Bridging the gap: Witness HQ revamp could make boondoggle bridge redundant

Two ways: A new pathway (red) could lead from Columbia Heights to Furman Street after the revamp of the former Jehovah’s Witnesses’s headquarters in Brooklyn Heights, making a similar connection to the waterfront that the beleaguered Squibb Bridge (blue) intended
Google Maps/ Illustration by Kevin Duggan

A twice-shuttered, multi-million-dollar bridge that’s proven Brooklyn Bridge Park’s biggest boondoggle could become redundant following the redevelopment of a former Jehovah’s Witness complex in Brooklyn Heights.

A developer’s scheme to revamp the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Watchtower complex may include an open pathway connecting Columbia Heights and Furman Street when it opens this fall, which would save people from the long walk to Doughty Street needed to reach Brooklyn Bridge Park, and perform the same function that Squibb Bridge was designed for until it closed — for the second time.

The high-concept, $4 million, Ted Zoli-designed span debuted in 2013, only to close the following year due to what attorneys for Brooklyn Bridge Park described as an “inherently flawed” design that became “unstable” and “deformed” in a lawsuit against engineering firm HNTB, who park operators sued to recoup the bridge’s roughly $3 million repair tab.

The bridge reopened in April 2017, only to shutter once again the following year, after park leaders discovered that wood planks used in its construction were decaying due to “higher than expected moisture levels.”

Now, Brooklyn Bridge Park wants to scrap the old bridge and replace it with a second, $6.5 million span that won’t open until summer 2020 — a year after the new Watchtower development is complete.

Multiple requests for comment to Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation went unanswered.

The Jehovah’s Witness complex was made inaccessible to the public by design, according to one of the architects in charge of the revamp, who said that he and his team want to open the group of buildings back up to the community.

“It was really a very inward-facing, kind of an introverted big thing that was more of a barrier to the waterfront than a connector to the neighborhood,” said Robert Fuller, an architect with Manhattan design firm Gensler.

The walkway would connect Brooklyn Heights to Dumbo and Brooklyn Bridge Park much the same way the shuttered Squibb Bridge was supposed to, which runs from Squibb Park at Columbia Heights, over Furman Street, to Brooklyn Bridge Park in front of 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge.

However, it remains up to developers Livwrk and CIM Group, as well as potential tenants whether they want to fully extend an existing pathway leading from Furman Street into the complex all the way to Columbia Heights, according to a spokesman Brandon Levesque, who noted that the connector remains a design proposal by the architects.

The Watchtower connector would come as one part of a large-scale renovation of the five interconnected buildings that used to house the religious group’s Brooklyn headquarters until they sold it for $340 million to development firms Livwrk, CIM Group, and President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, the latter of whom divested himself from the project in 2018.

The sale also included a nearby former Jehovah’s Witnesses parking lot for an additional $345 million, which the developers are turning into a 21-story two-tower condo complex with an expansive gated garden at Front and York streets.

The new mixed-use complex will include 635,000 square feet of office space — about 11 football fields — along with 17 terraces and balconies with expansive views of the Brooklyn waterfront and the distant isle of Manhattan.

Additionally, about 35,000 square feet of ground-floor space will be set aside for retail, with another 15,000 square feet reserved for hotel space at 58 Columbia Heights, according to Carroll.

The fate of one of the building’s most recognizable features, the iconic “Watchtower” sign atop 30 Columbia Heights still hangs in the balance.

Workers tore down the original sign in late 2017 and the developers have yet to decide what they will replace it with, or whether they plan to keep the still-standing temperature and time reader on top of it.

“This is still a work in progress. Once we have something definitive regarding the sign, we will share that with the public,” said Levesque.

The city ruled in November 2018 the owners can put their own branding on the sign and a rendering on the project’s website shows “Panorama” in red lettering with the clock still intact.

The three brick and timber buildings at 50 and 58 Columbia Heights, and 55 Furman Street date back to the 1870s.

Pharmaceutical company Squibb Pharmaceutical erected 25 and 30 Columbia Heights in the 1920s and occupied those spaces until the Jehovah’s Witnesses moved in 1969 and expanded the buildings several times until they sold them to the cadre of developers ahead of a move upstate in 2016.

Correction: This article previously stated that the developer’s walkway plans were a done deal based on information provided by architects, which was inaccurate. It has been changed to reflect that the connector remains a design proposal pending final approval from the developers and future tenants.

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.
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