The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission approved renovation plans for the historic RKO theater on Northern Boulevard at the gateway to the heart of Flushing.
China-based Xinyuan Real Estate’s proposal to build a 16-story condominium with 269 units, while preserving the landmarked grand foyer and ticket lobby, was approved on the spot at a May 16 presentation.
The theater was purchased by Xinyuan Real Estate last July for $66 million, the fifth developer to try to convert the long abandoned theater at 135-35 Northern Blvd..
RKO Keith’s Theater opened on Christmas Day 1928. In its heyday, the theater hosted performances by mega-stars Bob Hope, Judy Garland and Jerry Lewis. In 1984 the theater’s lobby and staircase were designated landmarks by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The theater was closed down in 1986 and has since been in a state of limbo.
The first developer to acquire RKO was also the most notorious. In 1986, Thomas Huang purchased the theater for $3.4 million. Huang made plans to transform the theater into a mega-mall combined with condos. A series of problems soon followed, including an arson case in 1990 that was never solved. Huang was accused of destroying historic parts of the theater, and in 1997 he pleaded guilty to letting 10,000 gallons of heating oil spill into the basement. He served five years probation and paid a $5,000 fine.
Following Huang were a series of developers whose plans never got off the ground. Most recently, JK Equities put the theater up for sale in February.
The Chinese developer’s glassy new design was shown in a rendition on Ayon Studio Architecture and Preservation filed plans. The building will stand at just over 189 feet and the landmarked ticket lobby and grand foyer will be the entry for the condo.
According to the project schedule, the removal of the historic material in the theater will start this June, and the demolition of the non-landmarked parts of the surrounding building will start in October. Construction of the condo is set to be finished by April 2020.
City Councilman Peter Koo (D- Flushing) said he felt bittersweet about the approval by the LPC, but is glad the lobby will be preserved.
“While it is saddening that the entire theater will not be restored, we are excited that this project will finally get underway after more than 30 years,” Koo said. “Our community has fond memories of the majestic RKO Keith’s, and the developer has gone to great lengths to ensure the landmarked lobby and grand foyer will be safely preserved or replicated. 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.”
Reach Gina Martinez by e-mail at gmart
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