City Planning OKs Watchtower towers

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In a blow to Borough President Marty Markowitz’s recommendation that the Watchtower Bible and Tract society reduce its plans to build a multi-building residential complex at 85 Jay St. by 60 percent, the City Planning Commission voted on Monday to approve the religious organization’s application for zoning changes.

With nine votes in favor of the slightly modified plans, and only two in opposition — from Brooklyn Commissioner Dolly Williams, a Markowitz appointee, and the Public Advocate’s appointee, Karen Phillips — the commission only rejected an exemption of overall floor space to allow for a 77,000-square-foot private parking garage. That means the Watchtower Society must shave off 10 percent of the project’s total bulk to accommodate the garage.

“The applicant reduced the scale on Bridge Street as it abuts the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, and made efforts to improve activity on all sides of the project,” said the commission’s chairwoman, City Planning Director Amanda Burden. “As a result, I feel the project fits much better into the character of the neighborho­od.”

Markowitz, who disapproved of the project on grounds that for its size, it didn’t provide any benefit to the neighborhood, was not happy.

“I am disappointed by the City Planning Commission’s decision to approve the proposal for the Watchtower project,” he said. “To better serve the needs of the area, the applicants should reduce the entire project and add a retail component.”

But unlike the residents of Vinegar Hill and DUMBO who balked at the commission’s decision, and decided at a community meeting Monday night to unwaveringly support Markowitz’s recommendations, City Council members Letitia James and David Yassky were hesitant to criticize the modified plan this week.

James said she was still hopeful that negotiations with the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society — the corporate face of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious order — could result in compromise, and the reallocated square footage could result in capping the buildings heights.

“My understanding is that it’s going to result in one tower being lowered by four or five stories,” said James, who, despite her staunch opposition to the project just weeks ago said this week she wasn’t ready to rally the City Council zoning committee to disapprove of the modified plan.

“Councilman Yassky and I are trying to get some further reductions and some additional concessions for the community. We’re still in negotiatio­ns,” she said.

Evan Thies, a spokesman for Yassky, said that as presented, the plans didn’t earn his approval, but the changes were “a step in the right direction.”

Richard Devine, a spokesman for the Watchtower Society, whose world headquarters are at York and Adams streets in DUMBO, couldn’t say for sure where the additional square footage would come from.

“We really don’t want to change the parking area,” he told The Brooklyn Papers.

“It is likely we will cut down on the residential space and probably the height of the buildings, too. We’ll just have to see what will be the most likely scenario.”

The most recent changes in the Watchtower’s project involved shaving down a14-story residential building at the corner of Front and Bridge streets in Vinegar Hill to 12 stories.

The tallest tower, at 20 stories, on York Street at Jay Street, is still set at 222 feet, adjacent to an 18-story tower and a 2,500-seat assembly hall. Another one, at 16 stories, would still tower over the lower-rise 12-story warehouse district at Jay and Front streets.

In the appeal to City Planning, the Watchtower Society also modified courtyard regulations to “permit courts with a width of less than 40 feet,” but “no less than 20 feet wide.”

The small green spaces have thus far been the only public access offered in the plan, and are entranceways to the building complex. The Watchtower Society has promised they would be open during daytime hours.

According to the community members who showed up for an informational session held by members of the DUMBO and Vinegar Hill neighborhood associations on Monday night, a courtyard wasn’t going to cut it.

Nancy Webster, president of the DUMBO Neighborhood Association, told the 20 or so residents who turned out that the next step was to appeal to the council members and the zoning subcommittee.

“The way you deal with the zoning subcommittee is you have David [Yassky] and Tish [James] on your side,” she said. Councilman Tony Avella, the council’s zoning chairman, was very receptive during their recent efforts to block plans for a tower at 38 Water St., said Webster, and she hoped he would be similarly responsive on this case.

Webster added that although she thought retail and community access were important to emphasize, it was critical to stand behind Markowitz’s recommendations to halve the 1,100-space parking lot, which would only be accessible to Watchtower residents and visitors, and limit buildings throughout the project to 70 feet, except those along Jay Street, which would be capped at 120 feet under the borough president’s recommendation.

Webster said she feared that if they pushed for unrealistic public amenities, the Watchtower Society might pull the project altogether.

Based on rumors she said were circulating, the alternative to the towers threatened by the society was a six- or eight-story parking garage so the Jehovah’s Witnesses could move their cars quickly from their lot at Pier 5, which is slated for use in the Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Nicholas Evans-Cato, president of the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association, said he wasn’t worried.

“My personal position would be that it’s a bluff,” he said.

A Watchtower spokesman could not be reached by press time to comment on the alleged threat.

A resident on Front Street, whose condominium apartment would face the complex, said she was worried just as much about what was underground.

“With that many people in this space how much pressure or strain will it create on existing conduits that are there?” asked Violet Matovich, speaking of road congestion and underground water and sewage systems. “And who pays for all the infrastructure work?”

Nobody had an answer for her.

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Reasonable discourse

Jason from Cleveland says:
How wonderful that it is going ahead. What a benefit to that community.
June 4, 2008, 12:29 pm

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