The Jehovah’s Witnesses create a fund for long-awaited Bridge Park II renovation
The Jehovah’s Witnesses announced the creation of a $5.5 million fund to pay for the renovation of a DUMBO park and adjoining basketball courts they promised to fix up more than a decade ago.
The money is for Bridge Park II, a city park on York Street.
“Although $5.5 million is well over what Watchtower would have spent to perform the work it committed to in 2004, Watchtower has set aside this amount to cover the funds officials estimated the city would need to take over this project and complete the current vision for the park,” the Watchtower said in a statement.
“Watchtower has high regard for the commitment made back in 2004 and is convinced that a new park will add to the enjoyment of the local community,” the statement says.
The Watchtower, which has been a major presence in Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO for a century, is in the process of relocating its world headquarters to upstate Warwick. The move is expected to start this fall and continue into 2017.
The Watchtower agreed in 2004 to renovate Bridge Park II when the city rezoned a massive site the Witnesses own at 85 Jay St.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have now decided to offer the city Parks Department money for this park’s renovation because “we realize at the rate the project is progressing, we would be gone from Brooklyn before the work could be done,” spokesman Richard Devine told the Brooklyn Eagle.
Recently, reps for the Watchtower asked City Councilmember Stephen Levin to assist them in contacting the Parks Department to offer a financial settlement, Devine said. Levin’s office told the Jehovah’s Witnesses that the Parks Department estimated it could do the project for $5.33 million.
The Watchtower’s attorney has sent the Parks Department’s legal department a letter offering the $5.5 million sum, Devine said.
The Watchtower needs a letter or agreement from the Parks Department that it’s accepting the money and an acknowledgment that the religious group will be held harmless for future decisions made about Bridge Park II.
The third thing the Witnesses need is to be told, “Who do we write the check out to?” Devine said. “The funds are ready for immediate transfer.”
A skate plaza, playground and exercise area were planned
The Watchtower planned to build its headquarters at 135,000-square-foot 85 Jay, which also has frontage on York, Front and Bridge streets.
The Witnesses recently put 85 Jay up for sale as part of their continuing efforts to liquidate their Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO property portfolio. The Jay Street site has nearly 1 million square feet of development rights.
Real estate sources previously told the Eagle the site could sell for nearly $400 million.
One issue in the Bridge Park II renovation was the Watchtower’s wish to use volunteer labor. Devine told the Eagle that the Parks Department came up with the idea that it could “franchise” the park to the Jehovah’s Witnesses while the work was done. No contract was finally signed, though, he said.
“After more than 10 years of good-faith efforts to complete the project, Watchtower never received the necessary agreements from city officials on a final plan for the park,” the announcement from the Jehovah’s Witnesses says.
Over the years, the organization produced “multiple designs” for park renovation at city officials’ request, the statement says. “The city’s most recent design concept, modeled by Watchtower, includes a skate park and multipurpose field.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses shared a set of Bridge Park II renovation designs with the Eagle. The drawings, copyrighted in 2013, include plans for the skate plaza and for the multipurpose field, which would be part of an exercise area with an asphalt track and exercise stations with pull-up bars and other equipment.
The drawings also include a design for a children’s playground with swings, play structures, game tables, a “spray area” and a promenade.
‘The price of a condo in some parts of DUMBO’
In December, a group of elected officials and community leaders sent a letter to the Jehovah’s Witnesses that says, “The commitments that the Watchtower made in 2004 were explicit, and the Watchtower is duty-bound to renovate Bridge Park II.”
The DUMBO Improvement District’s executive director Alexandria Sica, who signed the letter, told the Eagle, “It’s nice to see the Watchtower is coming to the table. But it seems like $5.5 million for a park of this size is a big question.
“Given the fact they’re going to make millions from the sale of the [85 Jay] site — that’s the price of a condo in some parts of DUMBO,” Sica said.
“I think it’s a matter of what will provide benefits to the community in exchange for the upzoning of the property.”
Currently, there’s a “fitness loop” painted on the asphalt at Bridge Park II, funded with a $50,000 city Small Business Services Department Neighborhood Challenge program that the DUMBO Improvement District obtained.
The loop, designed by Hush Studios, is a temporary installation for one year, Sica said.
What if the city Parks Department decides to take the Watchtower’s money and wants to start work on the park’s renovation before time’s up for the fitness loop installation?
“That’s a wonderful problem to have,” Sica said.
What about security for the corner of York and Jay Streets?
The letter from elected officials and community leaders, which was sent to media outlets, says the Watchtower also made a commitment to improve security and lighting at the intersection of Jay and York streets and provide security cameras and patrols there.
Devine told the Eagle that in hearings about the rezoning of 85 Jay, he testified that the headquarters complex the Watchtower planned to build there would have a glassed-in lobby that would have lit up that corner. There would be security cameras on the property that would face up Jay Street. And watchmen would make their rounds, as they do at other properties that belong to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In short, the security measures he spoke of at that time were going to be features of the headquarters that was going to be constructed, not separate and apart from it.
Devine said he was asked while testifying before the City Planning Commission if he could guarantee that the headquarters planned for 85 Jay would be built.
He remembers saying, “We’re proceeding in good faith. But there’s no way I can guarantee that. I can’t predict the future.”
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