RKO Keith’s future up in the air again

Condo plans for RKO Keith’s theater in Flushing may be stalled.
By Gina Martinez

Reconstruction of Flushing’s RKO Keith’s theater may be delayed once again.

The historic theater, located at 135-35 Northern Blvd., was purchased by Xinyuan Real Estate, a China-based real estate developer and property manager, for $66 million in August 2016. Xinyuan, the fifth developer to try to convert the abandoned theater, has plans to build a 16-story condominium with 269 units, while preserving the landmarked grand foyer and ticket lobby. The building will stand at just over 189 feet and the landmarked ticket lobby and grand foyer will be the entry for the condo.

Xinyuan hastwo other major projects in New York City: the real estate company is currently developing a condo in Hell’s Kitchen and wrapped up construction on the heavily anticipated Williamsburg condo called the Oosten project.

In May, the city Landmarks Preservation Commission approved renovation plans for the theater. The long-awaited project was slated to begin removing the historic material this past June and the demolition of the non-landmarked parts of the surrounding building were set to start in October. But there are reports the project has been stalled and it is not known yet if the April 2020 finish date still stands.

According to a report from The Real Deal, a real estate website, Xinyuan recently dismantled the team running its U.S. development arm, XIN Development. XIN turned over management of three New York City projects to Kuafu Properties, a four-year-old development firm backed by Chinese private equity. Current declines in the condo market are said to affect the reconstruction of RKO Keith’s, the site said. A broker who worked with Xinyuan told Real Deal “the project is stalled and there are landmark issues,”

In November, Forest Hills resident Richard Thornhill created the petition “Save the RKO Keith’s theater in Flushing Queens” on change.org directed at Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Xinyuan Real Estate. The petition quickly met its 2,500 signature goal.

On his petition Thornhill wrote that preserving RKO was important because it is one of two atmospheric theaters left in Queens. He said Xinyuan Real Estate has no plan for public access to the landmarked lobby.

“We are not asking Xinyuan Real Estate to give up the performance space, but understand that a functional restored theater with the character and beauty of a RKO would attract more people to the area and could be a profitable venture,” the petition continued. “So please sign this petition to save the RKO Keith’s Theater before one of our great buildings is gone forever.”

Last week Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing) sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration claiming the new condominium planned at the site of the theater is too tall and that developers received approval for it through deceit. In his letter Kim writes that he believes that this is a precarious situation as the site is dangerously close to current flight paths. The maximum height FAA allows is 195 feet above sea level, but according to Kim, this condo will be 210 feet above sea level.

“This is a significant safety hazard for low-flying planes in the neighborhoods of my district, which are located directly between LaGuardia Airport and John F. Kennedy International airport,” the assemblyman said. “The proposed building in question will be directly in line with incoming flight paths.”

Thornhill who is cc’d on the letter to the FAA, said he is tired of being misled by developers.

“Since the ‘80s developer after developer has come to the site of the former RKO and broken promises, deceived the people of Queens, and have put the area as well as it’s people in danger,” he said. “I know that the best solution is to restore the theater under the watchful eye of the city so these continuing problems can end once and for all.”

Reach Gina Martinez by e-mail at gmartinez@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4566.

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