Why vacant movie theaters are increasingly becoming development battlegrounds

Empty for years, communities and owners clash on how to re-position former neighborhood haunts

(Credit: iStock)
(Credit: iStock)

In the early decades of the 20th century, opulent movie palaces were a mainstay of many New York City communities.

But as cultural and economic shifts led to their decline, many of the once-majestic structures have lay vacant for decades – posing difficult questions for communities and developers alike as redevelopment looms, Crain’s reported.

Ongoing projects include the partially landmarked Metro Theater at 2626 Broadway, which is once again close to a rebirth after a decade-long history of false starts. The vacant theater’s longtime owner Albert Bialek is reportedly nearing a deal with a nonprofit to take over the site.

Councilman Mark Levine, on the other hand, had pushed for the the site to be turned into a community arts space, but those efforts were rebuffed.

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“The Metro is in private hands, and that leaves us with limited tools,” Levine told Crain’s. “His goal has been to maximize rent; I have other goals.”

Another example can be found in Flushing, where Assemblyman Ron Kim is hoping to forestall a proposed condo conversion of the RKO Keith’s Theater.

“There’s a desperate need for any space geared toward the community—something for young people and seniors,” said Kim. “There’s no place to meet and interact.”

Xinyuan Real Estate’s conversion of the theater, which is an interior landmarked site, would be one of the largest NYC building expansions in the works if it goes forward. [Crain’s]–Kevin Sun