Text and Photos by Weilun Soon.
An assignment for the Reporting and Writing class at the Columbia University Journalism School. This piece was later picked up by the Queens Tribune on December 3, 2009.
Recent news of investment firm Venator Capital attempting to take ownership of the RKO Keith Theater in Flushing is making preservation group Friends of the RKO Keith sit upright and swing into action to get the entire building landmarked.
“We want to preserve it, keep it in landmark status and try to make it into a performing arts center,” said Rick Gallo, co-organizer of the group. “Building a performing arts center would help preserve what’s there.”
Currently, only the lobby and the foyer in the building are landmarked, a designation granted in 1984 by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Friends of the RKO Keith is the latest group formed in response to a two decade-long impasse over the building’s future. Formed in March, the group now has close to 2,300 interested Facebook users on its page on the social networking site.
The group follows in the footsteps of Jerry Rotondi, a long-time Flushing resident who started fighting to preserve the theater 23 years ago. He managed to get the lobby landmarked. Rotondi had to cease his efforts prematurely, however.
“He had a lot of obstacles with Tommy Huang and some other people,” Gallo said, referring to the first developer to acquire the building in 1986.
If Friends of the RKO Keith succeed in getting the city to landmark the entire theater, any developer would have to adhere to the landmark commission’s guidelines on renovating the building.
The developer “is not going to have the freedom to tear it down and start building high-rise buildings,” said Gallo. “That’s not going to happen.”
Built in the 1920s, the theatre was used for movie screenings and was at times a high school graduation venue for Flushing High School, oftentimes a meeting venue for Flushing residents. Demand from moviegoers dropped by the 1970s, in part due to the changing demographic profile in Flushing.
Shortly after achieving landmark status in 1984, the theatre closed its doors, and has been plagued with troubles ever since. After acquiring the building, Huang let the building fall into disrepair for 15 years after his plans to build a mall in place of the building were rejected.
In 2002, Boymelgreen Developers purchased the building from Huang for $15 million. Through its land use review process, the city approved Community Board 7’s plans for several facilities to be built on-site. But to date Boymelgreen reportedly has incurred over $20 million in debt on the property.
In late October, it was reported that Venator Capital was trying to purchase the $20 million mortgage on the building from Doral Bank so that it could buy it from Boymelgreen.
When contacted, Venator CEO Sam Suzuki did not refute these reports, and said that he would not discuss his company’s plans for the building until a deal is reached.
But Venator’s move has ruffled Friends of the RKO Keith and its members.
“They refused to state what they may use the building for; that is causing much skepticism,” said Michael Perlman, Queens vice-president of the Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance Foundation, a nonprofit organization helping Friends of the RKO Keith in publicity and outreach. “The public does not want to see a repeat performance of Tommy Huang.”
Community Board 7 shares these concerns.
“We’re not involved in the negotiation process, but we hope whoever takes over the building will adhere to whatever we’ve approved,” said Marilyn Bitterman, district manager for the board.
These plans included 230 parking spots, a senior center and condominium apartments.
As for the Friends of the RKO Keith’s plans, Gallo said that his ground has been conducting a feasibility study to create a solid proposal to landmark the theater.
“We know one of the stairs is down, we want to build that back up,” said Gallo. “We definitely could do a performing arts center, the stage is still there. The seats are all gone, but I believe that could be easily replaced.”
The group hopes to publish the study by next April.
The group is also pursuing nonprofit status so it can fundraise for its efforts.
“If it’s feasible, then we’ll try to see if the community can buy it, so it’ll be owned and run by, basically, Flushing,” said Gallo.
To achieve this end, the group also hopes to receive grants from the National Register of Historic Places, which the theater has been under since 1982.
Where Rotondi has failed, Gallo believes his group will prevail. Nostalgia still lives in the hearts of those who frequented the theater, he said.
“With the way technology’s progressed over the past 20 years, it’s much simpler to call somebody in California and say, ‘Hey, remember the RKO? You want to donate 20 bucks?’” said Gallo. “20 years ago, you couldn’t do that; you couldn’t find anybody.”
The link to the class website can be found here.
The published article can be found here.