Religious group is leaving its Watchtower headquarters for town north of the city
NEW YORK— The Jehovah’s Witnesses, the door-knocking religious group that’s been based in Brooklyn for a century, is selling its headquarters and other properties for an expected price tag of $1 billion (U.S.) or more.
The Witnesses’ move to a town about an hour north of New York City will likely mean the end of the complex’s most well-known feature, the neon “Watchtower” sign advertising the church’s flagship publication.
But it will free up hundreds of thousands of square feet for businesses and apartments in a now-trendy neighbourhood at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.
“It’s going to be incredibly transformative,” said Alexandria Sica, executive director of the DUMBO Improvement District, a business group.
Jehovah’s Witnesses spokesman Richard Devine said the move will allow the organization to operate more efficiently. The church had owned 36 separate Brooklyn properties before it began selling them off in preparation for the move upstate to Warwick, N.Y.
The printing plant where the Witnesses produce Bibles and religious tracts moved from Brooklyn to the town of Wallkill, N.Y., in 2004.
“As we’ve grown as an organization we’ve had to buy scattered properties wherever we could find them,” Devine said. “With a big, scattered campus like that it’s challenging to administer and to maintain.”
The Witnesses bought their 68,100sq. metre headquarters from Squibb Pharmaceuticals for $3 million in 1969. It was placed on the market this month along with a nearby apartment building and a12,540-sq. metre lot.
Despite the prominent “Watchtower” sign, the building has no historical designations that would place restrictions on the buyer.
The church has not announced an asking price but Tucker Reed, president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, called $1 billion “a conservative estimate” for the Witnesses’ real estate portfolio.
A partnership including Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner purchased a nearby 130,000-sq. metre complex from the Witnesses in 2013 for $375 million and is developing it as a tech hub, while smaller buildings have sold for varying amounts.
In upstate New York, the Witnesses have purchased hotels and other properties for volunteers building the church’s new headquarters. The Witnesses have more than eight million active members worldwide and about 11 million more who attend some services, according to church officials.
Witnesses are required to spread their message door to door and are not allowed to vote, receive blood transfusions or serve in the military.
The organization has been in Brooklyn since 1908, but seems culturally distinct from its gritty-meets-yuppie surroundings.
Devine said 100,000 people a year visit the Brooklyn headquarters but the Warwick facility an hour north of the city will get more visitors when it opens in 2017.
“To be honest with you,” he said, “many people find New York City intimidating.”
Sica said she is looking forward to the Witnesses’ move in part because the church’s properties seem offlimits to non-members, with fencedin parking lots and no street-level retail.
“It’s closed off,” she said. “You get that sense of ‘This place is not for the public.’ ”
But both Sica and Reed said that before they leave, the Witnesses should follow through on a promise to redevelop a neighbourhood park, which they agreed to do in exchange for a zoning change.
Devine said the Witnesses will fulfil the commitment to build the park “either through our efforts or through the efforts of the new owner. We won’t walk away from it.”