It’s the billion-dollar boondoggle!
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are poised to make out like moneylenders in the temple under the just-signed deal that allows the city to fund Brooklyn Bridge Park’s annual upkeep with tax revenues from the group’s properties, a Brooklyn Paper analysis reveals.
The deal calls for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society’s holdings in Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO to be rezoned for residential use — a change that real-estate experts believe will send the value of the Society’s properties well north of $1 billion.
“If they put them on the market now, they’ll be sold very quickly,” said Downtown real-estate broker Chris Havens.
The deal between Mayor Bloomberg and state officials will reduce the amount of luxury condos inside Brooklyn Bridge Park by using new property taxes created after the Watchtower properties are sold and return to the tax rolls.
That money will go into the normal general fund, which will then cover maintenance of the world-class park.
The deal has green advocates seeing red.
“Tax money is supposed to go into the city’s general fund and it’s being diverted to one park,” said Geoffrey Croft, founder of watchdog group New York City Park Advocates. “These types of deals create enormous disparities. Other neighborhoods can’t pay for parks in this way.”
Under the deal crafted by state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D–Brooklyn Heights) and Assemblywoman Joan Millman (D–Carroll Gardens), the greater the number of Watchtower buildings that go on the market, the less luxury housing needs to be built inside the park at Pier 6.
Those buildings were projected to bring in roughly $6 million a year in property taxes earmarked for the park. If the properties don’t start yielding sufficient property taxes by 2014, the city, under a new mayor, can move forward with the controversial condos.
Watchtower owns more than 30 properties, but doesn’t pay taxes on any of them under federal laws that exempt religious groups from normal levies.
The religious order will either apply to rezone its properties to residential before selling them, or sell them to developers based on the inflated post-rezoning price. Either way, it’ll mean big bucks for the group.
Havens estimates that one of Watchtower’s most valuable buildings — 25 Columbia Heights, which is part of the group’s administrative offices — could go for $91 million as right now as commercially zoned. It will likely go for at least twice that now that the city is behind the rezoning.
Indeed, One Brooklyn Bridge Park, the former Watchtower property at 360 Furman St., was bought by developer Robert A. Levine for $205 million in 2004.
The city’s deal is the latest funding scheme for Brooklyn Bridge Park — but the only one to gain the support of the wealthy in Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO, who won’t have to pay anything to maintain the park.
In 2009, Squadron proposed siphoning off some taxes from nearby landowners to pay for the controversial park project’s upkeep. But that went nowhere.
A year later, a committee designated to find alternatives to housing inside the park suggested creating a “park improvement district” that would charge nearby property owners an annual fee. But that went nowhere.
Again, wealthy Brooklyn Heights objected to having to pay.
“Maybe this is all just kind of scheme so Brooklyn’s wealthiest residents somehow don’t have to pay higher property taxes,” said Roy Sloane, president of the Cobble Hill Association and longtime opponent of housing in the park. “Why shouldn’t the immediate adjacent property owners pay more for the park?”
That’s a question that has come up in various forms ever since the the 2002 agreement requiring that the $350-million park raise its own maintenance budget so it wouldn’t become a drain on city and state coffers.
City and state officials decided that luxury housing — in the form of high-rises at John Street in DUMBO, Pier 1 and Pier 6 — was the easiest way to generate revenues for the park. But that scheme has long been under fire from Heights residents — and, indeed, helped propel Squadron into office.
Opponents of housing inside the park joined the anti-tax crowd and hailed Squadron’s call to capture tax revenue from the Watchtower properties as the way to stop future luxury condos within the park.
But former Squadron allies like Sloane say that the deal is fishy and that the senator sold out the park.
“This whole thing feels artificial to me and like it’s all driven by real estate,” Sloane said. “The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been the immense beneficiaries.”