BY JAMES FARRELL
Plans to redevelop the long-vacant RKO Keith’s Theater faced some scrutiny from a state lawmaker on Monday, marking yet another complication in the historic theater’s long saga of stalled demolition and development.
Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing) sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), noting that he was concerned that an incoming condominium tower being developed by the Chinese firm Xinyuan Real Estate might interfere with Flushing’s relatively low air traffic.
The plans to redevelop the theater were approved by Community Board 7 under a previous developer, J.K. Equities, in 2015. Xinyuan acquired those plans when it purchased the property for $66 million in 2016. The plans call for 269 condos, a 305-space parking garage and preservation of the landmarked interior grand foyer and ticket lobby. The development is expected to be about 210 feet above mean sea level, Kim said.
Kim added that the FAA had previously indicated that anything more than 195 feet above mean sea level “would result in substantial adverse effect” due to the region’s proximity to LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports.
If developers are planning on building above the threshold of 195 feet, they must submit to an FAA evaluation. The FAA completed eight of those studies for eight different points near the top of the RKO development and approved all eight.
But Kim believes those findings could have been made in error.
According to Chris Kellberg—an engineer who runs a Facebook page titled “Save the Flushing RKO Keith’s Theatre,” and who provided Kim’s office with the information referenced in the letter—the previous developers, who first got the plans approved, submitted applications for eight unique evaluations for eight different points at the top of the development. To the FAA, Kellberg says, separate evaluations typically signal separate points, such as antennas on different buildings—not the complete top floor of a singular building. Kim referenced that point in his letter.
“While the eight obstruction evaluations in question were for single, independent coordinate points, they were deceptively presented before the local community board in my district as justification for a planar top building with a height 210 feet above sea level,” Kim wrote. “This is a significant safety hazard for low-flying planes in the neighborhoods of my district.”
In response to an inquiry by the PRESS of Southeast Queens, FAA spokesman Jim Peters responded, “The FAA will respond directly to New York State Assembly Member Ron Kim.” Kim’s communications assistant Eric Meyer said that the assemblyman’s office had not heard back from the agency as of Tuesday. Xinyuan did not respond to emailed questions about the height issue. Community Board 7 did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Kim’s letter to the FAA wasn’t the only development in the RKO Keith’s project this week. A report in the real estate news website The Real Deal, published on Dec. 18, quoted an anonymous real estate broker who works with Xinyuan. The broker claimed that “the project is stalled and there are landmark issues.”
The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted in May to approve plans for the theater, requiring Xinyuan to preserve the interior landmarked grand foyer and ticket lobby, restoring parts of it off site.
The quote was included as part of a larger report on how Xinyuan has “dismantled” its U.S. development team, XIN Development, and turned over the management of three properties—including the RKO Keith’s—to a company known as Kuafu Properties.
A spokesman for Xinyuan, Edmond Lococo, told the PRESS of Southeast Queens that The Real Deal report was “erroneous and being corrected.”
“The RKO Theater project is not ‘stalled,’” Xinyuan said in a statement on Monday. “There are ongoing discussions with relevant government institutions regarding demolition/construction planning. Our U.S. team is having another meeting on the subject this week.”
Xinyuan did not respond to follow-up questions regarding the nature of those meetings or the status of construction.
On Wednesday, The Real Deal report still contained the broker’s quote about the RKO.
Meanwhile, Kellberg and many on his Facebook page are hoping that the theater can still be restored into a performing arts center. Queens resident Richard Thornhill is circulating a petition to that effect, which has garnered nearly 3,000 signatures.
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.