Repurposing RKO Keith’s theater

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Foyer photo courtesy of Building Conservation AssociatesFoyer: Developer Patrick Thompson intends to restore the blue sky ceiling, staircases and plaster reliefs that adorn the interior of the theater’s lobby.Foyer photo courtesy of Building Conservation Associates
Foyer: Developer Patrick Thompson intends to restore the blue sky ceiling, staircases and plaster reliefs that adorn the interior of the theater’s lobby.

Since 1986, the RKO Keith’s theater has remained but a crumbling shell of its former movie house glory.
Now, developer Patrick Thompson is seeking a zoning variance to transform this partially landmarked structure into a mixed use building that would contain 357 residences and 360 parking spaces, mostly studios and one bedroom apartments, a senior citizen center and a commercial space.
For interior photos of the theater and renderings of how it will look after development, click here

The previous variance on the property allowed for only 200 residences to be constructed, with 229 parking spaces.
Thompson explained that having 200 units did not make economic sense. He added that the proposed structure would be a “vast improvement” over its current state.
“It will be a classic bookend to Main Street,” said Thompson.
Jon Favreau, director of “Iron Man” and Hollywood actor, grew up in Queens and told The Courier that he was an usher at the theater in 1983, when “Return of the Jedi” was first released.
“I remember passing by the big marquee with all the lights,” said Favreau, a former Whitestone resident. “It made quite an impression as a kid.”
He drew inspiration from the crowds, seeing which movies struck the audiences, and which did not.
Favreau recalled wearing a mustard-colored, hand-me-down tuxedo, in a state of disrepair much like the theater was, even before it closed. However, he still reminisced about the theater’s grandeur, highlighting the Moorish battlements that lined its interior.
“I guess I always had this fantasy that someone would re-open it,” he said.
As a child, he would stay in the theater for up to six hours at a time, sneaking in to see each of the three films playing at the time.
“The RKO Keith’s site has been an eyesore for too long, and I am glad someone has bought it who has promised to rehabilitate it,” said State Senator Toby Stavisky. “Northern Boulevard is the gateway to Flushing, and I don’t want visitors to be greeted by a derelict abandoned movie theater.”
Architect Jay Valgora, Principal of Studio V Architecture, noted that as per the official landmark designation, he will maintain and restore the landmarked lobby in his designs.
“Frankly, to me, that makes the project more exciting,” said Valgora.
In the past, he has incorporated historical elements in projects, even when they were not designated as landmarks. This time, he will be fusing the historic lobby with a contemporary exterior, which he hopes will “express what Flushing is.”
The theater first opened in 1928, hosting legends like Bob Hope. After it closed, it was bought by developer Tommy Huang, who had heavily damaged the interior while it was in the process of acquiring landmark status.
Chuck Apelian, vice chair of Community Board 7, believed that the increase in the number of residences would be too much for the area and would further clog the streets of Flushing. He called the added parking spaces “not sufficient.”
“The number of apartments changes the whole traffic scheme,” said Apelian.
Assemblymember Grace Meng, who has met with Thompson, believed that traffic issues may arise, but noted that the project also includes plans for an inset where cars can enter for pickups and drop offs to alleviate some expected congestion.
The previous variance had already granted the property a floor-area ratio of 7.5, which Apelian noted was unusually high for the borough and matched only by Lefrak City in Corona.
Stavisky also predicted increase traffic at the site, if the plans go through, but felt the renovation of the building took precedence.
Ed Tracey, the organizer of the Friends of the RKO Keith’s, had once sought to restore the theater as a performance venue. Today, he is simply glad to see something being done with the property.
“It would be nice to have something to remember the RKO Keith’s,” said Tracey.
If Community Board 7 accepts the variance, the developer plans to begin construction sometime this year, with an estimated completion time of two years.
Stavisky said she would prefer the theater to be restored as a performance venue, but acknowledged that as unrealistic without a willing investor.
Tracey pulled from his memories the times when he would sneak into the theater to see films like “Star Wars.” He grew up on Farrington Street, a block behind the movie house, which held 2,900 seats.
“These days, there’s nothing good worth sneaking into,” said Tracey.