Council set to OK Watchtower plan

The Brooklyn Paper
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A hotly contested proposal by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society to build four mammoth towers at 85 Jay St. in the lower-rise neighborhoods of DUMBO and Vinegar Hill was approved this week by the City Council’s Land Use committee, whose members gave the OK to requested zoning changes almost unanimously.

The vote paves the way for an expected approval of the plan by the full council within the next 10 days.

The lone dissenting vote on the influential 21-member committee was cast by East New York Councilman Charles Barron. Sixteen members were present for the vote.

Borough President Marty Markowitz had asked that the plan be downscaled by 60 percent and a 1,000-car parking garage be cut in half or made accessible to the public. Councilmembers Letitia James and David Yassky, whose districts the four-building complex straddles, had opposed the plan just last month on behalf of angry constituents.

But after the Watchtower offered concessions in a session before the zoning committee meeting, James and Yassky both reconsidered, helping pave the way for the application to pass, much to the chagrin of many of the site’s DUMBO and Vinegar Hill neighbors.

“It is important to note that the original plan for 85 Jay St. was wildly out of scale with the area, and had a good chance at passage without any compromise whatsoever,” Yassky said after the Land Use committee’s vote. He said the buildings were scaled back in response to the community’s requests, and he cited the Watchtower Society’s willingness to participate in area improvements as another last-minute deal clincher.

A proposed 20-story tower at Jay and York streets was downsized to have a lower street-facing wall — at 182 feet from 200 feet — but will still rise to the original 222 feet. A tower on Jay Street between York and Front streets, that was originally to be 18 stories would retain its 195-foot height, but have a street wall cut down from 175 to 157 feet.

The biggest changes were on the towers on Front Street, which is closest to the 12-story warehouses typical of the area. Both of those buildings were lowered to nine stories, dropping from 16 stories for a building between Jay and Bridge streets, and from 14 stories for a tower at the corner of Bridge Street, closest to Vinegar Hill.

Richard Devine, a spokesman for the Watchtower Society — the corporate entity for the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious sect — said the victory wasn’t easily won, and the redesign was thrown together in under two weeks by architect Richard Metsky of Beyer, Blinder, Bell.

“We were working on this in consultation with the land use and zoning committees,” he said, and they tried to appease concerns about appearing out of context, and offered to improve security in the surrounding neighborhood.

“Groundbrea­king is still a way off,” he said.

According to Yassky aide Evan Thies, “open space improvements, working on public projects like Brooklyn Bridge Park and basketball courts near Farragut Houses,” were also offered, and the Watchtower Society has agreed to hire local contractors and subcontractors.

“They also detailed a local security plan to make the York Street [F train] subway safer,” he said, that would include a self-funded security force, cameras and street lights at the station, which opens onto Jay Street.

James declined to comment on the vote, but said the proposed Watchtower buildings on Bridge Street, in her district, received “major modificati­ons.”

Christy Nyberg, a resident of a condominium complex at 79 Bridge St., which would face the Watchtower complex, acknowledged that the modifications were considerable, but didn’t think they came close enough to what the community had asked for.

“It’s a little disappoint­ing,” she said. “Primarily I think we’re really sorry we didn’t get a few more reductions that put the project in the scale of the neighborho­od.” Nyberg noted the support of elected officials including Reps. Nydia Velazquez and Edolphus Towns, who both sent letters urging the committee to disapprove the project.

Instead of trying to appeal to Council Speaker Gifford Miller, Nyberg said, “we’re pretty much chalking this up to ‘done,’ and moving ahead,” in a push for comprehensive rezoning and landmarking in the DUMBO area.

“Still, there’s a huge amount of disappointment in the parking; that there was no move to bring down the number of cars,” she lamented.

The size of the 77,000-square-foot parking lot, which Devine had told The Papers was something they wanted to keep, was a problem for Markowitz, too.

Markowitz’s office did not return requests for comment by press time.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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