this year, have formed the staunchest opposition to the project. Owners of apartments in a luxury condominium building at 79 Bridge St., whose views would be impeded, have questioned why the Watchtower didn’t instead utilize the empty buildings they have at 117 Adams St., which were abandoned when they moved their printing press upstate earlier this year.

Watchtower Society spokesman Richard Devine, said that wasn’t possible.

Another opponent, the DUMBO Neighborhood Association, reiterated their discontent about the plans. Though one-time supporters of the project, they were burned when their provisions that the Watchtower Society revamp the York Street subway station and limit tower size to 12 stories were not adopted into CB2’s recommendation.

At a City Planning Commission hearing Wednesday, 18 residents testified against the plans.

“I think it went pretty well,” said 79 Bridge St. resident Christy Nyberg. “I felt that there was unanimous representation, with all the council people involved in the district and the borough president’s office.” She believes the testimony gave the commission a better understanding of what was at stake and said she was encouraged by the probing questions asked by the commissioners.

Despite the large number of residents they would bring to the area, the self-sufficient order would not rely heavily on area merchants, another factor that has drawn complaints from the community.

With its world headquarters just blocks away, the religious organization, which came to Brooklyn in 1909, 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.

The City Planning Commission has 10 days to render a decision. The application then goes to the City Council for hearings and a final decision.

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