an abandoned theater with the stage broken down

Preserving Historic Fabric in the Midst of Redevelopment

By: Scott Henson

New York City is home to over 36,000 landmarked properties-most of which are located in 141 historic districts and extensions – 1,398 individual landmarks, and 119 interior landmarks. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), the largest preservation agency in the nation, is entrusted with safeguarding the city’s cultural, social, economic, political and architectural history. Any work proposed work on a landmarked building must be held up to strict LPC standards and regulations before obtaining approval. While these regulations may curb pervasive development, the Landmarks Preservation Commission by no means discourages new development altogether. In fact, the recently approved redevelopment of the RKO Keith’s Theater in Flushing is a prime example of how historic preservation and new development can happily co-exist.  

After over 30 years of neglect and several plans for redevelopment, the RKO Keith’s Theater finally has a chance at new life thanks to Xinyuan Real Estate. In 2016 the Chinese firm purchased the historic theater with the intent to provide high-end residential housing to the underserved market of Flushing, Queens. In May, Xinyuan presented their plan to rehabilitate and preserve the 1928-built theater’s landmarked grand foyer and ticket lobby within a new glass 16-floor building with 269 apartments designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.

Xinyuan plans to use the landmarked ticket lobby and grand foyer as the building entry, however the original 3,000 seat theater does not hold landmark status and will be razed. Due to the decades of neglect the historic interior has fallen into a state of critical disrepair and just about every inch of the interior will require some form of restorative work.

At the hearing the Landmarks Preservation Committee did voice some concerns about the accessibility of the landmark. While the ticket booth would be a part of the public retail space, as presented, the public would not be permitted into the lobby of the residential building without the invitation of a resident. While security of the residents is a concern, the Commission hesitated to approve blocking off a public landmark, and suggested separating the residential entry with a series of doors.

Despite the Commissioners’ concerns, they decided to unanimously support the project, with one condition: Staff members at the Commission would work with the developers to settle the issue of public access to the grand foyer. The approval of this major project goes to show that landmark status is not an end to the possibilities for redevelopment. 

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