Jehovah’s Witnesses start closing their Brooklyn Heights tunnels

Underground passageways connect prime Watchtower properties

April 24, 2017 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Watchtower has deactivated a tunnel connecting 124 Columbia Heights (the building at left) and 107 Columbia Heights (the building in the center of this picture). Photos courtesy of Jehovah's Witnesses
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The Watchtower, which has sold off many of its Brooklyn Heights properties, is starting to shut down the tunnels that connect them.
Last week, the Jehovah’s Witnesses deactivated one of the tunnels that connect their big Brooklyn Heights residential buildings by filling it with concrete.

The Watchtower’s pedestrian passageways form an underground network extending from 124 Columbia Heights, which overlooks the Promenade, to The Towers, a former hotel on the corner of Clark and Willow streets.

The Watchtower closed off part of this underground network on Monday, April 17.

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Andrew Porter, who has lived in Brooklyn Heights since 1968, saw a truck outside 124 Columbia Heights pouring concrete into the tunnel “through a raised access hatch” that day, he told the Brooklyn Eagle.

The concrete-filled tunnel stretches between 124 Columbia Heights and 107 Columbia Heights, which is a gated 11-story residential property with a landscaped courtyard.

City Department of Transportation permits indicate that both a concrete truck and “cellular concrete” pumping equipment were needed for the tunnel deactivation.

Cellular concrete, which is also called Foamcrete, is a lightweight cement-based material with lots of gas bubbles in it.

According to the Transportation Department permits, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York was in charge of the job.

This makes sense — although the Jehovah’s Witnesses sold 124 Columbia Heights last year.

According to a 2009 revocable consent agreement between the Department of Transportation and the Watchtower, the religious organization is responsible for deactivating the tunnel and paying for the work.

The tunnel connecting 124 Columbia Heights and 107 Columbia Heights was built in 1959, the consent agreement indicates.

What’s up with the other tunnels?

The Watchtower tunnels have been a perennial source of fascination to people who aren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses.  

The tunnels enabled the religious organization’s workers to carry food and laundry between different buildings without having to step outdoors, a 1990 Philadelphia Inquirer story says.

Also, workers used them to move “various commodities that we need to keep the buildings in good maintenance and good repair,” Robert Alexander, a spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, told New York 1 in 2006.

Alexander also told New York 1 at that time that the existence of the tunnels is “a great benefit to our neighbors living in Brooklyn Heights because then it leaves more of the sidewalks and streets free and clear for them to use.”

The Eagle has asked the Watchtower when its other tunnels will be deactivated. We will publish an update when we receive this information.

The tunnels’ locations are pinpointed in consent agreements between the group and the Transportation Department and the city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.    

* One tunnel runs beneath Orange Street and connects 107 Columbia Heights and 97 Columbia Heights.

Eleven-story 97 Columbia Heights is currently up for sale. This residential building was constructed on the site of the Hotel Margaret, which was destroyed by a fire in 1980 while developer Ian Bruce Eichner was converting it into a co-op building.

By the way, because of a 1988 restrictive covenant signed by the Watchtower, if the religious group sells 97 Columbia Heights or 107 Columbia Heights, it will be responsible for rebuilding an Orange Street sewer line that was removed during the construction of the tunnel between the two buildings.    

* Another tunnel runs beneath Columbia Heights between Viola’s building, 124 Columbia Heights, and 119 Columbia Heights, a residential building the Watchtower finished constructing in 1970. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have not put 119 Columbia Heights onto the sale market.

* Yet another tunnel runs beneath Willow Street and connects 119 Columbia Heights and The Towers, a former hotel whose address is 21 Clark St.

The Clark Street building, which has distinctive Venetian-style towers on its four corners, is up for sale.   

Watchtower properties sold to Jared Kushner and Vincent Viola

The Watchtower, which had a major presence in Brooklyn Heights for more than a century, has been selling off its local real estate because it relocated its world headquarters to Warwick in upstate New York.

The religious organization has sold numerous Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO properties to the Kushner Cos., which Jared Kushner headed until he stepped aside to serve as senior adviser to his father-in-law, President Trump.

Kushner Cos. and its investment partners paid $340 million for the Watchtower’s Brooklyn Heights headquarters complex at 25-30 Columbia Heights — which has an iconic red neon sign that says “Watchtower” on it.

In DUMBO, Kushner Cos. and its investment partners paid $345 million for 85 Jay St., a parking lot  with about 1 million square feet of development rights. And the company and its investment partners paid $375 million for a complex with former Bible-printing plants on Prospect, Adams, Sands and Pearl streets that it has turned into a techie-friendly office campus called DUMBO Heights.

As for 124 Columbia Heights, a 10-story, 152,000-square-foot residential building, the purchaser was billionaire Vincent Viola.

He paid $105 million through Eastern Division LLC, city Finance Department records show. His wife, Teresa Viola, is the president of that LLC, the records indicate.

Vincent Viola owns the Florida Panthers hockey team and is a West Point grad. He was President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Army, but withdrew from consideration for the position in February because it would have been hard to separate himself from his businesses.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have lined up a buyer for the property at the other end of the cement-filled tunnel, 107 Columbia Heights.

In February, Clipper Realty Inc. announced it had agreed to buy the 161-unit residential building for $87.5 million. The head of the publicly traded company is David Bistricer.

In 2012, another company Bistricer heads, Clipper Equity, and the Chetrit Group purchased another prime Brooklyn Heights property, the Hotel Bossert, from the Watchtower for $81 million.

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