Watchtower’s full-block project approved

Watchtower reduced height to gain approval of complex. On December 2, 2004, following extensive negotiations between the developer and Council Members Leticia James and David Yassky, the City Council approved the 736,400 sq.ft. development proposed by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., subject to a height reduction. The modification, which reduced the street-wall heights of the Front Street buildings to 82 ft. and a maximum height of 110 ft. away from the street, was the second modification agreed to by Watchtower to obtain City approval.

Watchtower assembled the 135,000 sq.ft. site, encompassing the entire 3-acre city block bounded by Front, Bridge, York and Jay Streets, during the 1980s and the 1990s, but left it vacant. It remains one of the only large, undeveloped parcels in the area, and its location, immediately adjacent to an “F” subway line entrance, makes it a vital entry point for DUMBO.

The Council approved the Jehovah Witnesses’ proposal for four new, connected buildings to house its world-wide headquarters. The multi-building complex will provide sleeping accommodations for 890 people, a 2,500 seat assembly hall, a 1,600 seat cafeteria, and a five-level parking garage with 1,100 spaces, limited to Watchtower’s use. A 220- ft. building and a 195-ft. building will face York Street and two towers of 110 ft. will face Front Street. Each building in the complex will connect by grade or elevated walkways, making it effectively one large development that encompasses the entire city block.

Watchtower’s proposed use, a community facility with sleeping accommodations, was not permitted under existing zoning. In addition to the zoning change [from M1- 2 to M1-2/R6 (MX-2) and M1-2/R8 (MX-2)], Watchtower also requested special permits to allow a 1,100 space public parking garage and to exceed height and size limits.

At the Council’s November 30, 2004 public hearing, when questioned about the community’s desire for street retail somewhere on the block, Watchtower repeated that its charter prohibited commercial transactions unrelated to its religious purposes. However, Watchtower argued, the ground-floor reading room on York Street would be open to the public, which would create a quasi-public space. Watchtower could not confirm whether its other properties in DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights would be sold. It stressed that the project had been reduced at the Commission level, from over 800,000 sq.ft. to 736,400 sq.ft., that it was in negotiations with Parks to aid in Brooklyn’s Bridge Park restoration, and that it would provide private security cameras, street lighting and patrols to improve safety at the adjacent subway station.

Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez testified against the project and endorsed Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s request for a further restriction in height – to 120 ft. along Jay Street and 70 ft. for the remainder of the block. Congresswoman Velazquez spoke of the loss of street retail and noted the project included almost as much parking as the recently approved Ikea, which had a justified demand.

In voting to approve, Council Member Tony Avella stated that “negotiating large developments is always a balancing act,” but noted, in this case, the appropriate compromise was reached. Because the project was modified, the Council sent it back to the Planning Commission, which voted to approve the modified design on December 6, 2004.

ULURP Process: The Planning Commission, as lead agency, issued a negative declaration on June 7, 2004. Brooklyn Community Board 2, narrowly approving the rezoning by a vote of 18 to 15, recommended that the building’s height be restricted to 120 ft. along Bridge Street, and that Watchtower pay to maintain local parks.

Borough President Marty Markowitz disapproved all three applications. The Borough President recommended a 40% reduction in the size of the entire development and in the number of parking spaces – an overall reduction from 800,000 sq.ft. to 480,000 sq.ft. and from 1,100 to 660 spaces – and a further restriction to the buildings’ heights.

The Planning Commission approved the project on November 15, 2004, noting that a project limited to the height proposed by the Borough President would not be economically feasible and Watchtower’s other Brooklyn properties were unsuitable.

Council: Watchtower Project; CPC: Watchtower Project (C 040215 ZMK – rezoning), (C 040216 ZSK – special permit for height and setback), (C 040217 ZSK – special permit for parking) (November 15, 2004) (Stephan Lefkowitz, Melanie Meyers, Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, for Watchtower; Richard Metsky, Marc Pittsley, Doug McKean, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners). CITYADMIN

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