Watchtower’s tower OKd by City Council

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The City Council’s vote this week to approve zoning changes that will allow the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society to build a campus of four high-rise buildings at 85 Jay St. was a foregone conclusion to DUMBO and Vinegar Hill residents who for the past year have fought the plan.

The council’s land use committee had voted two weeks ago to approve the project, put forth by the corporate arm of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious order, and that committee’s recommendation generally carries in the full council.

But what lingered for many residents after Wednesday’s vote to approve the plan — only three council members voted against it — was resentment toward the area’s two council representatives.

Council members David Yassky and Letitia James, across whose districts the project overlaps, boisterously protested earlier versions of the plan, and had been vocal opponents as recently as October. They both voted against the 85 Jay St. plan on Wednesday, along with East New York Councilman Charles Barron, but had recently softened their public stance on the project, hinting that further modifications were in the works.

Their votes against the plan this week left locals wondering if they were voting their consciences or playing at politics.

“There have been an avalanche of e-mails to Yassky, [Council Speaker Gifford] Miller, James and each council member telling them that nobody has given up and they feel they’ve been betrayed!” said A.L. Santagata, a real estate appraiser and sales agent who works in the two neighborhoods and lives in Brooklyn Heights.

“This thing is completely out of whack,” he said. “Building a 20-story building here in this area is like building the Pyramids in Park Slope.”

After the vote Wednesday, James said she had essentially agreed with the opposition but that members of the zoning and land use committees had been “unsympathe­tic” to the cause.

“I had indicated to [the DUMBO and Vinegar Hill opponents of the plan] earlier that we needed a compromise position, and it’s unfortunate that none came forward,” said James. “That’s why we were unable to get the desired results, but that’s also why we voted against it.”

She added that both she and Yassky “did the best we possibly could.”

Yassky did not return calls seeking comment.

The plan, which was trimmed down somewhat to gain approval, calls for the construction of a closed compound consisting of two nine-story towers, as well as one 18-story and one 20-story tower along with an 1,100-space parking garage for the exclusive use of Jehovah’s Witnesses members on a tract of land currently being used as a parking garage and bounded by Jay, Front, York and Bridge streets.

Santagata pointed out that at earlier hearings before the City Planning Commission and City Council, “99 percent of the people [there] spoke against the change,” and lambasted the council’s zoning subcommittee for voting in favor of it anyway.

“Should a few persons decide for the majority?” he wrote.

Amanda Barrow, who lives at 79 Bridge St., a condominium apartment building that was one of the first new structures to rise in Vinegar Hill offering luxury housing, agreed that Santagata’s displeasure was echoed over and over in the community. Barrow noted in an e-mail sent to each of the 51 council members citywide her concerns that approval of the Watchtower Society plan negates the efforts of DUMBO and Vinegar Hill residents to legislate comprehensive rezoning of the area for buildings comparable to what the warehouse district already has — largely 10-story current and former manufacturing buildings.

“We see the passage of the excesses of this project as creating an obstacle to our larger effort of preserving the character of the neighborho­od,” Barrow wrote in the e-mail.

“You should be voting as a representative of the public body, listening to the views of the affected community. This community is overwhelmingly against the project,” she wrote, and reminded the legislators of the 1,500 signed postcards and 400 signed petitions they submitted urging disapproval.

The DUMBO Neighborhood Association (DNA), which has been a vocal opponent of the plans and helped to rally the support of Borough President Marty Markowitz in calling for the buildings to be scaled down in context with the surrounding structures, headlined their December newsletter with the resigned statement, “We Did Not Prevail.”

According to James, her colleagues on the land use committee didn’t think the project was “that massive” and even zoning subcommittee chairman Tony Avella, she said, “thought the borough president’s requests were off the mark.”

Markowitz had requested that Watchtower downsize the buildings by 60 percent and cut their parking lot in half. He stood by his recommendation after the vote Wednesday saying, “I disagree with the City Council vote,” and noting that he “fought hard to make changes to the proposal.”

Christy Nyberg, a DNA member who largely spearheaded the neighborhood push for a scaled-down version of the 85 Jay St. plans, called the defeat “disappoint­ing” and said that James and Yassky, neither of whom she had spoken to since the land use committee’s Dec. 2 vote, “probably had thrown up their hands a little too soon.”

“Letitia [James] said she’d received at one point over 2,000 e-mails,” said Nyberg, who felt that the small, connected neighborhoods underneath and between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges weren’t seen as a strong political bloc. She added that James, who debated on a WNYC radio show with a representative for the Watchtower Society just weeks ago, seemed like she would have come through for the neighborhood opponents of the plan, Nyberg said.

“I would hope that she as a strong leader would’ve taken the reins a little more and guided [Yassky] in that direction instead of collaborating with him and letting him lead,” Nyberg said. “I know she has the ability to do that, and I hope down the line she will come to view us as her district more.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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