No longer ‘Vatican City’ for Watchtower, Brooklyn watches Jehovahs retreat

Eye On Real Estate: Slope Backyard Wars Fought Over Precious Light and Air

October 9, 2013 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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All along the Watchtower…real estate investors are keeping their eyes peeled.

Office and residential developers are waiting to see when the Jehovahs Witnesses will bring their next Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO properties to market now that they’ve finalized the sale of five DUMBO industrial buildings to the Kushner Cos. and RFR.

They have 16 unsold properties – but the clock is ticking. In 2017, they expect to finish building their new headquarters in upstate Warwick, where they are relocating, executives said last week.

The Brooklyn market is “super-hot” and “competition would be huge” for the remaining Watchtower properties, real estate executives told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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Richard Devine, chairman of the Witnesses’ construction project committee, gave no hints about the religious organization’s timetable for selling the Brooklyn holdings but did provide addresses.

Down on the waterfront, there’s a five-building office complex – 25, 30, 50 and 58 Columbia Heights and 55 Furman St – and a small vacant lot at 67 Furman St.

Up the hill in Brooklyn Heights, massive Witnesses’ properties are clustered at 97, 107, 119 and 124 Columbia Heights. A former hotel with turrets on top is at 21 Clark St.; two smaller buildings are nearby at 80 and 86 Willow St. And there are two vacant lots in DUMBO at 1 York St. and 85 Jay St.

Also, a hotel at 90 Sands St. will remain occupied by the Witnesses until 2017 but will not be available for sale – Kushner and RFR have agreed to buy it.  

The Witnesses completed the sale of 17 Heights and DUMBO properties in the past two years, Devine said – including Montague Street’s Bossert Hotel, once called the “Waldorf-Astoria of Brooklyn.”

Sources with long memories recall the Witnesses’ unofficial reason for choosing Brooklyn Heights to build their world headquarters: so their impressive visitors’ lobby could look down on Wall Street across the East River. Block-long 124 Columbia Heights filled several brownstone lots. At one now-gone house, 110 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn Bridge engineer John Roebling, crippled by the bends, had supervised the final stages of the mighty span’s construction from a seat by his window via telescope and messenger. The poet Hart Crane, drawn by the Roebling legend, moved to the brownstone several decades later.

Starting in the 1980s, rapidly rising Heights real estate prices – and the high legal costs of taking properties off city tax rolls – gave pause to Watchtower elders, especially those living outside New York. But those objections were invariably over-ruled, a Watchtower honcho of that era told the Brooklyn Height Press – because whether it was a house or a hotel, whenever the group bought a property, the value was higher the very next day.

At times the Witnesses took pains to keep their expansion on the QT. After the Hotel Margaret, which Bruce Eichner was converting to condos, burned in a spectacular 1980 fire, the developer started construction on that site at the corner of Columbia Heights and Orange Street which was understood to be for co-ops or condos. A neighborhood architect alerted the Height Press that a foundation was being dug for a tunnel to connect the new building to the Witnesses’ 107 Columbia Heights on the other side of Orange Street – a signal that the Watchtower was the intended tenant and eventual owner.

Church officials denied the story – but eventually did take control of the building, which is 97 Columbia Heights. And to this day, Watchtower watchers blog about the tunnel connecting the buildings up on the Heights.


The Brooklyn Municipal Building gets better-looking all the time.

First the scaffolding came off the Joralemon and Court Street corner of the 1924-vintage landmark where Albert Laboz’s United American Land is building space for stores. Next the installation of shelves and fixtures started in the spot that will house beauty emporium Sephora, which stocks what seems like a million kinds of mascara, Prada perfume, a lifetime supply of lipglosses.

A door was open the other day, which felt like an invitation for a fast photo shoot. A worker said it will take another month to finish the job, which makes sense since a sign painted on a window promises a November opening. Construction in other parts of the retail space isn’t as far along, but it was interesting to look at, too.   


Our sources are smart.

As we reported a few weeks ago, one of them said Jonathan Rose Cos. was on a short list of developers vying for a city-owned site on Lafayette Avenue between Ashand Place and Rockwell Place in the BAM Cultural District, which city officials refer to these days as the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District.

The developer was chosen this week to build 42 affordable apartments at the site, plus space for a restaurant and a 27,000-square-foot cultural space that will be designed by Eyebeam Art + Technology Center and Science Gallery International.

Other members of Rose’s winning bid team are Dattner Architects, Bernheimer Architecture and SCAPE Landscape Architects.


Not In My Back Yard – or rather, Our Back Yard.

Riled-up residents of a historic Park Slope block say the green space behind their homes that provides precious light and air and cherished views is threatened by new neighbors’ plans to build an addition to their brownstone that will be big enough to house a private gym.

The new neighbors with the construction plans are Michael and Sarah London, residents of a Brooklyn Heights high-rise who bought 115 Lincoln Place for $2 million last May, city records indicate.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle spoke briefly to Sarah, who said she wasn’t sure if the couple wants to comment about their construction plans. Her husband didn’t respond to emailed questions by deadline.

The block, bounded by Lincoln Place, Sixth Avenue, St. John’s Place and Seventh Avenue, is situated in a land-marked section of the Slope. Its “garden core,” essentially intact since homes were built in the 1870s and 1880s, should be protected,  the protesters believe.

Why is a historic garden core worth preserving? we asked Eliza Pepper, who lives next door at 117 Lincoln Place.

“There are a million reasons why, and only one reason why not – the ambition of people to have more than everybody else,” said Pepper, who is leading the campaign against the planned construction with the neighbor on the other side of the Londons’ house, Bernie Galiley.

“If you want a bigger house, just buy one,” Pepper said. “Why do you have to destroy history?”

Untrammeled access to light and air has a dollar value, she argued.

“Our houses will be worth less,” she said. The planned addition would block the morning sun from Galiley’s back windows at 113 Lincoln Place for most of the year, they think.

The proposed rear yard addition at 115 Lincoln Place is two stories tall, topped by a deck with a privacy wall and with an extended basement, opponents discovered when they saw the plans at Community Board 6 hearings. It extends 15 feet into the garden, plus there’s a five-foot “landing pad” for stairs at the top of the first floor.

The protesters said they would accept a one-story addition extending 12 feet into the yard.

Pepper and Galiley created a block association to fight the Londons’ plans and got 40 residents of the block to sign a petition. They and other residents testified at Community Board 6 landmarks/land use committee hearings.

They also object to the proposed addition’s glass panel and metal facade. Unless the Londons use serious blackout shades, there will be “light pollution” at night, Pepper said.

After an initial CB 6 hearing, the Londons eliminated a fifth-floor rooftop addition from their expansion plans for the four-story Italianate townhouse, which was built in 1874-75. At a second hearing, the committee okayed the couple’s revised plans with minor modifications.

The city Landmarks Preservation Commission has the Londons’ home-expansion plans on its Oct. 22 hearings calendar.

Worry about what happens next has cast a pall over Pepper’s enjoyment of her home, which she bought in 2012 and moved into in February after a year of interior renovation.   

“It’s a nightmare,” said Pepper – whose architect warned her that if the Londons excavate their basement, the foundations of her house could be damaged.

For the longest time, Pepper’s dream was to own a historic brownstone. The investment manager, who had lived since 1991 in a Brooklyn Heights apartment building, spent three years house-hunting. She looked at more than 100 brownstones in the Heights, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope.

The garden core behind 117 Lincoln Place was the finest one she saw during her lengthy search. It has trees that are taller than the surrounding townhouses and is full of birds.

William Lee Younger, author of the book “Old Brooklyn In Early Photographs, 1865-1929,” sold her the house. He’d done historical research about the first family to live there: Seymour Strong Smith, who was a tea merchant, his wife Emma, daughters Adele and Emma Josephine and son Raymond.

Emma Josephine died of diphtheria as a child. The couple’s other daughter, Adele, was married at home and moved to Ridgewood, N.J. A newspaper account of her wedding said she decorated the house with yellow snapdragons and daffodils.  

Pepper got her first inkling about what could happen next door earlier this year, when 115 Lincoln Place was up for sale. She’d be out in her garden and hear real estate agents next door take prospective buyers outside and tell them, “You can put an amazing extension on the house.”

Her fears were confirmed in August, when the Londons filed their plans with the city Buildings Department.

“What we’re going to be left with is a dark and dank back yard,” said her neighbor Galiley, a retired actuary who’s the president of the Lincoln Place Block Association.

He bought his house for $139,000 in 1980 because “I couldn’t afford anything in the Heights,” where he had previously lived. “Park Slope was considered the next place to go,” he recalled.     

“I put my heart and soul into this house,” said Galiley, who wants to pass on his property to his granddaughter.         

In 2006, residents of the block opposed a rear-yard addition planned at 105 Lincoln Place. The proposed add-on was three stories high and as wide as the existing house, an online description indicates. It would have been visible from the street through a gap in the houses.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission told the property owner to come back with a revised plan, Galiley recalled – and the homeowner dropped the project, and later sold the house.

As for the planned construction at 115 Lincoln Place, he pointed out that according to LPC rules, rear yard additions are acceptable if a majority of the other buildings on the block have “comparable or larger rear yard additions or enlargements in terms of their projection into the rear yard.”

Only three of the 23 houses on the Lincoln Place block have rear-yard additions, two of them built before the neighborhood was landmarked and one after, he said.

The LPC takes numerous factors into consideration in deciding about back-of-the-house build-ons.

For one thing, the Commission looks at whether the proposed addition substantially cuts down the size of the rear yard, said Ann-Isabel Friedman, a staffer at the New York Landmarks Conservancy. The lot on which 115 Lincoln Place is built is unusually deep, more than 130 feet, city records indicate.

Also, for the LPC, “ the emphasis is on the public view,” Friedman said. “There is a less stringent standard for what’s seen privately than what’s visible from the street.”            

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