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RKO Keith’s to get a touch of glass

It was one week shy of a year since architect Jay Valgora first stood before CB 7 and asked the board to approve a residential and retail development that was nearly twice the allowable bulk by law. His proposal was unanimously defeated. This time he asked the board to consider a building that was slimmer in design but maintained the architectural character of the movie house by restoring the historic lobby and constructing a translucent curtain at the entrance."The exciting part is the exact same building that we saw a year ago is still going to be there," said Chuck Apelian, CB 7 vice chairman. He worked with Brooklyn-based Boymelgreen Developers to present their designs last February, which were essentially the same in look, just bulkier in size.When they unanimously rejected the plan a year ago, board members contended the parking was insufficient because developers were only creating 266 spaces for 250 condos. On Monday night, Valgora showed board members a plan that included 233 valet spaces for 200 apartments. The board approved it in a 33-to-2 vote. The proposal now must be approved by the borough board, Borough President Helen Marshall, the Department of City Planning and City Council before being constructed. Planners said once approved, the project could take two years to complete."It will be the beacon of Flushing Main Street, just as the RKO Keith's was for so many years," Marshall said Tuesday. "We're all looking forward to that." At Marshall's urging, revisions to the design did not eliminate plans for a two-story, 12,500-square-foot senior center that includes classrooms and a dining area."It's really a world-class design," said Howard Goldman, the developer's attorney. "It has pulled its belt in and gotten a little slimmer. We hope to bring back some of the glory that the RKO Keith's had in Queens."The RKO Keith's Theater was built in the 1920s and was a destination cinema for 60 years where major silent movie stars performed vaudeville acts and Groucho Marx made his moustache famous, said Joe Sena, a documentarian who is working on a film about the movie house.The theater closed in the mid-1980s and fell into disrepair in the hands of developer Tommy Huang, who was convicted of a felony charge for ignoring asbestos contamination and spilling hundreds of gallons of fuel oil in the basement of the building. When civic leaders toured the landmark cinema two years ago, they saw the once-grandiose lobby covered in graffiti and blanketed in dust.But Valgora promised to resurrect the RKO Keith's lobby by restoring the two grand staircases and replacing the centerpiece fountain that vanished from the building.The entrance will be encased by a frosted, undulating glass curtain that matches the dimensions of the original theater's proscenium."It's like a wall of fabric," Valgora said. "Right behind that is the original historic lobby."The foyer will be open to the public and serve as the entrance for the residents of the 200 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments upstairs. Valgora said the building is set 10 feet further back from the street than originally planned and is slimmer in dimension all around.The developers said it would cost roughly $65 million to construct the building, markedly less than the $100 million they were planning to spend on last year's designs. Apelian said it was important that CB 7 voted to maintain the architectural integrity of the building while still requiring the developer to add parking and to slash the number of apartments."We fought for that building," Apelian said. "So much so that it would be a sacrilege to give you something else."A few board members spoke against the project, contending that it did not fit in with the surrounding neighborhood and would not conform with the neighborhood's cost of living. A brief debate even broke out over whether the board should require Boymelgreen to use unionized construction workers because a Sunday New York Times article shed light on the fact that the developer normally did not.In the end, the board formed a separate committee to make a recommendation about the use of union-organized labor before voting to pass the project."In my mind it's been an arduous process," Valgora said. "But it has made it a better building."Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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