Revamp of former Witnesses tower into supportive housing to start this month

affordable housing
The former Jehovah’s Witnesses hotel at 90 Sands St.
Photo by Susan Devries

Developers will begin remodeling a former Jehovah’s Witnesses hotel in Downtown Brooklyn in the coming weeks, transforming the 1990s-era tower into nearly 500 below-market rate apartments — most of which will house the formerly homeless, according to the area’s local councilman.

“Now more than ever, we need to ensure that individuals and families have a place to live and can leave shelter for secure, stable, and affordable housing,” said Stephen Levin in a statement Monday.

The non-profit Breaking Ground secured a construction loan to start retrofitting the 29-story tower at 90 Sands St. later this month, which will allow them to bring 491 affordable housing units to the neighborhood — including 305 apartments reserved for once-unhoused New Yorkers. 

The remaining 185 below-market rate units will be priced for people earning 30-and-100 percent of the federally-designated Area Median Income, with rents ranging from $504 for a studio to $2,000 for a one-bedroom. There will also be one apartment for an on-site super. 

In addition to the low-cost housing units, the tower — which Breaking Ground plans to finish overhauling by early 2022 — will also include a multipurpose room for community events and meetings, a digital library, and a fitness room, along with 28,000 square feet of community facility and commercial space on the bottom three floors. 

Just outside the building, the developers are also planning to open up the gated 7,672-square-foot plaza on the ground floor along Jay Street for public use.

Social workers with the Center for Urban Community Services will offer on-site support tailored to people experiencing homeless — but open to all residents — such as case management, primary medical care, mental health services, employment readiness, and benefits counseling.

The tower used to be a residential hotel for volunteers of the Jehovah’s Witnesses until the organization’s business arm — the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society — sold it for $135 million to Manhattan developer RFR Holding LLC in 2017, which in turn hawked the property to Breaking Ground a year later for $170 million, according to public records.

The sale was financed largely by a $155 million loan from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, along with $2 million in funds from the City Council, and a $10 million grant from the Maryland-based affordable housing non-profit Enterprise Community Partners.

Breaking Ground provided a $6.7 million loan for the acquisition and pre-construction costs, and the upstate non-profit Leviticus Fund also chipped in $1.5 million in pre-construction financing.

For the renovation, the city’s Housing Development Corporation will issue $70.4 million in bonds, along with a $6 million capital subsidy, according to the developer.

The conversion went through the city’s lengthy public review procedure starting in August 2019, and Mayor Bill de Blasio signed off on the land use change in April.

Under the original proposal, there would have been 202 affordable units — but the Department of Buildings removed 17 of them due to residential and air requirements, according to a spokesperson for the developer.