Building on theater site voted down

By Ayala Ben-Yehuda

An ambitious plan to develop the RKO Keith’s site in Flushing into a high-rise residential and retail complex hit a roadblock Monday night as Community Board 7 unanimously rejected a variance application by the developer.

Brooklyn-based Boymelgreen Developers presented its designs for a $100 million, 17-story glass building at a packed public meeting of the community board at the Union Plaza nursing home.

And while the company’s meticulous plans to preserve the landmarked lobby and foyer of the 75-year-old movie theater received praise, it was the building’s planned size — three times what zoning laws allow — that proved unpopular with the board.

“We are extremely pleased by the developer and his team,” said Charles Apelian, head of a board subcommittee that rejected the variance last week.

But in explaining the subcommittee’s vote to the full board, he asked “when does large become too big?”

Boymelgreen purchased the RKO Keith’s for $16 million in 2002 from notorious Flushing developer Thomas Huang, who was convicted in 1999 of ignoring asbestos contamination and spilling hundreds of gallons of fuel oil in the basement.

After Huang was fined $5,000 and sentenced to five years of probation, he filed a $39 million lawsuit against the city for unfair punishment.

When the state ended Huang’s probation, he dropped his suit and sold the property to Boymelgreen.

The company’s current plans call for a 12,500-square-foot senior center on the third floor, 248 market-rate condominiums and four levels of parking at and below grade.

Flanking either side of the preserved and restored lobby would be two duplex retail stores. The old theater’s concession stand would be turned into a café and the entire entrance would be draped in a glass “curtain” reminiscent of a theater.

“This is the density that’s required to preserve the landmark and in order to construct a world-class building on this site,” said Howard Goldman, an attorney representing Boymelgreen.

Apelian and Community Board 7 Chairman Eugene Kelty said the developer’s desired profit margin did not justify the proposed size of the project.

The board and the developer tried up until Monday at noon to reach an agreement on the floor area ratio of the building to no avail. Floor area ratio determines how many square feet a property can have relative to the size of its base.

Many board members feared the building’s height would set off what preservationist Paul Graziano called “a stampede of variance requests” from other builders, permanently altering Flushing’s skyline.

Others feared the approximately 266 valet parking spaces for shoppers and residents would not suffice.

Myra Baird Herce, president of the Flushing Chamber of Commerce, spoke in favor of the plan.

“It was just festering for so many years,” she said of the dilapidated theater, which had decayed under Huang’s ownership. “Why not the best for Flushing?”

But Cheshire Frager of the Committee to Save the RKO Keith’s of Flushing said while she was glad the project was no longer in the hands of a “criminal destroyer,” the proposed building’s bulk was inappropriate and would be a stress on local infrastructure.

The board ultimately voted down the variance application 34-0.

Boymelgreen’s attorney Goldman said the developer understood the no-vote and that coming down on the building’s bulk was “possible” in ongoing discussions with the community.

Borough President Helen Marshall is set to weigh in on the plans, after which they will go to the Board of Standards and Appeals.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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