Irwin Cohen, who transformed factory into Chelsea Market, dies at 90

Irwin Cohen, an inventive developer who transformed an abandoned factory where the first Oreo cookie was produced in 1912 into Chelsea Market, an exuberant 21st-century food bazaar that helped revitalize his New York neighborhood, died Monday in Manhattan. He was 90 years old.

His son-in-law Blair Effron said he died of pneumonia in hospital.

In creating the market, Mr. Cohen reconfigured the old National Biscuit Company factory – a complex of 17 brick buildings dating from the 1890s, occupying a city block between Ninth and 10th Avenues and West 15th and 16th Streets – into a chic industrial destination for foodies and a home for production studios video.

The repurposing of the factory spurred the gentrification of West Chelsea. He also contributed to the transformation of the meat district, south of the market, into a hotbed of trendy places; contributed to the success of the High Line, a reinvention of an abandoned elevated railway on the western flank of Market into a green, ribbon-shaped park; and paved the way for a proliferation of high-tech companies that renamed the neighborhood Silicon Alley.

Mr. Cohen recalled in a 2005 interview with the Center for an Urban Future that when he bought the West Chelsea property in 1993, “you couldn’t walk here.”

“It was controlled by prostitutes 24 hours a day,” he said. “I looked at him and said my goal is for an 8-year-old to come here on public transportation, do their shopping and go home, and for their parents to feel safe. And that’s how it happened.

Carl Weisbrod, who was president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation when Mr. Cohen bought the former Nabisco factory, said in an interview: “Irwin was one of the wisest and most thoughtful real estate developers that I have never met. His specialty was creatively transforming older buildings, and Chelsea Market is a one-of-a-kind example. “It was a catalyst for the Chelsea of ​​today.”

Mr. Cohen and his daughter and business partner Cheryl Cohen Effron enlisted architect Jeff J. Vandeberg and sculptor Marc Mennin to redevelop the ground floor of the labyrinthine hodgepodge of buildings into a winding, 800-foot-long central hall flanked by local vendors, including wholesalers who also sold to retail customers.

They abandoned plans to consolidate local outlets into a central flower market and decided to emphasize food, emblematic of the city’s melting pot.

“The idea was to take advantage of the ethnic diversity of New York,” Mr. Cohen told the New York Times in 1999.

Since the market opened in 1997, ground floor tenants have included Amy’s Bread, Frank’s Butcher Shop, Sarabeth’s Bakery, Lobster Place, Ruthy’s Bakery & Cafe and Fat Witch Bakery.

The basement and upper floors of the building have been leased to Spectrum News NY1, Major League Baseball Productions, the Food Network and the Oxygen Network.

Mr. Cohen had managed apartment buildings and clothing manufacturing sites in the city. The name of his company, ATC, means “24 hours a day,” the kind of environment he hoped to create.

“The building is a community and he is the mayor of Chelsea,” said Stuart Romanoff, who represented NY1 in its 55,000-square-foot lease in the building as an executive with real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, at Times in 1999.

Chelsea Market’s eclectic space is punctuated by remnants of the Nabisco factory, like a waterfall gushing from a cast-iron ceiling pipe into a 24-foot well.

Mr. Cohen had developed and managed multi-tenant factory buildings in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens since the 1970s, when he and his daughter purchased the former Nabisco factory, at 75 Ninth Avenue, and a Nabisco property across the street at 85 10th Avenue for $14 million, with financial assistance from private investors. Jamestown Properties later purchased a majority stake. In 2018, Google purchased 75 Ninth Avenue for $2.4 billion.

In 2003, after selling the 10th Avenue property, Mr. Cohen and other investors bought it back for about $57 million. It was already home to Frank’s, a now-closed steakhouse, and became the home of Del Posto, a renowned Italian restaurant opened by Mario Batali and the mother-son team of Lidia and Joseph Bastianich. (Del Posto closed in 2021.)

Irwin Bernard Cohen was born in September. November 29, 1933, in Brooklyn. His father, Jack, was a tailor who also owned a tailoring business and also owned a candy store, where Irwin’s mother, Molly (Lesner) Cohen, ran the soda fountain.

After graduating from Tilden High School, he earned a business degree from New York University in 1954 and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1958, after working as a photographer to pay his way through college. schooling. I joined a law firm that was a pioneer in real estate syndications.

In 1957, Mr. Cohen married Jill Framer; she died in 2017. Besides his daughter Cheryl, he is survived by two other daughters, Cindy Zuckerbrod and Cathy Lasry; 17 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren. His siblings Bob, Norman and Gloria predeceased him. I lived in Manhattan.

Inspired by a shark tank he saw in a Las Vegas hotel, Mr. Cohen hoped to make waiting for the elevators at Chelsea Market less tedious by installing suspended tanks with clear bottoms offering unobstructed views of the eels in the Congo, salamanders, African jumping frogs and crayfish. writhing, intertwining and sometimes devouring each other. When asked in 1997 why he wanted reptiles rather than more common aquatic creatures, he replied: “Everyone can fish.” »

Two years later, however, I recognized that the reptilian display might have been one – perhaps the only – design experiment on the market that was a little too exotic. Eels, salamanders, frogs and crayfish have been replaced by more prosaic tropical fish.

“The others bond,” he said.