Homeless services company seeks rezoning for former Witnesses tower Downtown

Nonprofit developer Breaking Ground is seeking a rezoning to turn the former Jehovah's Witnesses tower at 90 Sands St. into supportive housing and below-market-rate apartments.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

A nonprofit developer wants to retrofit a tower formerly owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Downtown Brooklyn to providing housing and services to formerly homeless Brooklynites. 

Developer Breaking Ground filed a land-use review application with the city to rezone the 29-story tower at 90 Stands St., which would pave the way for the construction of 500 apartments  — most of which will be tailor-made for the recently homeless and Brooklynites in need of affordable housing, according to its chief.

“Our mission is to work with vulnerable populations and help them get back on their feet and stay on their feet living in permanent housing for the long term,” said Brenda Rosen, chief executive officer at Breaking Grounds, during a before Community Board 2’s Land Use committee on Nov. 20.

The company plans to refurbish the 1992-built tower between Jay and Pearl streets — which once housed volunteers for the Christian evangelist group — and open 305 so-called “supportive housing” units, which come packaged with social services that help residents obtain employment, manage their medical needs, and transition back into stable housing.

The development will also include 202 below-market-rate rentals ranging from $504 for a studio to $2,000 for a one-bedroom, according to a rep for Breaking Ground.

The company hosts some 4,000 units across the city and already operates four supportive housing centers in the borough, including a Schermerhorn Street residential building between Smith and Hoyt streets, which they opened in 2009 and which also houses the dance school Brooklyn Ballet.

They bought 90 Sands St. from Big Apple developer RFR Realty in August 2018 for $170 million, one year after that company purchased it from the Witnesses for $135 million, as the religious group sold off a swath of properties in the area to move upstate.

Breaking Ground hopes to start interior renovations in June 2020, plans to revamp a cellar space for use as a community, commercial, or light manufacturing facility, and expects to turn over a plaza outside the building at Jay Street for public use, the company’s vice president of development David Beer said at the civic meeting. 

The application to change the building’s permitted use from manufacturing to residential also includes an adjoining eight-story office tower at 175 Pearl St., another building the Witnesses sold to RFR bigwigs in 2013 for $53 million, and which is now owned by New Jersey firm Normandy Realty, which bought it off the developer in 2017 for just north of $102 million, according to records.

Some 82 percent of the units will be studios and 18 percent will be one-bedroom apartments, with rental units prices aimed at households making 30-100 percent of the area’s median income, which is currently set at $96,100 for a family of three.

One community board member said the company should offer larger units too.

“They’re managing it with a whole big building full of single male, single female,” said Hazra Ali. “I think you should have done more… even if you added 20 to that with more units.”

Another civic guru praised the company’s mission of building affordable housing, and said they’d make a welcome addition to the neighborhood. 

“They’re addressing a need for the community that is not being met. I’ll tell you right now, commercial developers will not address this,” said Bill Flunoy, who also chairs the board’s Economic Development and Employment committee. “What they do, they do right.”

The community board and Borough President Eric Adams will give their purely advisory votes on the rezoning in the coming months, before the City Planning Commission and City Council give their binding decisions. 

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