Real-estate machers praying for Jehovah’s properties

Selloff! But Witnesses say they will remain kings of Kings
The Brooklyn Paper / Gregory P. Mango

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ planned pullout from Brooklyn is huge news for the faithful, but it’s even bigger news for the real-estate market.

The Witnesses — known officially as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society — announced last week that the group will move forward with an $11.5-million residential and administrative headquarters in upstate Warwick, after more than 101 years in the Heights.

Richard Devine, property manager for the organization, said he doesn’t know what will happen to more than 30 first-class properties that the Witnesses own in Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO. Some properties have been on and off the market for years, but now that the sect has officially announced its eventual pull-out, real-estate brokers are chomping at the bit.

“If these properties go on the market — which will take a long time, I imagine — they’ll bring in a lot more residents who will spend in arguably some of the strongest markets in the borough,” said Chris Havens, CEO of Creative Real Estate in the Heights. “The Watchtower is liberally aloof from ordinary spending and interactions in Brooklyn — they don’t spend much money outside the organization.”

But Havens added that the Witnesses won’t start the sell-off right away because the market is bad.

“They have [a vacant lot zoned] for 1,000 units of housing right off the bridge in DUMBO, which is a big deal,” Havens said. “They’ll probably sell it at some point, but they’re smart. They’ve been watching the market literally for decades and we probably won’t see much on the market until the economy is better.”

The new center upstate, which is currently going through the land-use process, would be the culmination of a multi-year retrenchment from Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO. The first step came in 2004, when the Witnesses moved their massive printing plant upstate.

And last year, the Watchtower Society bought a 248-acre site in Ramapo that will be used for offices and some administration, Devine said.

Now, the Witnesses are planning a complex called the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses that will be constructed on the 253-acre Warwick site. More than half of the 1,500-person staff is expected to move the new complex, and will live and work under the same roof.

… and the Hotel Bossert on Montague Street would be sold by the Jehovah's Witnesses after the group moves upstate.
Watchtower Bible and Tract Society

The upstate exodus for the Witnesses — known for their Bible publishing, their door-to-door conversions and their excellent real-estate savvy — is no big surprise given the group’s explosion of property sales since 2004, including:

• 360 Furman St. — a 14-story building which sold in 2004 for $205 million and was redeveloped as the all-luxury, waterfront One Brooklyn Bridge Park.

• 67 Livingston St. — a 26-story tower which went for $18.6 million in 2006.

• 89 Hicks St. — which was sold to the Brooklyn Law School in 2006 for $14 million.

• 169 Columbia Heights — also known as the Standish Arms, this swanky 12-story building was sold for $50 million in late 2007.

• the Bossert Hotel — the crown jewel of the Witnesses’ real-estate holdings, this Montague Street tower remains on the block after a reported buyer backed away from the deal in 2008.

In addition, three properties on Columbia Heights, one on Willow Street and one on Orange Street have been on and off the market over the years, driven by the fluctuation of the housing market. Devine said that the group still plans to sell those, but doesn’t know yet what would be done with the current headquarters and nearby administrative building (both also on Columbia Heights) once the move is complete.

The new complex’s construction is still in the distant future, but one thing’s for sure — the organization is all about moving forward rather than looking back.

“As an organization, we don’t put any special importance [on our Brooklyn Heights history],” Devine said. “Sure, some feel some sentimental value, and I’ve been here for 30 years. But we’re committed to moving all our operations to one central location.”

Other properties, like the Standish Arms on Columbia Heights, have already been sold off.
The Brooklyn Paper / Gregory P. Mango