Watchtower’s tower OKd by City Council

The City Council’s vote this week to approve zoning changes that
will allow the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society to build a campus of
four high-rise buildings at 85 Jay St. was a foregone conclusion to DUMBO
and Vinegar Hill residents who for the past year have fought the plan.

The council’s land use committee had voted two weeks ago to approve
the project, put forth by the corporate arm of the Jehovah’s Witnesses
religious order, and that committee’s recommendation generally carries
in the full council.

But what lingered for many residents after Wednesday’s vote to approve
the plan — only three council members voted against it — was
resentment toward the area’s two council representatives.

Council members David Yassky and Letitia James, across whose districts
the project overlaps, boisterously protested earlier versions of the plan,
and had been vocal opponents as recently as October. They both voted against
the 85 Jay St. plan on Wednesday, along with East New York Councilman
Charles Barron, but had recently softened their public stance on the project,
hinting that further modifications were in the works.

Their votes against the plan this week left locals wondering if they were
voting their consciences or playing at politics.

“There have been an avalanche of e-mails to Yassky, [Council Speaker
Gifford] Miller, James and each council member telling them that nobody
has given up and they feel they’ve been betrayed!” said A.L.
Santagata, a real estate appraiser and sales agent who works in the two
neighborhoods and lives in Brooklyn Heights.

“This thing is completely out of whack,” he said. “Building
a 20-story building here in this area is like building the Pyramids in
Park Slope.”

After the vote Wednesday, James said she had essentially agreed with the
opposition but that members of the zoning and land use committees had
been “unsympathetic” to the cause.

“I had indicated to [the DUMBO and Vinegar Hill opponents of the
plan] earlier that we needed a compromise position, and it’s unfortunate
that none came forward,” said James. “That’s why we were
unable to get the desired results, but that’s also why we voted against

She added that both she and Yassky “did the best we possibly could.”

Yassky did not return calls seeking comment.

The plan, which was trimmed down somewhat to gain approval, calls for
the construction of a closed compound consisting of two nine-story towers,
as well as one 18-story and one 20-story tower along with an 1,100-space
parking garage for the exclusive use of Jehovah’s Witnesses members
on a tract of land currently being used as a parking garage and bounded
by Jay, Front, York and Bridge streets.

Santagata pointed out that at earlier hearings before the City Planning
Commission and City Council, “99 percent of the people [there] spoke
against the change,” and lambasted the council’s zoning subcommittee
for voting in favor of it anyway.

“Should a few persons decide for the majority?” he wrote.

Amanda Barrow, who lives at 79 Bridge St., a condominium apartment building
that was one of the first new structures to rise in Vinegar Hill offering
luxury housing, agreed that Santagata’s displeasure was echoed over
and over in the community. Barrow noted in an e-mail sent to each of the
51 council members citywide her concerns that approval of the Watchtower
Society plan negates the efforts of DUMBO and Vinegar Hill residents to
legislate comprehensive rezoning of the area for buildings comparable
to what the warehouse district already has — largely 10-story current
and former manufacturing buildings.

“We see the passage of the excesses of this project as creating an
obstacle to our larger effort of preserving the character of the neighborhood,”
Barrow wrote in the e-mail.

“You should be voting as a representative of the public body, listening
to the views of the affected community. This community is overwhelmingly
against the project,” she wrote, and reminded the legislators of
the 1,500 signed postcards and 400 signed petitions they submitted urging

The DUMBO Neighborhood Association (DNA), which has been a vocal opponent
of the plans and helped to rally the support of Borough President Marty
Markowitz in calling for the buildings to be scaled down in context with
the surrounding structures, headlined their December newsletter with the
resigned statement, “We Did Not Prevail.”

According to James, her colleagues on the land use committee didn’t
think the project was “that massive” and even zoning subcommittee
chairman Tony Avella, she said, “thought the borough president’s
requests were off the mark.”

Markowitz had requested that Watchtower downsize the buildings by 60 percent
and cut their parking lot in half. He stood by his recommendation after
the vote Wednesday saying, “I disagree with the City Council vote,”
and noting that he “fought hard to make changes to the proposal.”

Christy Nyberg, a DNA member who largely spearheaded the neighborhood
push for a scaled-down version of the 85 Jay St. plans, called the defeat
“disappointing” and said that James and Yassky, neither of whom
she had spoken to since the land use committee’s Dec. 2 vote, “probably
had thrown up their hands a little too soon.”

“Letitia [James] said she’d received at one point over 2,000
e-mails,” said Nyberg, who felt that the small, connected neighborhoods
underneath and between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges weren’t
seen as a strong political bloc. She added that James, who debated on
a WNYC radio show with a representative for the Watchtower Society just
weeks ago, seemed like she would have come through for the neighborhood
opponents of the plan, Nyberg said.

“I would hope that she as a strong leader would’ve taken the
reins a little more and guided [Yassky] in that direction instead of collaborating
with him and letting him lead,” Nyberg said. “I know she has
the ability to do that, and I hope down the line she will come to view
us as her district more.”