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Watchtower tower gains momentum

A portion of an artist’s rendering of residential towers proposed by the Watchtower Society for 85 Jay St., on the edge of DUMBO.

Residents who moved into a newly converted, six-story condominium at Bridge
and Front streets less than two years ago, say they had no idea what was
in store for a massive, three-acre site across the street.

But after purchasing their apartments the residents soon found out the
Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the corporate entity of the Jehovah’s
Witnesses religious order, had plans to build four soaring residential
towers for 1,800 of their members on the lot, which sits at the border
of DUMBO and Vinegar Hill.

Those same Bridge Street residents came out in force this week, asking
Community Board 2 to disapprove the religious organization’s application
to rezone the site to allow the high-rise construction. The public hearing
Wednesday night was held by the board’s land use committee at Congregation
Mt. Sinai, in Brooklyn Heights as the first step in the city’s public
review of the proposal.

“This will dwarf the surrounding areas,” said Bridge Street
resident Christy Nyberg at the hearing. She presented a petition against
the project with 400 signatures.

But what those Bridge Street neighbors didn’t expect was that an
ally in opposing the plan, the DUMBO Neighborhood Association (DNA), would
change its position on the Watchtower project.

“It’s not a reversal — it’s refinement,” said
DNA President Nancy Webster on Thursday.

“We’ve never been opposed to a residential use at 85 Jay St.,
we’ve simply commented on what they’re proposing to build,”
Webster added.

But at the DNA’s annual meeting in November, Webster slammed the
plan decrying the towers as “too high” and out of scale with
the rest of the neighborhood. She also criticized the plan for not including
retail space.

“Because there is no street-level retail, there is no facility for
public interaction on the main pedestrian corridor coming out of DUMBO’s
only subway station,” Webster said, referring to the York Street
stop on the F line.

And in a letter to City Planning Director Amanda Burden, Webster wrote
of the Watchtower plan, “Towers of such height will serve to wall
off and divide our two waterfront neighborhoods rather than providing
a complementary step down from one to the other.”

In a deal brokered with the aid of Councilman David Yassky, DNA has agreed
to throw its support behind the project, or at least not protest it, providing
the religious organization agrees to renovate the York Street subway station,
restore Belgian-block cobblestones along several local streets, install
historic street lamps throughout DUMBO and renovate the tiny park at Jay
Street under the Manhattan Bridge.

DNA is also calling on the Witnesses to scale the buildings down to 12,
10, 8 and 6 stories.

“We’re hoping that the Witnesses will make significant infrastructure
improvements to the neighborhood,” Webster said this week.

“We are disappointed they decided to immediately plunge into bargaining
when it should have been a last-ditch effort,” said Evelyn Carr,
president of the 79 Bridge St. condo board.

Shari Hyman, a member of the DNA steering committee, countered, “As
a religious organization, the Witnesses do not pay property taxes, and
as such do not contribute to our roads, schools, parks, etc. This is their
opportunity to do just that.”

After the hearing, the CB2 committee voted 11-3 in favor of the Watchtower
proposal. The full board will vote at a special meeting on July 14.

The remaining opponents maintain the buildings, as planned, are too tall,
out of context with the neighborhood, will cast shadows and clog the streets
with traffic.

“It’s going to look like the Taj Mahal in height,” complained
Al Santagata, who testified Wednesday and described himself as a Vinegar
Hill real estate developer.

Sharr White, who lives at 79 Bridge St., said the development would “stifle
the organic growth of the neighborhood.”

White is also worried about the added traffic, trucks and trash associated
with a project that large.

The new development — on an immense, vacant plot of land bounded
by Jay, Front, York and Bridge streets — would include 1,000 one-bedroom
apartments divided between four towers reaching 20, 18, 16 and 14 stories.
The tallest of the planned towers would be 220 feet. Four courtyards within
the complex would be gated, but remain open during the day.

The plans include a three-story assembly hall with a seating capacity
of 2,500, a 1,600-person dining facility and an 1,100-space underground
parking garage.

In addition to the residents, approximately 60,000 to 70,000 people would
be visiting the center each year.

If approved, the Watchtower Society expects to complete the project in
2006.

The group originally planned a printing facility on the site, which is
zoned for manufacturing, and even began demolition that has left the plot
vacant for the past 12 years.

But the organization this year shifted its printing facilities 90 miles
outside the city to upstate Wallkill, N.Y., and decided to use the site
for apartments instead.

It is currently being used by the Watchtower Society as a parking lot.

Last month, the Watchtower Society certified plans with City Planning,
starting the clock on the seven-month city land use review process.

Richard Devine, a spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, said if
approved the project could lead to a surplus of Watchtower property that
the religious order might want to sell off.

The Watchtower Society owns 33 properties in the Brooklyn Heights and
DUMBO area including 20 residential buildings ranging from brownstones
to apartment buildings.

Devine declined to comment on which buildings would be sold off.

But he said the overall development would “bring significant benefits
to the community at large.”

The application also includes a request to rezone the nearly 100-year-old
Thompson Meter Building, later home to an Eskimo Pie ice cream factory,
for residential use.

The 64,000-square-foot building at 110 Bridge St. was declared a city
landmark in February.

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