Brooklyn Heights

Can the Watchtower sign be replaced? Decision coming soon

October 23, 2018 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
This is 30 Columbia Heights, where the Watchtower sign stood until December. The property's new owner is fighting the city's refusal to allow new letters to be installed on the sign's framework. Eagle photos by Lore Croghan

Buildings Department opposes new sign on Jehovah's Witnesses' old Brooklyn Heights headquarters

Will the city allow the new owner of the old Brooklyn Heights Watchtower headquarters to replace the letters on the property’s internationally famous sign?

We’ll find out on Nov. 8.

The city Board of Standards and Appeals is scheduled to render a decision that day in Columbia Heights Associates’ legal battle with the city Buildings Department over the replacement of the red electric “Watchtower” sign.

After gracing the rooftop of 30 Columbia Heights for nearly half a century, the iconic sign was removed last year, leaving a void in Brooklyn’s waterfront skyline.

Board Chairperson Margery Perlmutter announced the decision date at a hearing Tuesday at Spector Hall in Manhattan.

In April, the Buildings Department issued a determination that the Watchtower sign cannot be altered or replaced.

The city agency asserts the Watchtower sign was erected illegally in 1970 — because the sign that preceded it on 30 Columbia Heights’ rooftop was put there in 1961 without a Buildings Department permit.

Was the Predecessor Sign Erected Illegally?

That predecessor sign said “Squibb,” which was the name of the pharmaceutical company that owned and occupied the property at that time.

The fight about the Watchtower sign is complicated because Buildings Department records from the early 1960s are incomplete.

At Tuesday’s hearing, attorney David Karnovsky of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, who reps the property owner, presented documentation he said suggests it would be “reasonable” and “logical” to conclude Squibb obtained a permit to put up its neon sign at 30 Columbia Heights.

Buildings Department Assistant General Counsel Timothy McKernan offered conflicting evidence that he said indicates Squibb put up the sign illegally.

The two lawyers reiterated many of the points they made at a Board of Standards and Appeals hearing in August.

Fifteen-Foot-Tall Letters Are in Storage

In December, the Jehovah’s Witnesses removed the Watchtower sign’s 15-foot-tall letters and put them in storage in upstate New York.

What’s left on the roof of 30 Columbia Heights is the sign’s framework — and flashing numbers that tell the time and temperature.

Until the Watchtower sign’s removal, it had been one of the most distinctive features of the Brooklyn waterfront’s built environment. People could see the sign from Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan.

The Watchtower’s headquarters had been part of the religious organization’s vast real estate holdings in Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO. The group has sold off nearly all these properties because it moved its headquarters to the upstate town of Warwick.

 

A Mixed-Use Complex Called Panorama

Columbia Heights Associates, the new owner of the Watchtower’s former five-building headquarters at 25-30 Columbia Heights, is a joint venture consisting of CIM Group and LIVWRK Holdings.

The developer is now converting the buildings into a complex called Panorama with offices, stores and public space for arts and culture.

As one step in that makeover, the owner has painted the golden-hued buildings a soft shade of blue.

Kushner Cos. was part of the joint venture when it bought 25-30 Columbia Heights for $340 million in 2016.

Jared Kushner headed Kushner Cos. until he stepped aside to become a senior adviser to his father-in-law, President Donald Trump.    

This year, CIM Group bought Kushner Cos.’ stake in the old Watchtower headquarters.

 

 

 

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