BY JAMES FARRELL
Since its closure in 1986, the historic RKO Keith’s Theater in Flushing has been handed off down a long line of developers, each failing to actualize development plans at the site. And as local preservationists have fought to maintain the theater—or even restore it to its former glory— the ornate structure, with its landmarked interior foyer and ticket lobby, has fallen into disrepair.
But in August 2016, JK Equities sold the property to Chinese firm Xinyuan Real Estate for $66 million. Xinyuan is adhering to plans previously brought forward by JK Equities and approved by Community Board 7 in 2015 that call for a 16-story, 269-unit development with restoration and preservation of the landmarked portions of the theater. And during a May 16 public hearing, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) approved those plans, potentially clearing the way for the RKO Keith’s development.
Some community leaders are skeptical—Xinyuan is only the latest firm to try to develop the property. And history has not been kind to the theater.
The 1928 movie palace once seated 3,000 guests in an ornate auditorium for both motion pictures and vaudevillian productions until it closed in 1986 after being partially landmarked in 1984. Developer Tommy Huang then purchased the property for $3.4 million with plans to develop a movie complex, shopping mall and hotel, but was accused of damaging parts of the auditorium. He was given five years’ probation and a $5,000 fine for a damaging oil leak. The property then passed to developers Shaya Boymelgreen, Patrick Thompson and Jerry Karlik, of JK Equities, who all failed to see the property developed as its condition worsened. Meanwhile, various efforts, such as the Committee to Save the RKO Keith’s Theatre of Flushing in the 1980s, have been made to restore the theater.
“I find this to be absolutely mind-boggling, the fact that it has been sold so many times and everybody has made a profit,” said state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing). “The only losers have been the community because this has been an eyesore greeting people as they come east on Northern Boulevard.”
With the LPC’s approval, that “eyesore” may be one step closer to development. Pei Cobb Freed designed the plans in conjunction with Ayon Studio, which specializes in building preservation. In addition to luxury condo units, the space would include a parking garage and retail component. The proposal, as approved by the LPC, would keep some parts of the landmarked interior untouched, but remove ornamental plaster and woodwork for offsite renovation before reincorporating those elements into the new building.
Other parts that cannot be salvaged will be replaced.
Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing) called the LPC’s approval “bittersweet.”
“While our community would love to see this theater restored, the economics of such a restoration have been exacerbated by illegal demolitions from past owners as well as severe deterioration, weather damage and vandalism resulting from decades of inertia,” he said.
The development has drawn some concerns from both historical and practical perspectives. A lingering concern that the LPC raised in its hearing is the possibility that those landmarked spaces would not be sufficiently accessible to the public. Some in Queens shared that concern.
Joe Brostek, trustee for the Queens Historical Society, said it was fascinating that the RKO Keith’s might finally see “light at the end of the tunnel,” but also wondered about what lies ahead.
“I personally wonder about access to the interior landmarked areas and security issues for the proposed residents of the building,” he said. “And let’s not forget the impact on downtown Flushing traffic.”
Stavisky added that she would have preferred to see affordable housing planned for the site, as opposed to the luxury condos, but said she recognized that, given the price tag of the spot, that was “not going to happen.” She also had concerns about congestion and infrastructure, adding that the neighborhood needed a community facility, but she remained “cautiously optimistic” and was pleased that the site could finally be cleaned up.
“It’s not the best possible result, but it’s a result I think we can probably live with,” she said.
For John Choe, executive director of the Flushing Chamber of Commerce, the best possible scenario would have been to preserve the theater. He cited the example of the historic Kings Theater in Brooklyn, which was revitalized as a performing-arts center after the city invested millions in it.
“It shows our lack of political power when it comes to how resources are allocated, and I think it’s a sad story for us,” he said. “I’m hoping this will be the last time that the city will allow this type of community treasure to be derelict and fall into disrepair.”
And while he’s not yet convinced the project will be completed, Choe said the new development is the latest example of the city’s failure to keep up with Flushing’s infrastructure needs as it continues to approve new developments.
“Right now, the private sector is building and developing things and we need more leadership on the part of government to help us plan these developments better and address these issues around congestion,” he said.
Chuck Apelian, vice chairman of CB 7, said that the community board had worked hard to reduce congestion as much as possible for the project by fighting for a predominantly residential—rather than commercial—development.
“This isn’t a destination retail or a destination office building,” he said. “There’s a lot of development in downtown Flushing, so this is not outside the norm.”
As to whether the project is completed, Apelian said that there’s no way to know.
“I’m a betting man and I’m not betting on anything,” he said. “[The developers] seem sincere, they seem like their intent is in the right place.”
Demolition of the nonlandmarked parts of the building could begin in the fall, according to the presentation given to the LPC.
Christian Kellberg, a mechanical engineer who started a Facebook page titled “Save the Flushing RKO Keith’s Theater” that has more than 2,000 members, said he’s skeptical that Xinyuan has the funding to complete the project as big money has yet to be spent on any construction. He’s holding on to hope that the theater could still be revitalized in its entirety.
“We’ve heard this before, many times,” he said. “Technically, the RKO can be saved, and there’s been so many examples of theaters that have been saved.”
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.