The stepchild of movie theaters — the RKO Keith’s in downtown Flushing — has been sold again with the new owner promising to follow plans for rental units, retail space and a senior center.
The Northern Boulevard property is now in the hands of JK Equities, a New York developer, who paid $30 million. He bought it from Patrick Thompson, who paid $20 million when he purchased it in 2010.
The reaction in Flushing was muted as the long-empty and partially destroyed theater has continued to deteriorate since it was closed in 1987. Owners have come and gone, making promises, but no work has ever been done to improve the site.
Jerry Karlik heads JK Equities and is a New York-based developer in business for 30 years. Many of his recent residential projects have been in Chicago. Karlik promises to retain the city-approved plans to transform the 1928 movie palace into 357 apartments, 27,000 square feet of retail space and a senior center. The building will be 17 stories tall, feature 385 underground parking spots and an undulating glass curtain entrance.
The developer must also restore the landmarked theater lobby and ticket booth which is expected to cost more than $6 million alone.
To say that the theater has a checkered past is an understatement. The 85-year-old movie palace was designed by noted architect Thomas Lamb in a Spanish villa style with a large fountain filled with goldfish in the middle of the lobby, which was removed years ago. Above the lobby is a domed ceiling with deep blue paint in an atmospheric design.
The walls are decorated with wood and plaster in a style known as Mexican Baroque. Between the lobby and the street is the wooden ticket booth with ornate wooden holders for movie posters.
Twin sweeping staircases on either side of the lobby remain, though one was purposely damaged by former owner Thomas Huang, who bought the property in 1987, closed the theater and tried to convert it into a shopping mall.
When his plans were foiled by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Huang sat on the property, refusing to improve it and allowing it to deteriorate over the years. There is water damage and the partially destroyed staircase, which Huang had started to bulldoze.
Huang was also found guilty of environmental crimes at the theater in 1999 for allowing a basement oil spill to go undetected for years and lying about it. He received a $5,000 fine.
In 2002, Huang finally sold the neglected building to Shaya Boymelgreen, a Brooklyn developer. His plans were approved by the city, but he ran out of money and split with his partner. The theater then went to Thompson, who modified the plan somewhat, allowing for smaller apartment units rather than condominiums.
Jerry Rotondi, acting president of the Committee to Save the RKO Keith’s Theatre of Flushing, has a wait-and-see attitude about the new owner, but promised to remain vigilant.