Watchtower sign on old Jehovah’s Witnesses’ headquarters can be replaced, Board of Standards and Appeals decides
The void in the Brooklyn waterfront’s skyline that the Watchtower sign left behind can now be filled.
The city Board of Standards and Appeals voted unanimously Thursday to allow the new owner of the old Jehovah’s Witnesses’ headquarters in Brooklyn Heights to replace the internationally famous red electric sign. Workers had removed it from the rooftop in December.
The vote took place at Spector Hall in Manhattan.
Board members cast their votes without expressing their reasons for deciding to allow the iconic sign at 30 Columbia Heights to be replaced.
“We are appreciative that the Board of Standards and Appeals confirmed the lawful status of the signage rights at Panorama,” a spokesman for property owner Columbia Heights Associates told the Brooklyn Eagle.
Panorama is the new name the property owner — a joint venture consisting of CIM Group and LIVWRK — has given the Watchtower headquarters. Columbia Heights Associates is gut-renovating the five-building complex and turning it into an office and retail campus.
The sign on the property has been “a recognizable feature of the Brooklyn skyline for generations,” the spokesman said.
“This decision affirms that the sign will continue its tradition as a part of the Brooklyn waterfront’s rich history and renewed vibrancy,” he said.
The Buildings Department Said No, No, No
The Board of Standards and Appeals’ vote concluded the property owner’s appeal of a city Buildings Department determination that the Watchtower sign should not be replaced.
In previous hearings, the Buildings Department’s Assistant General Counsel Timothy McKernan contended that the sign preceding it, which said “Squibb” because pharmacy company E.R. Squibb then owned 30 Columbia Heights, had been erected illegally. This made the Watchtower sign illegal, too, he argued.
Attorney David Karnovsky of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, who represented the property owner, presented evidence that suggested the Squibb sign had been legally installed.
What Will the Replacement Sign Say?
What will the Watchtower sign’s replacement say? There are three known alternatives.
* It might be the name of a company that moves into the property — just as it said “Watchtower” when the religious organization occupied the building and “Squibb” when the pharmaceutical company was located there.
* The replacement sign might say “Panorama” — because a rendering posted outside 30 Columbia Heights depicts the word “Panorama” on the sign frame in glowing red letters.
* Artist Susanna Briselli has advocated for the installation of a sign that says “Brooklyn!” in blue letters, spelled out in the cursive font the long-departed Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team used.
Briselli wrote in the Eagle last year that such a sign “would establish Brooklyn’s identity and location day and night in no uncertain terms, and act as a powerful welcome.” She first came up with the idea of a giant illuminated waterfront “Brooklyn!” sign in the 1980s. A decade ago, she proposed it as a freestanding sign to Borough President Marty Markowitz.
A spokesman for Columbia Heights Associates declined to comment on which of these known alternatives the property owner might choose.
A Beacon on the Waterfront
A Buildings Department spokesperson reacted to the Board of Standards and Appeals’ decision by telling the Eagle, “We felt we had a strong case and are disappointed with the outcome.”
For nearly a half-century, the Watchtower sign was a waterfront beacon that proclaimed the presence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ world headquarters in Brooklyn Heights.
The glowing red sign stood right across the street from Brooklyn Bridge Park and was visible to people on the Brooklyn Bridge and in Manhattan.
When workers removed the Watchtower sign’s 15-foot-tall letters last year, they left the sign’s framework intact, along with flashing numbers that tell the time and temperature.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses stored the Watchtower sign’s letters at one of their properties in upstate New York, which is where their world headquarters is now located.
‘An Added Attraction for Tenants’
Timothy King, managing partner of CPEX Real Estate, told the Eagle that being able to install an electric sign on top of 30 Columbia Heights will boost the property’s value.
“Having the sign is an added attraction for tenants,” King said. “It’s a selling point.”
If there had been 20 potential trophy tenants for the Panorama complex, by being able to offer a giant iconic sign, the property owner will be able to attract 30 trophy tenants, King predicted.
“It broadens the field of prospective tenants,” King said.
Being able to have its name in lights on a huge sign on the Brooklyn waterfront could tip a company’s decision in favor of moving to Panorama instead of somewhere else, he added.
A $340 Million Property Sale
The Jehovah’s Witnesses sold its headquarters complex to Columbia Heights Associates for $340 million in 2016, city Finance Department records indicate.
Kushner Cos. had been part of Columbia Heights Associates at the time of the purchase but sold its stake in the property to CIM Group this year.
At the time of the Watchtower headquarters purchase, Kushner Cos. was headed by Jared Kushner, who is President Donald Trump’s son-in-law. Kushner stepped away from his leadership role in the company and became Trump’s senior adviser.