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FAA calls RKO plan into question

A proposal to redevelop the RKO Keith's Theatre in Flushing may be in jeopardy after the FAA issued a letter last month saying the planned building would be tall enough to encroach on airspace at nearby LaGuardia Airport. Photo by Christina Santucci
TimesLedger Newspapers

The long-awaited revitalization of the RKO Keith’s Theatre in downtown Flushing faces one final hurdle before it can take off.

The building’s owner, Manhattan developer Patrick Thomspon, thought he had received final approval to move forward with a $160 million overhaul of the theater, which has sat fallow at the intersection of Main Street and Northern Boulevard for more than two decades, when the city Board of Standards and Appeals gave its blessing in July.

But a new letter sent Sept. 23 to Thompson’s lawyer, Howard Goldman, by the Federal Aviation Administration aroused new concerns when it was first released, as it seemed to suggest that the proposal would need to go back to the drawing board for a haircut of more than 40 feet, a change that would threaten its economic viability. The site is located approximately 7,000 feet from a LaGuardia Airport runway, which raises the possibility that a tall building there could pose a risk to aircraft.

“The structure as described exceeds obstruction standards and/or would have an adverse physical or electromagnetic interference effect upon navigable airspace or air navigation facilities,” the letter reads. “Pending resolution of the issues described below, the structure is presumed to be a hazard to air navigation.”

The building, as planned, would rise 162 feet above ground level. The letter said that in order to gain a “favorable determination,” the project’s height would have to be reduced to 118 feet above ground level, but that it could still be rejected even if it were amended to the lower height.

But the FAA leaves wiggle room since the letter goes on to say that “to pursue a favorable determination at the originally submitted height, further study would be necessary.” The letter indicates that further study could take up to 120 days and must be requested by Thompson within 60 days of Sept. 23.

Thompson has hired an FAA consultant in hopes of securing a favorable determination, according to his spokesman, Michael Nussbaum.

At some point between 2003 and 2005, the theater’s previous owner, developer Shaya Boymelgreen, received a green light from the FAA to build a structure with the exact same height and footprint as the one Thompson has planned for the site, according to both Nussbaum and Community Board 7 Chairman Eugene Kelty.

Nussbaum believes the letter is not a viable threat to the project but “just another step in the process,” and said that Thompson still hopes to break ground early next year.

“We view this as a process, not a determination,” he said. “As far as we know, the runway and the flight patterns have not changed from the original, and we are prepared to submit the documents and make the request [for further study.]”

If the FAA declines to rule favorably after completing its further study and the builder has to change the project in a substantive way in order to meet FAA requirements, it would have to undergo the cumbersome Uniform Land Use Review Procedure a second time.

Kelty said the FAA should have worded the letter differently because it created a false sense of uncertainty about the project.

“The letter should have said there was a lapse and he has to refile again, not that it’s in violation, because there was no violation when Boymelgreen had it. The letter made it sound like something new was added to the package,” Kelty said. “If this guy’s putting millions of dollars into the project, that’s not the way to address the developer because it makes the project look faulty.”

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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