Jehovah’s Witnesses’ hotel will become housing for the formerly homeless
A project to turn a DUMBO hotel that belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses into housing for formerly homeless New Yorkers has taken a step forward in rezoning proceedings.
Community Board 2’s Land Use Committee voted on Wednesday night to approve supportive housing provider Breaking Ground’s plan to convert the 29-story tower at 90 Sands St. into 305 apartments for formerly homeless individuals, plus 202 permanently affordable apartments for tenants with a mix of income levels from extremely low to moderate.
“Our mission is to work with vulnerable populations and help them get back on their feet and stay on their feet, delivering permanent housing for the long term,” Breaking Ground’s President and CEO Brenda Rosen said during a public hearing before the committee’s vote.
The nonprofit has been developing and operating supportive housing facilities since the early 1990s. These are apartment buildings with affordable rents for formerly homeless people. The facilities offer vital onsite services including case management, primary medical care, mental health care, employment readiness guidance and benefits counseling. At Breaking Ground’s developments, the services are provided by an organization called the Center for Urban Community Services.
Wednesday night’s hearing was a step in a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (or ULURP). This process culminates in a vote by the City Council and mayoral approval.
Breaking Ground is asking the city to change the zoning on the block where 90 Sands St. is located because it’s currently zoned for manufacturing, which doesn’t allow the tower to be used as an apartment building.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, who constructed 90 Sands St. in 1992, used the hotel to house their members. Breaking Ground’s executives initially hoped the city Buildings Department would grandfather in this residential use and they wouldn’t need to seek zoning changes.That turned out not to be the case.
In June 2018, when they thought 90 Sands St.’s redevelopment would be an as-of-right project, executives from Breaking Ground and the Center for Urban Community Services gave an informational presentation at a CB2 Land Use Committee meeting. At that meeting, numerous residents of neighboring co-op complex Concord Village expressed concerns about having a large concentration of formerly homeless people living nearby.
In contrast, not a single resident of the area offered testimony at Wednesday night’s hearing.
Bill Flounoy, a member of Community Board 2’s Land Use Committee, testified at the hearing in support of 90 Sands St.’s proposed zoning changes. He was formerly a board member of the Schermerhorn, Breaking Ground’s Boerum Hill building with apartments for formerly homeless people with special needs and low-income units that are rented mostly to actors, dancers, singers and filmmakers.
The Brooklyn Public Library’s Chief Librarian Nick Higgins testified about BPL’s partnership with Breaking Ground. Outreach teams from the nonprofit provide assistance to homeless patrons of Brooklyn’s libraries and have given its librarians training in how to interact with patrons with problems such as mental illness or drug addiction, he said.
Breaking Ground has 150 staffers who do street outreach with homeless people. It has enabled more than 14,000 people to escape or avoid homelessness.
Breaking Ground’s Vice President David Beer said before the CB2 Land Use Committee’s vote that his organization plans to leave the interior configuration of the building the way the Jehovah’s Witnesses built it. So 82 percent of the apartments will be studios, and 18 percent of them will be one-bedroom units.
Breaking Ground expects to start renovation work at 90 Sands St. in June 2020, Beer said. Construction should take about 14 months and people will start moving into the building in Fall 2021.
There will be a community facility or commercial space on the building’s ground floor and upper and lower cellars, Beer said.
The affordable apartments will be rented to tenants with annual incomes ranging from 30 percent to 100 percent of the Area Median Income, Beer said. Here’s the breakdown of the income tiers:
- There will be 15 studios for tenants with earnings of 30 percent of AMI, which is a maximum of $22,410 for a single-person household. The rents will be $504 per month.
- There will be 15 studios for tenants who earn 40 percent of AMI, which is a maximum of $29,880 for one person. The rents will be $690 per month.
- For tenants at 60 percent of AMI, which is a maximum of $44,820 for individuals, there will be 10 studios with $1,064 monthly rents and five one-bedroom units for $1,140-per-month rents.
- For tenants who earn 80 percent of AMI, which is a maximum of $59,760, there will be 45 studios with rents of $1,280 per month and 57 one-bedroom apartments with $1,600-per-month rents.
- There will be 25 studios with monthly rents of $1,600 and 30 one-bedroom apartments with rents of $2,000 per month for tenants earning 100 percent of AMI, which is $74,700.
The next step in 90 Sands St.’s ULURP process is a public hearing Borough President Eric Adams will hold on Dec. 10 at 6 p.m. in the Community Room at Brooklyn Borough Hall.
In October, the Department of City Planning issued a negative declaration about 90 Sands St.’s planned redevelopment — which is a determination by the agency that the project won’t significantly impact the environment.
The Watchtower’s former hotel stands on the corner of Sands and Jay streets near the pedestrian entrance to the Manhattan Bridge.
Breaking Ground bought it for $170 million last year from RFR, a Manhattan developer that had purchased it from the Jehovah’s Witnesses for $135 million in 2017, city Finance Department records indicate.
RFR had planned to turn 90 Sands St. into a 600-room hotel in partnership with Ian Schrager, who’s best known as the co-owner of glamorous, debauched disco Studio 54. After doing prison time for tax evasion, Schrager rebuilt his career in the hotel industry and was later pardoned by President Barack Obama.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses sold 90 Sands St. as part of their liquidation of their DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights real estate holdings when they moved their world headquarters from 30 Columbia Heights to upstate Warwick, New York.
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