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jueves, 17 de diciembre de 2015

Jehovah's Witnesses should leave Brooklyn a big thank-you gift

Last week, the Jehovah’s Witnesses continued their exodus upstate, signaling their further decampment from New York City by putting three more properties on the market, including their 733,000-square foot world headquarters at 25-30 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn.

That astute move comes at the height of the real estate market, and is just the latest in a slew of sales by the group in the downtown Brooklyn area over the past decade. Between the sale of their Dumbo Heights properties and these recently announced listings, the Witnesses stand to gross in excess of $1 billion.

The group’s former holdings are already blooming into top-flight assets for the area, such as the budding Dumbo Heights office and retail complex in the heart of the Brooklyn Tech Triangle. But with those projects comes additional strain on local infrastructure such as parks, schools and subways.

These sales windfalls—and resulting development—make clear that it’s time for the Witnesses to give something back to the neighborhood that fostered their growth and bankrolled their future.

Former New York City Council Member David Yassky had the same thought in the early 2000s, when the Witnesses’ parking lot at Jay and Front streets was rezoned. He and other local stakeholders sought a contribution from the group to rehab the ragged York Street F train station along with Bridge Park 2, a bleak slab of asphalt operated as a city park between the Farragut Houses and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Those fixes, which Yassky says the Witnesses committed to fund, never happened. A decade later, they’re needed more than ever, as the downtown Brooklyn has seen $6.3 billion invested in 88 construction projects over that period, with 37 more in the pipeline—and that doesn’t even take into account anticipated growth in neighboring Dumbo.

Before they leave for good, the Witnesses should dedicate 5% of their latest real estate proceeds, about $50 million, toward local public amenities. Not only would that represent a minuscule portion of their earnings, but it’s well below the property taxes they would have paid over the decades if not for their exemptions as a nonprofit.

That money could go toward critical assets like a new public school to help alleviate persistent and growing overcrowding. It could help spruce up aging subway stations. And it could provide a significant boost to the Brooklyn Strand initiative, an effort spearheaded by the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership that would rehab and better link more than 40 acres of disconnected public parks and plazas in the neighborhood.

When the Witnesses’ iconic Watchtower headquarters opened in 1969, the Brooklyn waterfront below was a desolate stretch of Port Authority warehouses and terminals, shut off to the public. Today, as Brooklyn Bridge Park teems with visitors from across the city, downtown Brooklyn has emerged as the economic engine of the city’s most populous borough, and its land values have risen alongside.

But now the Jehovah’s Witnesses are reaping those benefits on their way out the door without giving back to the neighborhood that fueled its fortunes. It’s time to make sure that happens before it’s too late.

Tucker Reed is president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a nonprofit local development corporation.


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