BY DANIEL OFFNER
Once a quiet sleepy suburb at the end of the subway, Flushing has boomed in recent decades to become a Queens commercial and residential hub, with its own skyline and even its own word in the language of the immigrant population who spearheaded its renaissance.
At the height of the 20th century, Flushing was renowned as a hot-spot for some of the American film industry elite. Over the years it would play host to several vaudeville acts and performances from legendary actors like the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, among others.
But back then, Flushing was mostly a residential community, dotted with private homes and commercial strips like a typical American suburb. That all changed in the mid 20th Century.
In the 1970s, the Chinese immigrant population in Flushing began to boom. At the time, many of those moving into the area were former Chinese Nationalists, who fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war to the communist regime.
As the Taiwanese population continued to grow, so did Flushing, and by 1990 Asian-Americans represented 41 percent of the population. There is even a word in Chinese for the neighborhood; 法拉盛 or Falasheng.
With them came a building boom. Today, Flushing has one of the strongest real estate markets in the five boroughs – with home sales prices appreciating 33.7 percent over the last five years, according to Trulia.com.
Some of the biggest development to take place in Flushing in recent years, include: Citi Field – which officially opened its doors to the New York Mets fans in 2009 – the New World Shopping Mall, Sky View Parc, Flushing Commons and several big chain hotels, including the Sheraton on 39th Avenue.
The New World Shopping Mall opened in Downtown Flushing in 2011, and is the largest Asian shopping center in New York State. The three-story shopping mall features 108 retail shops, an Asian supermarket on the first and second floor and is home to one of the largest Chinese dim sum restaurants and banquet halls in the Tri-State area.
In 2011, developers with ONEX Real Estate Partners opened the first of a three phase development project – to bring 448 condo units and a nearly 800,000 square-foot shopping center to the area.
After completing the first phase, developers now have their sights set on the construction of The Grand at Sky View Parc, which entails construction of three residential towers with a combined total of 650 condominium units.
Since last summer, when developers first broke ground at the former site of Municipal Lot No. 1, the construction of Flushing Commons – a mixed use residential, commercial, retail and community space with a 1,600-space public parking garage – has been making major headway. While construction is still ongoing, the project aims to bring approximately 600 new residential units and close to 461,000-square-feet of office and retail space when complete.
Work is also continuing on the Eastern Mirage project, a mixed hotel-medical center that will be Flushing’s tallest building at 42-31 Union St.
In addition to those development projects, plans have once again surfaced that look to redevelop the historic RKO Keith’s Theater – a cornerstone of Flushing’s past – for the fourth and possibly final time.
In its hey-day, the three-story RKO Keith’s Theater in Flushing was one of the most storied movie palaces in New York City. Erected in 1928, the “atmospheric” venue was known for its stoic Spanish Baroque Revival style interior, which helped earn its ticket lobby and grand foyer the designation of landmark.
In 1986, when the theater closed, the new owner Thomas Huang started to demolish the space with plans to turn it into a 350-room international hotel. Under Huang’s ownership, landmarked portions of the theater were demolished, which sparked community activists to petition that the entire structure be granted “landmark status.”
Cheshire Frager, a member of the Committee to Save the RKO Keith’s Theatre of Flushing, said that at the time, the committee collected signatures more than 3,000 signatures from residents who wanted to see the theater preserved. However, the petition would fall upon deaf ears, as then-Borough President Claire Shulman refused to support landmarking the entire property.
Since that time, the RKO Keith’s Theater has been left in its dilapidated state.
In 2005, the Board of Standard and Appeals approved an application to develop a 17-story mixed use building with close to 400 rental units in downtown Flushing. At the time plans were presented, Community Board 7 Chairman Eugene Kelty and first Vice President Chuck Apelian voted against it.
“That was really going to impact the area,” Kelty said. “I feel more comfortable with where we are now.”
Now, more than ten years since the BSA approved plans, developers are proposing to amend the BSA application to increase the building height by 15-feet, reduce the number of residential units to allow 269 market-rate condos, reduce the number of parking spaces and change the façade along Northern Boulevard.
“This is the last piece of the puzzle,” developer Jerry Karlik told the Queens Tribune. “We’re ready to break ground as soon as we get approval.”
According to Karlik, the proposed condo units will range from 500 to 1,600 sq. ft., with the average cost going for anywhere between $400,000 to approximately $2 million for the penthouse.
Despite the new plans to build luxury condos while also preserving the landmarked ticket booth and front lobby, Frager said she is most disappointed with the fact that the developers are proposing to build a tenant-only parking garage where 3,200 patrons used to sit.
“Shame on Queens… we could have had a restored theater,” Frager said. “A corrupt Borough Hall sunk the Keith’s.”
Kelty said that while he would’ve loved to see the RKO Keith’s restored as a performing arts center, nobody was able to come up with the money.
“That was 30 years ago,” Kelty said. “It has been an eyesore… it’s time to move forward.”
Reach Daniel Offner at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 125, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @DanielOffner.