Selloff! But Witnesses say they will remain kings of Kings

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

The Jehovah’s Witnesses may be selling a third of their Brooklyn Heights holdings, but the religious sect, a neighborhood fixture for almost a century, says it’s not going anywhere.

Talk of an exodus was sparked this week when the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society — the Witnesses’ publishing arm — announced it was selling six of its 18 Brooklyn Heights properties, including the 128-unit Standish Arms Hotel on Columbia Heights. The organization owns another 12 buildings in nearby DUMBO.

“We are selling these buildings because we’ve moved most of our printing and shipping to Wallkill in upstate New York,” said Watchtower spokesman Richard Devine. “But we are keeping a dozen other buildings that we own in Brooklyn Heights. Our worldwide headquarters is still here.”

The Watchtower society, which is headquartered at 25 Columbia Heights, began buying up real estate in Brooklyn Heights in the 1980s. They also own properties in DUMBO, principally on Front Street, Jay Street and Adams Street. The Witnesses also own two large parking lots in the neighborhood.

The Brooklyn Heights buildings are scattered throughout Columbia Heights, Clark Street, Willow Street and Remsen Street, and are all residential, mostly housing Witnesses who work in the society’s massive printing facilities.

“When we had our entire operation down here, we needed housing for all our workers,” said Devine.

The Witnesses have been a fixture in Brooklyn Heights since 1909, when their governing body of elders — the sect’s highest authority — set up facilities for the printing and distribution of their own translation of the Bible, plus the ubiquitous religious magazines, “Watchtower” and “Awake!”

As printing operations expanded, the Society kept buying real estate, in Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO, to house thousands of volunteers and missionaries.

The Witnesses started the slow move north in 2004, and have been selling off their marquis properties, including 360 Furman St., a former Bible shipping facility that was sold for $205 million and is now being developed into luxury condos, promoted as One Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Last year, the sect sold 67 Livingston St., a 76-unit tower known in the neighborhood as the Sliver Building for the way its thin 26 stories are wedged in between the wider buildings on the street. A private investor bought the building for $18.6 million.

A building at 89 Hicks St. was sold to Brooklyn Law School last year for $14 million, according to city records. The 42-unit building is a mix of studios and one-bedroom apartments.

Now comes the latest trophy properties to go on the block.

The Standish Arms — a 12-story building at 169 Columbia Heights — is being sold in a portfolio that includes a seven-story, 13-apartment building at 183 Columbia Heights and a four-story, 10-apartment building at 161 Columbia Heights.

Three other buildings — a two-story carriage house at 165 Columbia Heights, a four-story brownstone at 105 Willow St., and a four-story house at 34 Orange St. — are being sold separately, said Devine.

As with other property they have sold, the Watching is handling the sale internally, and will not set an asking price.

The inclusion of the Standish Arms on the list of properties up for grabs has prompted speculation from some, and sighs of longing from others, about the possible sale of the former Bossert Hotel on Montague Street, which the Watchtower society also owns.

But Devine says that after these six buildings are sold, there are no plans to sell any more properties.

Real-estate experts said the Witnesses were poised to make a lot of filthy lucre. The group paid just $830,000 for 105 Willow St. in 1988, city records show. But it will sell for at least six times that amount according to broker Jean Austin of Brooklyn Bridge Realty.

“The building could sell for $6 million — give or take,” said Austin.

The Standish Arms is the big-ticket item, added Brooklyn Bridge Realty owner Ellen Gottlieb. A developer could offer anywhere from $25–$35 million, she added.

All told, Austin and Gottlieb estimated, if the buildings are sold at their highest possible prices, the six could sell for $44–$62 million.

Neighborhood residents say the Witnesses have been good neighbors, though they’ve kept themselves apart from the community.

“If families start moving in, it’ll probably get a bit livelier around here,” said one man. “They didn’t really interact with everyone around them.”

The Standish Arms on Columbia Heights is about to be sold by the Jehovah's Witnesses. It could go for $6 million, an expert said.
The Brooklyn Paper / Gregory P. Mango