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Flushing’s landmarked RKO Keith’s Theater will soon be engulfed by glassy condo

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The Landmarks Preservation Commission has approved a proposal by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners to subsume the theater’s landmarked interiors in a new building

Pei Cobb Freed & Partners via LPC Review Materials

If there’s one thing that New York developers know, it’s how to work around the myriad limitations imposed on their site by various city entities. Take for example JDS and Property Markets Group, who at 111 West 57th Street are incorporating Steinway Hall’s exterior shell into the rising supertall, as well as maintaining its landmarked interior in the base of the luxury condo tower.

Now developer Xinyuan Real Estate will join the ranks of planning sorcery with its proposal for the former RKO Keith’s Theater in Flushing, a long-shuttered building by Thomas Lamb with partial interior landmark status. Xinyuan came in front of the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday morning to present its proposal to rehabilitate and preserve the 1928-built theater’s landmarked grand foyer and ticket lobby within a new glassy 16-floor building with 269 apartments. To the surprise of some, the proposal was approved on the first go-around.

Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the firm founded by Pritzker Prize winner I.M. Pei, is the project architect while Ayon Studios have been tapped as the preservation architect.

Architectural drawings on file with Landmarks indicate that Xinyuan plans to use the existing ticket lobby and grand foyer as the entry for the residential building. An additional residential lobby, mail room, and elevator bank will be accessed past the landmarked interiors.

Floorplans included in the presentation also show that the building will have a sophisticated robot parking system, as condo developments these days do. Under the plan, the original theater that could once seat up to 3,000 and was not granted landmark status will be razed.

The interiors, largely neglected for the past 30 years, are worse for wear. Images from inside the building taken at different times after its 1984 landmarking show just how much the structure has fallen towards disrepair, with a partial collapse of the grand foyer’s ceiling and graffiti littered throughout.

As part of the site’s redevelopment, some of the existing plasterwork that depicts an asymmetrical Churrigueresque Spanish townscape will be removed and replaced, with other portions being salvaged and restored off site. Just about everything will require work, be it reconstruction or new paint.

The Municipal Arts Society has weighed in on the restoration, saying it believes “the new construction could be more sympathetic to the historic theater,” but endorsing the rehab nonetheless.

The Historic Districts Council in its written statement expresses concerns about the accessibility of the interior landmark, noting that “public accessibility to an interior landmark is a key characteristic of its designation” and that “people are not permitted into the lobby of a residential building except at the invitation of a resident.”

This proved to be the main point of contention among the LPC’s commissioners as well, at Tuesday’s meeting. While the ticket lobby will be accessible to the public as part of the retail space in the new development, the fate of the grand foyer beyond that has yet to be decided.

Since the grand foyer connects to the residential portion of the building, the developers have expressed hesitation about allowing unfettered access to this space. Currently a set of doors separate the ticket lobby from the grand foyer, and the developers had initially proposed that visitors be allowed views of the grand foyer from just outside of these doors

Commissioners however expressed hesitation about blocking off a public landmark in this way, and Commissioner Michael Goldblum pointed to a third set of doors within the grand foyer that connects to the residential portion as a separation point. He questioned why the public wouldn’t be allowed access to this space even with this separation in place.

The historical preservation consultants on the project, Ayon Studio, pointed out that two sets of stairs on either side of the grand foyer led to an elevated deck above the foyer, which in turn offered access to the elevator bank of the building, and the amenity space. This would be a security hazard, the consultants argued.

In the end, the commissioners decided to unanimously support the project, but asked that staff members at the Commission work with the developers to ensure that there is at least some form of access to the grand foyer, even if it is for a limited time each day.

The site has had a tortuous history since its closure as a theater. A recap, by way of previous Curbed coverage:

In the late 1980s, former site owner Thomas Huang wanted to convert the theater, with its newly-landmarked ticket booth and grand lobby, into a hotel. But Huang illegally demolished some of the interiors in a move that netted him felony charges and put the theater back on the market.

Controversial developer Shaya Boymelgreen purchased the site in 2002 for $15 million with plans to build out condos at the site, but Boymelgreen ended up selling the theater to Patrick Thompson in 2010 for $20 million.

JK Equities picked the site up from Thompson in 2013 for $30 million, and have now sold the theater to Xinyuan for over twice what they paid for it just three years ago.

Xinyuan purchased the theater in August 2016, indicating at the time that the apartments would cater to a more well-off demographic. “The location for this project in downtown Flushing is ideally situated particularly as there is a shortage of inventory in the higher-end condominium segment,” Xinyuan chairman Yong Zhang said in a statement. “Given the location of this project, we expect it will be appealing to both local and foreign buyers and investors.”

[Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Steinway Hall’s exterior would be demolished to build 111 West 57th Street. The piece has been updated; we regret the error.]

Rko Keith\'s Theatre

135-35 Northern Boulevard, Queens, NY