By Connor Adams Sheets
One of the grand institutions of downtown Flushing is one step closer to returning to life after Community Board 7 approved a proposal Monday night for the redevelopment of the long-shuttered RKO Keith’s Theatre.
The once opulent RKO Keith’s closed in 1986 after decades of screening films for generations of Flushing residents. CB 7’s 24-10 vote in support of a $160 million redevelopment project there is a step toward allowing Manhattan developer Patrick Thompson to re-envision and reopen the site after rehabilitating its landmarked lobby and repurposing it as an entryway to a new 17-story tower with 357 market-rate apartments, a senior center, 385 parking spaces and more than 12,000 square feet of retail.
“This is an amazing site, this is a site that’s been empty and this is a site that’s essential to downtown Flushing,” said Jay Valgora, the project’s architect. “It’s been kind of a missing tooth in the smile of the neighborhood.”
The proposal will go before Borough President Helen Marshall at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 24 at Queens Borough Hall, then proceed to the city Board of Standards and Appeals and possibly the city Landmarks Preservation Commission for final approval.
But CB 7 Chairman Eugene Kelty and Vice Chairman Chuck Apelian, both of whom have supported other large projects in the area, including the $800 million Flushing Commons development slated for blocks from the RKO Keith’s and the multibillion-dollar Willets Point redevelopment plan, were among a cadre of detractors who raised concerns about parking, housing density and other issues.
A previous plan CB 7 approved for the site would have allowed developer Shaya Boymelgreen to build just 200 larger residential units, which Kelty and Apelian said they thought would have been more appropriate and would have had a lesser impact on the neighborhood. The size and height of the building have not changed with the new proposal.
“We’re being asked to go from 200 to 357 apartments. That’s quite an amount of increase, that’s almost double,” Apelian said. “We’re talking about 1,000 people that are going to be going in and out of the building.”
Kelty and Apelian also balked at the developer’s plan for 385 parking spots , which works out to less than one – or a little over 0.9 to be exact — for every apartment after spaces for workers and senior center users are factored in.
The 2005 proposal by Shaya Boymelgreen that CB 7 approved would have included 200 residential units and a senior center, accompanied by 229 parking spaces. That plan fulfilled what Kelty calls “100 percent parking,” meaning there was a space for every car the project was expected to bring to the site. To provide that level of parking in a 357-apartment project with commercial space and a senior center would require 425 parking spots, Kelty said.
“I’d be remiss if I voted for the project and I’ll tell you why: The density’s too high …. The reason I have is the agreement we had over there was for 100 percent parking,” Kelty said. “I like the project. I like that we’re protecting the landmarking of the lobby. I like the developer, I do. I just have a problem with the density.”
A number of community members and board members spoke in support of the project, bucking the suggestions of CB 7’s two leaders.
“The RKO Keith’s has been a great problem for downtown Flushing, and as you know it’s a keystone. When you come down Main Street you run into a derelict building,” said Chuck Wade, a former CB 7 board member. “I’ve lived 40 years in Flushing and I’ve never had a car. Not everyone has a car, you don’t have to have a car. As for the parking argument, I don’t think that’s completely true. I’m for the project. Do it.”
Thompson bought the note on the property in May 2010 from Doral Bank for $20 million amid worries about Boymelgreen’s financial woes. Boymelgreen purchased the theater in 2002 and attempted to develop the long-neglected site at 137-25 Northern Blvd.
In 1999, notorious developer Tommy Huang pleaded guilty to felony charges for ignoring asbestos contamination and pouring hundreds of gallons of fuel oil into the theater’s basement two decades ago. He was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and sentenced to five years’ probation.
Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4538.