New Development to Surround Interior Landmarked Flushing Theater

Current condition of foyer at RKO Keith’s Flushing Theater. Image credit: LPC

Long-gestating plan for new residential and retail development will require the removal and offsite restoration of salvageable features of interior landmark. On May 16, 2017, Landmarks considered an application to re-authorize a certificate of appropriateness for work to the RKO Keith’s Flushing Theater, an interior City landmark. The Churrigueresque former theater, designed by Thomas Lamb, stands at 135-29 Northern Boulevard in Flushing, Queens. The surrounding structure, which is not landmarked, will be demolished, with only the designated portions of the interior retained. A new, 16-story 269-unit residential and retail building will be built above and around the designated interiors.

The reauthorized C of A would permit the developers to disassemble portions of the interiors to perform restoration work off-site. The application will otherwise use the plans for the development that Landmarks previously approved in 2014. Landmarks and BSA approval for such a proposal was first granted in 2005, and the permits were twice extended without work commencing on the development.

The interiors were designated in 1984. In 1986 the theater closed, and portions of the interiors were illegally removed. “Recalcitrant” subsequent owners have failed to maintain the property, according to Landmarks General Counsel Mark Silberman. Landmarks designated the theater, as well as other interiors, but the Board of Estimate reduced the designation to comprise only the Grand Foyer and Ticket Lobby. The remaining designated interiors are in severely degraded condition.

China-based Xinyuan Real Estate purchased the property in 2016, the fourth owner since redevelopment plans were initially approved. The spaces will be incorporated into the new development, with the Grand Foyer serving as the building’s residential foyer.

Preservation consultant Jacqueline Peu-Duvallon discussed the interiors’ history. The building was partially demolished in 1986, and then left “derelict.” She said Xinyuan had pulled Buildings permits, the first of the property’s owners to do so, and said the company had the resources to see the development through successfully. Peu-Duvallon stated that the developers were still drafting a public access plan, but intended to allow full public access to the ticket lobby, and some sort of controlled access to the foyer.

Angel Ayón, of Ayon Studio, presented the proposed work to the interiors. Steel trusses around the interiors and a slab above would protect the spaces and support the development above and around the interiors. He demonstrated the extent of deterioration of the water-damaged and neglected the plaster work, and the plan to seal, dehumidify, and clean the designated spaces. Among the significant damage, the ceiling of the foyer had partially collapsed. Metal ties, hangers and trusses supporting the plaster in the interiors was severely corroded, necessitating the removal of the plaster in sections for restoration and repair, while new structural elements will be put in place.

Unsalvageable woodwork and plaster would be replaced in kind. Molds of decorative elements would be taken to ensure the accurate replication of that which cannot be restored. A copper ceiling in the ticket lobby will require replacement.

Repair and replacement of the plaster would be done in collaboration with the firm Iconoplast. Ayón estimated that approximately a quarter of the existing fabric could be salvaged and restored. The development is projected to be completed in 2020. Ayón said the project was “not reinventing the wheel,” and pointed to the restoration work of the Lyric Theater as a successful similar example to the work being proposed.

Ayón stated that the interiors had always been “secluded spaces,” and testified that he anticipated that the foyer would visible to the public through glazing. Signage was planned to inform passerby that the ticket lobby was publically accessible. Ayón said that the developers needed to balance public access against resident safety.

Landmarks Counsel Mark Silberman said that a $10 million bond had been agreed to in principle that would set terms for the storage and periodic inspection of the removed materials.

Attorney Michael Hiller, who represented the plaintiffs in Save America’s Clocks v. City of New York, in which the New York County Supreme Court annulled a Certificate of Appropriateness that would render an interior landmark inaccessible to the public, testified that the proposal violated the Landmarks Law. Hiller stated that converting the interiors to a private apartment lobby would have the effect of making them ineligible for landmark designation, and that the Commission cannot grant an approval that would do so. He asked Landmarks to delay approval until a system for public access had been worked out, to avoid the “unenviable position of repeating an error.”

Patrick Waldo, speaking for the Historic Districts Council, claimed that “public accessibility to an interior landmark is a key characteristic of its designation,” and that Landmarks should “ensure that the public will be able to regularly visit and experience this fantastic landmark.” The Society for Architecture of the City’s Christabel Gough commended the applicants’ “willingness to try to rescue this much-abused landmark,” but spoke against “privatizing an interior landmark,” and worried about the impact of the new building’s construction on the fragile interiors.

Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan stated that he proposal was supported by Council Member Peter Koo. She said Queens Community Board 7 had recommended approval of the application, and had urged the applicants to restore a fountain to the Grand Foyer. The Municipal Art Society also communicated their support.

Mark Silberman advised that the planned unfettered public access to the ticket lobby, with the foyer visible to the public, and periodically accessible under controlled conditions, satisfied the conditions of the Landmark Law. He stated that this opinion had been formed in consultation with the Law Department, and that the developers were working with Landmarks on an access plan.

Commissioner Michael Goldblum commented that it was “remarkable” that the interiors might be brought back from the brink of loss, and called the plans presented “very impressive.” He noted that there were adequate control points to allow the public into the foyer without them being able access residential level, and that the Commission should not accept the Grand Foyer not being accessible to the public as a “foregone conclusion.” Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron said that being able to view the foyer through glass while experiencing the new development was an authentic visual experience of the layers of history, and its own kind of access. Commissioner Diana Chapin said the Commission must “act now to save what we have.”

Commissioner Fred Bland stated that the idea of a refabricated remnant couched inside a contemporary Pei Cobb Fried apartment building was “bizarre,” but “done very well.”

Chair Srinivasan said the City had long desired a plan for the building, and had confidence that the “ongoing struggle” to rehabilitate the landmarked interiors could finally be actualized. She said the issue of public access should not hold back the Commission from approving the plan. Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the application.

LPC: RKO Keith’s Flushing Theater, 135-26 Northern Boulevard, Queens (19-10074) (May 16, 2017) (Architects: Ayon Studio).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).

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