All Along the Watchtower: Witnesses’ former Bible-printing plants are morphing into techie-friendly complex

'DUMBO Heights' Will Have a Beer Hall and Be Bike-Friendly, Developer Jared Kushner Promises

May 6, 2014 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Tech tenants and non-techies alike are lining up for office space down the hill in DUMBO – in former Bible-printing plants that belonged until recently to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Four hundred thousand square feet is pretty much spoken for,” Jared Kushner, who is remaking the buildings he bought with investment partners for $375 million last year into a hip office campus called DUMBO Heights, said at the Brooklyn Historical Society Tuesday.

Top executives at numerous companies – the folks in the “C-suites,” Kushner said – live in Brooklyn Heights and want to work near their homes.

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“We’re overwhelmed by the amount of interest we’ve had,”said Kushner, who spoke at BHS’s quarterly Brooklyn Real Estate Round Table about the techie-friendly office and retail complex where renovation work is now underway.

One CEO who inquired about renting space for a corporate headquarters runs a company that Kushner wouldn’t have thought was interested in moving to Brooklyn. The CEO said a move to DUMBO Heights could “change our culture,” Kushner said the executive told him.

The new office campus will be bike-friendly and have a beer hall – and multi-carrier Internet connectivity. Daycare is important to prospective tenants, Kushner noted. There will also be a food market and yoga and spin classes.

His aim is to create “a great environment where people can enjoy their work,” Kushner told the crowd at BHS’s Brooklyn Heights home base on Pierrepont Street.

Kushner Cos., of which 33-year-old Kushner is the CEO, has been keeping a list of small tenants that want offices in the former printing plants and is just starting to roll out a “small space program,” he said.

Office rents start at less than $60 per square foot, according to the Daily News, which recently reported that the names of several major tenants will be announced in the next 30 days.

As far as retailers are concerned, Kushner doesn’t want massive chain stores in DUMBO Heights.

“Lose our phone numbers,” he said the big-box retailers have been told.

A Downtown Brooklyn firm, CPEX Real Estate, is marketing the retail space in the 1 million-plus-square-foot complex.

Last week, Kushner Cos. launched a website for DUMBO Heights, which includes 55 Prospect St., 81 Prospect St., 117 Adams St., 77 Sands St. and 175 Pearl St.

Published with permission from Jared Kushner

Kushner – who is married to Ivanka Trump – and his partners paid $240 million for the five buildings, city Finance Department records indicate. For now, the Witnesses continue to own the sixth building in the package, a hotel at 90 Sands St.

Kushner Cos. – a big landlord that owns the Puck Building in SoHo – partnered in its purchase of the six Witnesses buildings with Aby Rosen’s and Michael Fuchs’ RFR, a firm whose portfolio of Manhattan office skyscrapers include the iconic Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Brooklyn investor Asher Abehsera of LIVWRK Holdings was also involved.

Kushner revealed to Roundtable guests that the Witnesses’ asking price for the six-building portfolio was $325 million to $350 million. But after touring the buildings the Friday before Memorial Day last year, shortly before bids were due, Kushner and his cohort came up with a business plan for the buildings that indicated they could afford to pay $375 million.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been selling off their massive real estate holdings in Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO in recent years as part of a plan to move their headquarters upstate. Properties they’re continuing to hold onto – which have developers drooling – include prime residential buildings along the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights and a massive parking lot at 85 Jay St. in DUMBO that’s zoned for residential development.

Before his speech, Kushner declined to answer a question from the Brooklyn Eagle about whether his firm has approached the Witnesses about buying any of their remaining properties.

As for the former Bible-printing plants, whose makeover will involve carving out retail spaces that currently don’t exist, the rebuilding tab is reportedly estimated at roughly $100 million.

Kushner told the audience “the bones” of the buildings are in “great shape” and praised the Watchtower’s excellent maintenance of them.

“The Witnesses really are a phenomenal organization. They do everything 110%,” he said.

Nevertheless, big changes are needed inside the properties to make them appealing to 21st-Century office tenants.

“Everything will be new but the exoskeleton,” he said.

He spoke of wide stairwells built to block extraordinary views of the waterfront and the Manhattan skyline. The Witnesses told him the interior layouts were done that way so workers would stay focused on their Bible-publishing work and not be distracted by the scenery outside their windows.

Kushner, recently dubbed “the accidental CEO” by The Real Deal, took charge of Kushner Cos. at an early age because his father Charles went to prison.

The elder Kushner was charged with tax evasion, illegal campaign donations and witness tampering in 2004. The witness-tampering charges stemmed from Charles’ hiring a hooker to seduce his brother-in-law to retaliate against his sister, a prosecution witness.

Kushner Cos. recently expanded its holdings by buying a portfolio of Brooklyn Heights apartment buildings from Brooklyn Law School.

Stephen Lascher, Joel Leitner, Jared Kushner and David Kramer at the Brooklyn Historical Society's Real Estate Round Table. Photo by Rob Abruzzese

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