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Brooklyn developer eyes RKO Keith’s in Flushing

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An unidentified Brooklyn developer has entered into a contract with RKO Keith’s Theater owner Tommy Huang to buy the dilapidated building with the intention of keeping its landmarked areas intact, Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) said.

At the same time, questions were raised about plans to develop the Caldor site, which like the RKO Keith’s sits vacant and is considered an eyesore by community leaders

This weekend Liu met with a large Brooklyn development firm to discuss the company’s plans.

“The group involved is community-oriented. They have done several of these projects across the city,” Liu said. “I feel good that this is going to happen. I am cautiously optimistic, because we’ve been down this road so many times in the last 16 years.”

Liu said he did not want to give the name of the firm until the deal was closed, which is expected to occur sometime in the next several weeks. He said the developer did not disclose in detail what it planned to do with the building.

Huang did not return phone calls about the pending deal.

The Brooklyn company’s interest could turn around a property that has become symbolic of downtown Flushing’s failure to balance history with development.

The building on Northern Boulevard at the end of Main Street was purchased by Huang in 1986, shortly after its lobby and grand staircase were declared a landmark, legally preventing these areas from being destroyed.

Inspections, however, showed Huang had damaged the property, and work was halted within a year after its purchase.

The site has since laid dormant as legal battles over its fate continue.

In 1999, Huang was convicted of a felony count of ignoring asbestos contamination and spilling hundreds of gallons of fuel oil in the RKO Keith’s basement. He was sentenced to five years’ probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.

Huang countered with a $39 million lawsuit against the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

At the beginning of the year, a door opened to a resolution. The state dropped the probation sentence against Huang while he ended his lawsuit and agreed to put down a $40,000 security deposit to repair the theater.

But the sales contract by no means guarantees the deal will be closed.

Last year, the Bentos Company entered a similar contract with Huang’s group, RKO Delaware Inc. Bentos ended up suing RKO Delaware after it discovered unsettled violations at the site.

Liu said the unnamed Brooklyn firm told him it would respect the landmarked areas in the future.

“I asked them, ‘Are they looking to get away from any of the landmarking requirements?’ They said no, which I think is a very good thing, because we want the site recognized for what it is.”

But as a deal on one major downtown property seemed to draw closer, another arrangement appeared stagnant.

The Caldor property on Roosevelt Avenue between Main and Union streets has attracted the interest of John Chen, who owns a Flushing condominium and heads a group of investors.

The September closing date between Chen’s group, 724 Management and the Vornado Realty Trust, which has a controlling stake in the property, has come and gone, and another closing date has been set.

“The landlord put a lot of restrictions to renovate the property,” Chen said in an interview Tuesday.

David Rosenberg, speaking for Robert K. Futterman and Associates, Vornado’s leasing agent, said Chen had limited time before Vornado moved on.

“The bottom line in its simplest terms is that he contracted to purchase something, but he hasn’t closed,” Rosenberg said. “Either the deal happens or it doesn’t happen. But it’s not going to sit around forever.”

The additional rounds of negotiations have pushed back Chen’s plans to open a mall called the Flushing Expo on the property this holiday season until at least April 2003.

Liu said Vornado was now considering not selling the property at all.

“Currently Vornado is looking to find a retailer themselves,” Liu said. “I actually would prefer Vornado going out there and doing it themselves. I would hate to see the place subdivided.”

Vornado would not comment on the contract.

In a possible sign that Vornado plans to remain in Flushing, Sandeep Mathrani, its executive vice president for retail, has been named to the steering committee to study the feasibility of bringing a Business Improvement District to downtown Flushing.

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.

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