A ‘Witness’ to the future as Watchtower buys land upstate

First came the sell-off, next comes the big move.

After five years of selling off hundreds of millions of dollars in real-estate holdings in Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have finally bought something big: 248 acres upstate.

The Promised Land (for Witnesses, at least) has a name: Ramapo, NY.

Last month, the sect, officially known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and best known to the outside world for its Bible publishing and door-to-door proselytizing, bought the Ramapo tract, the third and largest acquisition in upstate New York in as many years.

The $11.5-million site will someday house more than half of the organization’s 1,500-person administrative staff, which is currently headquartered in Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO, according to a spokesman.

All along, the Watchtower had maintained that its core headquarters would remain in Brooklyn, but the personnel shift seems to indicate otherwise.

“We would like to build a live-work complex for about 850 people” upstate, said Richard Devine. “Right now, the land is zoned for residential uses, so we have made a proposal to the town to re-zone it. [Construction] is several years in the future.”

Until now, the Watchtower Society’s residential and publishing facilities in Brooklyn have remained separate. Combining both facilities at one upstate site would create a large, centralized religious compound.

Whenever the move happens, it will not have been unexpected. For more than four years, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been undertaking a sell-off of Biblical proportions, including:

• 360 Furman St., a 14-story building which sold in 2004 for $205 million and is currently being redeveloped as the all-luxury, waterfront One Brooklyn Bridge Park.

• 67 Livingston St., a 26-story tower which went for $18.6 million in 2006.

• 89 Hicks St., which was sold to the Brooklyn Law School in 2006 for $14 million.

• 169 Columbia Heights, also known as the Standish Arms, a swanky 12-story building which was sold for $50 million in 2007.

• The crown jewel of the Witnesses’ real-estate holdings — the Bossert Hotel on Montague Street — remains on the block after a reported buyer backed away from the deal last year.

The Witnesses still hold a dozen or more properties in the area, including four large office buildings and two large parking lots — which have a lucrative residential zoning — in DUMBO.

The group is respected among real estate dealers for its business acumen, the excellent condition in which it maintains its properties, and a history of keeping its cards very close to its chest.

“It appears that they will eventually transfer most of their operations upstate,” said broker Chris Havens. “The real bellwether will be those two lots in DUMBO. If they don’t build anything there, it could indicate that they plan to move out eventually.”

For now, though, the remainder of the Watchtower Society’s Brooklyn properties appears to be staying off the market, what with the New York real-estate market experiencing its own Armageddon.

“We have no plans to sell any future properties [in Brooklyn],” said Devine.

The Standish Arms on Columbia Heights is about to be sold by the Jehovah's Witnesses. It could go for $6 million, an expert said.
The Brooklyn Paper / Gregory P. Mango