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Watchtower Tunnels: Mysterious, lingering remnants of a ministerial Heights presence

Pedestrian tunnels beneath Brooklyn Heights streets connect this and other Watchtower buildings.

Eye On Real Estate: Pricey Shingles on Willow Street; Also, What Next for Unique 76 Montague

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The Watchtower tunnels are for real – and the city collects thousands of dollars each year for their use, Department of Finance records reveal.

The underground pedestrian passageways connecting the Brooklyn Heights headquarters buildings of the Jehovah's Witnesses are a long-standing subject of speculation among neighborhood residents who aren't members of the religious organization.

The tunnels enhance the campus-like atmosphere of the complex, whose inhabitants are “unsalaried ordained ministers of religion who have taken a vow of poverty,” according to a 2005 document signed by Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York president M.H. Larson.

Ten-year agreements between the Watchtower and the city Department of Transportation (DOT) and Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT) grant the Witnesses access to four tunnels under Orange Street, Columbia Heights and Willow Street. Each is used as “a passageway” between properties; some are also for steam, electrical and telephone services or for conveying supplies and fuel oil, the documents indicate.

So what will become of the tunnels when the Witnesses sell their spectacularly situated buildings at 97, 107, 119 and 124 Columbia Heights and 21 Clark St. and move to upstate Warwick, where they are constructing a new headquarters?    

They will be probably be shut down, one real estate source thinks.

Buyers will find the buildings too pricey to turn into student housing – for which tunnels would be useful – and most likely will convert them to condos. The last thing residents of a pricey condo building want is to provide other people underground access to their property.

“There would be the issue of security,” the source said.

The Watchtower doesn't own the tunnels and can't transfer its right to use them without the city agencies' written consent.   

“I think the DOT would not transfer the rights to the tunnels,” the source said.

Even if they could get the city's okay, it wouldn't make financial sense for developers to turn the tunnels into fancy amenities like wine cellars. One agreement expires in 2016, the others in 2019, and there would be uncertainty about whether extensions could be negotiated.

Fees for the use of the tunnels, which increase each year, are not considered a tax, the agreements note. As a religious organization, the Watchtower does not pay property taxes.

The Witnesses' fee to use the 10-foot-wide, 9-feet-deep tunnel under Orange Street, which connects 97 and 107 Columbia Heights, is $8,158 this year.

With all four pedestrian tunnels, if the consent agreements are terminated, the Witnesses must cover the cost of having the tunnels “removed, or deactivated” and doing street repairs.

And a 1988 restrictive covenant stipulates that if the Witnesses sell 97 and 107 Columbia Heights, they must pay to reconstruct a sewer line under Orange Street that was removed when the 37-foot-long tunnel was built.

This year the Witnesses' fee for the 10-foot, 8-inch-wide, 8-feet, 4-inch-deep tunnel connecting 107 and 124 Columbia Heights is $10,439. A tunnel of similar width and depth between 119 and 124 Columbia Heights cost the Witnesses a $28,222 fee.

The Watchtower paid $7,665 to use the 11-foot-wide, 9-feet, 4-inch-deep tunnel under Willow Street that connects 119 Columbia Heights and former hotel building 21 Clark St.

IT SURE TOOK LONG ENOUGH

Preservationists' prayers have been heard. At last.

Fugly roofing shingles that covered a historic Brooklyn Heights rowhouse for at least a half-century are being removed as part of a big renovation.

We recently watched workmen rip ghost-gray “composition” asphalt and man-made fiber shingles off the side of 113 Willow St.

Beneath them, the house is covered with sturdy wood planks 11 or 12 feet long that are in fine shape. Renovation contractor Chaka Singh thinks the planks are the original timber used to build the house in 1829, cut from trees in virgin forests that were old when America was a new nation.

“The tar paper acted like insulation,” he explained. “There's been no water on them for half-a-century.”

The project's architect and city Landmarks Preservation Commission staffers are figuring out the original color of the house so paint can be picked out. The wood will be washed with soap and water and sanded before the new hue is applied.

The approval process for exterior work could take time, so the shingles on the front of the house will be left in place until spring. (The side of the house is inches away from the apartment building next door and is more sheltered from the elements.)

The window frames on the four-floor house have hinges for shutters.

“It would be nice to have shutters on the house again,” Singh said.     

The property is on a land-marked Heights block and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It changed hands for $2.9 million on Christmas Eve 2012, city records indicate.

Over the summer, a “stop work order” from the city Buildings Department halted the new owners' interior restoration, as Eye on Real Estate has reported. The order was lifted – and contractor crews are inside fixing up the floors and doing framing and electrical work.

There have been composition shingles on the house at least since 1960 – when historian Clay Lancaster noted them in his survey of neighborhood homes that was published as “Old Brooklyn Heights: New York's First Suburb.”

The exterior work at 113 Willow will brighten the view from the front windows of 104 Willow St., which is for sale. The asking price for the impeccably renovated townhouse is a cool $12 million – nearly matching Brooklyn's record $12.5 million paid for 70 Willow St., the house where Truman Capote wrote “Breakfast at Tiffany's.”


HASTA LA VISTA, BABY?

A heads-up from headquarters would have been nice.

Design Within Reach employees in Brooklyn Heights found out the shop's 76 Montague St. location is on the market when “For Rent” signs were hung on the scaffolding last Thursday.

The upscale furniture store's lease terminates on Jan. 31. “On Feb. 1, Design Within Reach will be leaving the building,” CBRE broker Ben Daniels told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Are there lease-extension negotiations that would allow the store to stay?  “At this point, I expect them to vacate the building,” said Daniels – whose dad, Jim Daniels, co-owns the 6,000-square-foot commercial property with Cobble Hill Cinemas owner Harvey Elgart.

Since the “For Rent” signs went up, CBRE has been flooded with calls from prospects including restaurant operators and home furnishings tenants, the younger Daniels said – and “both would be good uses,” the building owners feel. The space can be rented by a single tenant or split up, with one tenant on the ground floor plus lower level and another on the second floor. The rent's negotiable.

Asking rents on land-marked Montague Street are $100 per square foot for mid-block storefronts with entrances at sidewalk level (which this building has).     

This is the only Brooklyn location for Design Within Reach, a furniture seller that specializes in haute and historic design, from $2,900 Le Corbusier chaise longues to $5,500 Arne Jacobsen “Egg” chairs.

An executive at DWR's Stamford, Conn., headquarters promised to provide comment but did not do so by deadline.


BETTE DAVIS SAID IT BEST

What a dump.

Is the abandoned apartment house at 506 Warren St. finally going to get fixed up?

Neighbors of the red-brick Carroll Gardens property say until recently it was used by squatters as a shooting gallery and hookers who turned tricks on mattresses in the back lot. Rats and racoons are all over the place.

“We hate this building,” said Warren Street resident Moira Potter.

Buildings Department records note complaints dating back to 1995 – and damage from a two-alarm January 2002 fire.

There's no deed indicating a change in ownership of the four-story, six-unit apartment building on the corner of Nevins Street – but new names surfaced in Buildings Department records last month on a filing for a permit to do interior renovations.

The applicants are Abe and Ryan Garbo of Nevins Plaza LLC, a business entity formed in August. Their address and phone number are those of Bedford-Stuyvesant residential brokerage Apple G Real Estate. A man there said the two “don't want to give any information now” about their renovation plan.

The most recent contact info available for building owners Gregorio and Maria Nunez of Warren Street Realty Corp. is a phone number that rings at attorney Manuel Fabian's office. He said they were his clients several years ago and he wouldn't be able to reach them.

The neighbors of the nasty building have seen some promising signs. Recently installed entrance grates prevent people from sneaking inside, an opening in the back-lot fence was closed up and trash is being cleaned off the sidewalk.

“We're hoping for something cleaner, and renovated, with families moving in and a store that serves the block,” said a resident who didn't want to give his name. He said a man showed up last week and said he was a contractor who would be starting work soon.

The property is a blight on a block where handsomely restored brick row houses dominate. New York City Housing Authority projects stand like bookends – Wyckoff Gardens just across Nevins Street and the Gowanus Houses across Bond Street.

In the wintertime, it's the landlord of 506 Warren whom everyone complains about: “The sidewalks are an icy catastrophe” in front of the building, while NYCHA keeps Wyckoff Gardens sidewalks clean, Potter said.

The opposite side of Warren Street from the vile house is within the borders of Boerum Hill, which means the building isn't just Carroll Gardens' problem.

“We would hope new building operators would create rental apartments, hopefully at a reasonable price, and remove a long-standing eyesore from the neighborhood,” Boerum Hill Association president Howard Kolins said.  

Eagle reader Cranberry Beret commented: "I don't think your characterization of the Watchtower tunnels is completely accurate. They own the tunnels; the fee to the city is not for their use but for the city's consent to having them sit on/in public land."

Editor's note: The Watchtower's 2006 and 2009 agreements with city DOT and DOITT state: "No rights conveyed. The Grantee [i.e., the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc.] acquires no right, title or interest in the space permitted to be occupied herein and it is expressly understood that said occupancy is considered temporary." That doesn't sound like ownership to us.

October 16, 2013 - 1:30pm
Latest Revision Time: 
October 17, 2013 - 2:00pm


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