All eyes on the Watchtower — Inside the Brooklyn Bridge Park deal

All eyes on the Watchtower — Inside the Brooklyn Bridge Park deal
File photo by Andy Campbell

Brooklyn Bridge Park will have fewer luxury condos inside its waterfront footprint under a deal that would set aside future tax revenues to pay for the park’s $16-million annual upkeep — but how much less housing depends on the timely sale of tax-exempt buildings owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and not controlled by the city.

State Sen. Daniel Squadron (D–Brooklyn Heights) and Assemblywoman Joan Millman (D–Carroll Gardens) accepted a slightly smaller luxury building on John Street in DUMBO in exchange for a Bloomberg Administration flip-flop to allow future tax revenues from the 30 properties owned by the tax-exempt Watchtower Bible and Tract Society to fund the park if those buildings are sold and return to the tax rolls.

If all the buildings are sold, there is a chance that no luxury housing will be needed at Pier 6, where two buildings are still slated to rise.

Squadron hailed the announcement as “a path to complete Brooklyn Bridge Park and address long-standing community concerns about housing on the site,” but opponents slammed the lawmaker for allowing housing inside the park in exchange for the illusion of Watchtower revenues.

“He gained half promises,” said Judi Francis, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Defense Fund, which has opposed housing inside the park development. “There will be housing on John Street [and] there won’t be enough Watchtower property to replace housing on Pier 6.”

Francis may be fighting a battle already lost; controversial luxury housing — and the property taxes that it generates — is seen by many park supporters as the best way to generate the $16-million maintenance budget for the park, which is required to be self-sustaining.

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is slowly moving its operations upstate, and the Society does not pay taxes on office buildings, printing plants and residences under controversial federal law that relieves religious organizations of such levies.

Under the new agreement, the more “Watchtower properties” that go on the market, the more the city will scale down its proposed high-rises at Pier 6. But if the properties don’t go on the market by 2014, the city will move forward with its controversial condos.

And no one knows for sure if the religious group — commonly known as The Jehovah’s Witnesses — will sell in time.

“Watchtower has very sellable property,” said real estate legend Chris Havens, “but I think the group will have a presence here forever.”

The city initially opposed Squadron’s call for capturing taxes from the Watchtower buildings for Brooklyn Bridge Park as setting a dangerous precedent that would take money away from vital city services in order to maintain a luxury park in an already-rich neighborhood.

Under the deal, the John Street condo would be reduced from 170 feet to 130 feet and two other towers at Pier 6 could shrink or be cut altogether as the Watchtower properties begin yielding normal city property taxes.

Squadron had previously vowed to veto any future housing developments on John Street and Pier 6 if the city did not yield on Watchtower.

Squadron and Millman won that veto power under the 2010 deal that gave the city control of the park’s construction.

Opponents have long complained that luxury housing inside Brooklyn Bridge Park’s 1.3-mile footprint betrays the very definition of “park,” making the waterfront greenspace merely a backyard for rich developers and their future tenants. But supporters of housing say that their hands are tied because of a 2002 agreement that requires the $350-million park to raise its own maintenance budget so it would not become a drain on city and state coffers.

A committee created this year to examine alternatives to housing failed to unearth enough money to completely take housing off the table.

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