Matt Damon’s Brooklyn Heights condo is in an old Jehovah’s Witnesses building. What became of all these properties?
Eye on Real Estate: A property the Jehovah’s Witnesses sold when they moved their world headquarters out of Brooklyn Heights to upstate New York is now a condo building where Matt Damon reportedly bought the penthouse.
There are lots of stories to tell about what’s become of the Watchtower’s Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO property portfolio, which the organization disposed of in a multi-year selloff. The most glamorous of the properties is the Standish at 171 Columbia Heights, thanks to the Oscar-winning actor’s reported $16.745 million condo buy there. I’ll tell you more about Damon’s reported deal in a minute.
Purchasers of other Jehovah’s Witnesses properties in the two neighborhoods are now busy developing them into luxury apartment complexes, an upscale seniors residence, modern offices and housing for formerly homeless people.
For nearly a century, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were big-time property owners in these two neighborhoods. They made their presence known with an electric sign that said “Watchtower” atop their waterfront world headquarters at 25-30 Columbia Heights. You could see those blazing red letters on the Brooklyn Bridge and in Lower Manhattan.
Many other properties served as residences for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some were used for Bible-printing.
The Watchtower’s Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO property sales added up to at least $2.19 billion. I say “at least” because possibly I didn’t find all the transactions when I was checking city Finance Department records.
Jason Bourne in Clark Kent’s building
The buy was made through an LLC with Gary Kress as sole manager, Finance Department records indicate. A 2012 Hollywood Reporter story identifies Kress as Damon’s manager.
The star of the Jason Bourne film franchise isn’t the only celebrity who’s believed to own a condo at the landmarked former Standish Arms Hotel, which opened in 1903. Actor couple Emily Blunt and John Krasinski spent about $11 million for an apartment there, the Wall Street Journal reported in January 2019.
An interesting bit of trivia from the world of comic books: The building Superman’s mild-mannered alter ego Clark Kent lives in is called the Standish.
In the real world, the Jehovah’s Witnesses sold the Standish to a developer for $50 million in 2007, Finance Department records indicate.
That purchaser turned the tower into a rental apartment complex before selling it in 2014 to condo converters DDG and Westbrook Partners for $60 million.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses also sold off small residential buildings they owned next to the Standish — 161 Columbia Heights went for $2.95 million in 2012 and a carriage house at 165 Columbia Heights went for $4.1 million in 2012, Finance Department records show.
Condos in Brooklyn Bridge Park and a historic hotel
I devised a walk to show you a generous sampling of the former Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO Watchtower properties. The stroll starts at condo building One Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is easily reached via the NYC Ferry, whose Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 6/Atlantic Avenue stop is just steps away.
One Brooklyn Bridge Park’s address is 360 Furman St. The Watchtower sold the 14-story industrial building to developer Robert A. Levine for $205.02 million in 2004, Finance Department records show. The condo units on the side of the building facing the park and Lower Manhattan have tremendous views. The back of the building overlooks the BQE.
It would be easy to spend hours in scenic Brooklyn Bridge Park. That’s a walk for another day. Instead, head up Joralemon Street into Brooklyn Heights and turn left on Hicks Street, and soon you’ll arrive at another big former Watchtower property, the Hotel Bossert.
Before the Jehovah’s Witnesses owned the landmarked Renaissance Revival-style hotel at 98 Montague St., it was a high-society hot spot where the Brooklyn Dodgers celebrated when they won the World Series in October 1955.
The Watchtower owned the Bossert for three decades before selling it for $81 million in 2012, Finance Department records show. Its current owner, the Chetrit Group, is renovating it as a boutique hotel.
Fancy Dodgers’ lodgings and the old Watchtower HQ
Turn left on Clark Street and walk to the corner of Willow Street for a look at The Towers. Before the Jehovah’s Witnesses owned it, the landmarked 16-story property at 21 Clark St. was a hotel where the highest-paid Brooklyn Dodgers stayed during the baseball season.
The Watchtower sold the building for $202.5 million in 2017, Finance Department records show.
The current owners and developers are investment firm Kayne Anderson with Watermark Retirement Communities/The Freshwater Group and Tishman Speyer. They’re turning the property into a luxury senior-living facility called The Watermark at Brooklyn Heights. Last fall, I took a hard-hat tour of this renovation project, which should be completed soon.
Walk up Willow Street. Along the way, you will pass a favorite Brooklyn Heights house. This house at 19 Cranberry St. is where Cher’s character lived in the movie “Moonstruck.”
Stop when you get to the corner of Middagh Street. Down below, on the far side of the BQE, you’ll see the Watchtower’s old headquarters complex at 25-30 Columbia Heights. These industrial properties had belonged to pharmaceutical giant E.R. Squibb & Sons Inc. before the Watchtower bought them.
After nearly a half-century of ownership, the Jehovah’s Witnesses sold the five-building complex in 2016 for $340 million, Finance Department records indicate. The current owners, a joint venture of CIM Group and LIVWRK Holdings, are turning it into an office and retail complex called Panorama. Last August, I got to tour this redevelopment project.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses took the shining red letters off their headquarters’ “Watchtower” sign when they left Brooklyn Heights. The letters that are now on the sign spell out the word “Welcome.”
Four properties, three buyers
If you turn left onto Columbia Heights instead of walking down the hill to Panorama, you will find four residential properties the Watchtower sold that are located within a couple blocks of each other.
One buyer, Hawkins Way Properties, purchased two properties in 2017. One is 97 Columbia Heights, a modern building for which the investment firm paid $58 million, Finance Department records indicate. It stands on the site of the historic Hotel Margaret, which burned down in 1980 while developer Ian Bruce Eichner was converting it into a co-op apartment building.
The other property is 117-125 Columbia Heights, for which the investment firm paid $18 million, Finance Department records indicate. It includes a building constructed in 1969 that was designed by a proponent of Brutalist architecture named Ulrich Franzen and three old-fashioned rowhouses adjacent to it.
Both properties are being turned into student housing complexes operated by a provider called Found Study.
The second buyer was an affiliate of David Bistricer’s Clipper Realty Inc., which purchased a gated property with a courtyard at 107 Columbia Heights. The real estate firm paid $87.5 million for it in 2017, Finance Department records show. Bistricer has renovated it and turned it into a rental-apartment building called Clover House.
The third buyer was Vincent Viola, the owner of the Florida Panthers hockey team. He purchased 124 Columbia Heights for $105 million in 2016, Finance Department records show. This building is located directly on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, so even its lowest floors have stellar views of the Manhattan skyline. The other three properties are not located directly on the Promenade.
Now head for DUMBO to see other former Watchtower properties.
One way to get where you need to go is to take a left on Pierrepont Street and then another left on Monroe Place, since it’s a particularly pretty street. From there, you go right on Clark Street and left on Cadman Plaza West, then cross Cadman Plaza Park to Cadman Plaza East. You’re heading for the stairway to the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian path.
Up on the bridge, you get an excellent view of five industrial buildings where the Jehovah’s Witnesses printed Bibles in at least 180 languages. Their addresses are 117 Adams St., 55 Prospect St., 81 Prospect St., 77 Sands St. and 175 Pearl St.
The Watchtower sold them in a package deal for $240 million in 2013. Developers Kushner Cos., RFR and LIVWRK Holdings have turned them into an office and retail complex called DUMBO Heights.
In 2017, RFR bought an adjacent property, 90 Sands St., for $135 million, Finance Department records indicate. You can also get a good look at this 29-story tower, which the Watchtower constructed as a hotel in the early 1990s, from up on the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian path.
Supportive-housing developer Breaking Ground, which purchased 90 Sands St. from RFR for $170 million in 2018, plans to create 305 apartments for formerly homeless people and 202 affordable apartments for extremely-low-income to moderate-income tenants in the building.
Breaking Ground is working its way through a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, that’s legally required because it is seeking to change the property’s zoning so residential use will be allowed.
Three acres is a lot of land
When you leave the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian path, head down Prospect Street, which takes you through the center of the DUMBO Heights complex. You will walk beneath a skybridge and pass the front entrance of Etsy’s offices.
When you turn left on Jay Street, you will see a mammoth development rising several stories above a construction fence. This project, which will have 408 condos and 320 rental apartments, is called Front & York. There will be 21-story towers on two corners of the three-acre site. Other portions of the complex will be eight stories tall.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses sold this site at 85 Jay St. for $345 million in 2016, Finance Department records show. The purchasers were a developer team consisting of CIM Group, LIVWRK and Kushner Cos., which at that time was headed by Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law.
Kushner gave up his role of managing the company when he became a senior advisor to President Trump. And Kushner Cos. later sold its stake in the 85 Jay St. development project to CIM Group.
The developers didn’t need to seek zoning changes in order to do residential construction — the Jehovah’s Witnesses took care of it a decade and a half ago when they were planning to develop the site themselves. The religious organization tore down buildings on the site many years ago, and were using it as a parking lot when they put it up for sale.
The mammoth site is bounded by Jay, Front, Bridge and York streets — which is where the development’s name came from. Morris Adjmi Architects designed the building. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates designed a private park that will be part of the property.
Condos currently listed as available for sale on Front & York’s website have asking prices ranging from $975,000 for a one-bedroom, one-bathroom unit to $2,745,000 for a three-bedroom, three-bathroom unit.
On the opposite side of Front Street between Jay and Bridge streets, you’ll see Megalith Capital Management and Urban Realty Partners’ rental-apartment development 181 Front St. and the back of their condo conversion at 200 Water St. The Jehovah’s Witnesses sold these properties to the developers for a combined $30.6 million in 2013, Finance Department records indicate.
The Water Street industrial building was a Brillo pad factory in decades past, before the Watchtower owned it.
When you’re ready to leave this block, walk down Front Street to the corner of Adams Street. Hope Street Capital’s eye-catching condo development 98 Front St. is there. The real estate firm is constructing the 10-story building on a site it bought from the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017.
The sale price was $60 million, Finance Department records indicate. The address the Watchtower used for the property was 74 Adams St. The site has frontage on Front, Adams and York streets and Fleet Alley.
Architecture firm ODA New York designed the building, whose distinctive facade looks like it’s made of giant concrete cubes. Asking prices for available condos currently listed on 98 Front’s website range from $735,000 for a studio to $4,495,000 for a three-bedroom penthouse.
And Fortis bought a huge parking lot at 1 York St. for $91.113 million in 2018, Finance Department records show. The 26-story residential development that’s just getting underway there is referred to as 30 Front St. or 60 Front St.
P.S. There were other sales
After I wrapped up my Watchtower walk, I took a break on nearby Old Fulton Street and waited for nightfall. That’s the best time to photograph the sign on the Watchtower’s former headquarters that now says “Welcome.”
Later, when I sat down at my computer and did a bit of research, I realized I left several former Jehovah’s Witnesses buildings out of the Brooklyn Heights segment of my stroll. Here are the sums the Watchtower sold them for, gleaned from Finance Department records:
- 183 Columbia Heights: $6.6 million
- 76 Willow St.: $3.025 million
- 105 Willow St.: $3.33 million
- 89 Hicks St.: $14 million
- 34 Orange St.: $2.825 million
- 50 Orange St.: $7.1 million
- 6-10 Clark St.: $12.5 million
- 67 Remsen St.: $3.25 million
- 67 Livingston St.: $18.6 million
Eye on Real Estate is veteran reporter Lore Croghan’s weekly column on Brooklyn’s built environment. Whether it’s old as Abraham Lincoln or so new it hasn’t topped out yet, if a building is eye-catching, Eye will show it to you. Click here to read about some of my favorites — for instance, the historic Hotel Margaret, which burned down in 1980.