Charles Cohen has weathered the downturn well. The design-oriented president and CEO of Cohen Brothers Realty has been overseeing a bevy of construction and redevelopment projects nationwide, including in Manhattan. The Commercial Observer sat down with Mr. Cohen, 59, to discuss his love of design and his more recent work as a film producer.
The Commercial Observer: We spoke almost a year ago to the day. Back then you said that, in 2009, you and the rest of the real estate industry were moving at one mile an hour. In 2010, you said you were moving five miles an hours. How about now?
Mr. Cohen: Twenty-five to thirty miles an hour. We’ve had a lot of great success in turning vacancies into leased spaces. We’ve been working very closely with Cushman & Wakefield, in particular Bruce Mosler and David Glassman. And we’ve rented a substantial portion of what was vacant. We still have a ways to go, but I’m feeling better about things.
Last we spoke, you said your project in California, the Pacific Design Center, had 16 months to go before completion. Where’s it at now?
It’s looking great. Construction has moved along at a steady pace. The buildings are almost half-closed. The curtain wall looks great; we’re just about all done with the concrete work; and we should be starting our lobbies in the next 60 to 90 days or less. It’s all coming together.
We had a topping-out ceremony with [architect] Cesar Pelli in February, and that went very well. And we brought Cushman & Wakefield on-our same successful team we’ve had in New York. And they’ve now launched our full-fledged marketing effort. And we’ve had interesting clients at the space.
That’s been your favorite project for a while. What about now?
Well, I’ve got lots of different projects. We’re just about ready to start the lobby work at 475 Park Avenue South. The curtain wall is well on track to begin in July, and that will take about 10 months to complete. So 475 comes online. That’s a Cesar Pelli job. Red Building [in the Pacific Design Center] comes online-that’s a Cesar Pelli job.
You and Cesar must work well together.
I think he’s the best. For what he does, he’s the best. He’s really brilliant.
We’ve brought Meredith Corporation into 805 Third; we’re very excited about this becoming their New York headquarters. That was a 212,000-square-foot lease. And we signed up in the former Duane Reade and Chase Manhattan Bank space at 979 Third Avenue CB2, which is a Crate & Barrel company. So they’re coming in-which is very exciting.
Keeping in mind all the design-oriented projects that you oversee, do you think that good design has taken a backseat since the economy collapsed?
There’s never a backseat for good design. Good design is a constant, and it’s always an important ingredient in anything you do that creates something from nothing.
Do you think other developers would agree? In bad times, do some go cheap?
Cheap doesn’t mean you can’t go well designed. I think you’ve got to be cost-effective always, just like you want to be energy efficient. I think you need to balance a lot of different considerations in order to create the product or the project that best serves the market that you are working toward attracting.
If you’re in Class A space, like we are, then we need Class A design and Class A execution-and we want to attract Class A tenants, and manage Class A buildings in a Class A manner. I think that good design is a great hallmark. It’s hopefully a standard that our properties and our company is measured by-and that we continue to better.
What’s the latest on the movie front? Your last production effort, Frozen River, garnered Oscar nominations last year.
I’m working on a lot. I have a Gerard Depardieu film that will be released in mid-July-My Afternoons With Marguerite. It’s French language with English subtitles. That will open in New York and Los Angeles. The director is Jean Becker; he’s a very fine director.
Then, after that, I have a new documentary called Chasing Madoff, which is the true story of Harry Markopolos and how he had been on Madoff’s trail for 10 years; and that will open in late August.
And then I have an Australian film called Oranges in Sunshine that will open in October. And I have optioned a book called Operation: Mincemeat, which is a World War II true story. It’s a thriller.
Be careful or people will start referring to you as an ‘auteur.’
Well, that’s not so bad. Developing property and developing film projects is a lot of the same skill sets.
We rented almost 500,000 square feet of space since I spoke to you last; so we’re still absorbing that. We’re working forward on a lot of lobby upgrades. I mean, we continue to reinvest in our properties to position them for the future, and to be considered at the very top of our business.