Oh this theater project is taken SO long....
Developer May Soon Revive Landmark Theater in Flushing
By JULIA VITULLO-MARTIN
September 29, 2005
At a public hearing on Tuesday, the Board of Standards and Appeals signaled that the 20-year saga of the RKO-Keith Theater in Flushing, Queens, may soon end, leading to the building's rebirth.
The board's chairwoman, Meenakshi Srinivasan, indicated she would be receptive to granting the variance that would allow a major reconstruction of the site to go forward. Further negotiations will be necessary to decide the details of a tentatively reached compromise proposed by the development director of Boymelgreen Developers, Scott Milsom, who agreed to provide more parking in exchange for being allowed to build at their requested bulk.
Many community representatives seemed relieved. "People are in favor of this project," the district manager of Community Board 7, Marilyn Bitterman, said. "The site was abandoned and neglected for years. We were thrilled when the developer purchased it and decided to develop it while keeping the integrity of the theater and enhancing the landmarked portion of the building."
The president of Queens, Helen Marshall, regarded RKO-Keith as so important that she testified in person - the first time she has done so since leaving the chairmanship of the zoning committee of Community Board 3 and winning elected office. She urged the board to accept the "project proposal as approved by Community Board 7 and myself."
Or as Council Member John Liu said, "We want this building resurrected from the dead, and we really don't want to wait much longer."
A lawyer for Boymelgreen, Howard Goldman, said the project would go forward if all goes well at a final hearing on November 2. The board may then approve the project by the end of the year.
It will indeed be a resurrection. After being nearly destroyed in 1986 by its owner, Thomas Huang, who demolished sections of the exterior and spilled hundreds of gallons of oil in the basement, the RKO-Keith Theater sat vacant, dragging down property values. Boymelgreen bought it in 2002, and proposed a 19-story, 375,000-square-foot mixed-use building, which is about three times what zoning allows. Community members were concerned about the size of the project and were not appeased even with a design by a renowned architectural firm, the V Studio of the Walker Group. In February 2004, Community Board 7 voted 35-0 not to approve it.
The architect tried again, scaling it down from a floor area ratio of 9.5 to a FAR of 7.5, eliminating the interior retail mall and most office space, making the project largely residential with only ground-level retail. The new design retained features important to the community, including a 12,500-square-foot senior center and four levels of parking. In February 2005, the community board voted 32-2 to approve it.
Nonetheless, the Board of Standards and Appeals, which had to authorize the variance, was intent on scaling the project back further, to a FAR of 6.5.The developer said this was unworkable.
The site offers tough design problems for many reasons, not least because the theater's interior, which is landmarked, has been badly trashed. (Though designed by a famous architect, Thomas Lamb, the theater's exterior was not landmarked at the request of then-borough president Donald Manes, who later committed suicide amid financial scandals.) Calling this part of the site "the egg," a principal of the V Studio, Jay Valgora, testified that preserving it while trying to build on top of and around it presented him with the "most complex job of sequencing" he had ever faced as an architect. It also presented him with very high construction costs of $238 a square foot. "The costs of preserving the egg are constant," he said. "We need a variance for greater bulk to offset these costs. If we're forced to go down to 6.5, we'll have to produce an inferior building, with punched windows and a far less articulated facade." The audience stirred as he spoke. After waiting all these years, community members do not want an inferior building.
And while the apartments will be sold at prices between $470 and $623 a square foot ($337,000 to $1.2 million), Mr. Goldman testified that profits will be low - 3.3% at the 7.5 FAR requested by the developer, or 1.5% at the 6.5 FAR preferred by the Board of Standards and Appeals. Ms. Srinivasan, the chairwoman, challenged Mr. Goldman and Mr. Valgora, asking why they could not provide all the same amenities they propose at 7.5 for a smaller building at 6.5.
In the end, the extra parking demanded by the board - 32 spaces - became a deal maker. The site, which is near Flushing Bay, sits on a high water table, making construction deep into the ground very expensive. But Mr. Milsom proposed a solution: "We'll figure out how to find more parking without going down to the water table," he said.
Yet even if the board approves the FAR of 7.5 on November 2 as expected, construction is unlikely to begin for another eight months, while new designs are prepared. The building won't open, says Mr. Milsom, for at least two and a half years.
If the neighborhood is indeed given back its RKO-Keith Theater in 2007, it will have much to celebrate - including the 80th anniversary of RKO-Keith's first groundbreaking in 1927. It opened to joyous crowds in 1928.
© 2005 The New York Sun