The Chelsea Marketeer Sets His Sights on SoBro

The developer who brought Chelsea Market to Manhattan now wants to replicate it in the South Bronx.

Irwin Cohen, who introduced Manhattan to the concept of “food purveyors,” is floating a plan to build a new home for 16 ethnic food merchants who are about to get kicked out of the Bronx Terminal Market.

The Bronx spin-off will be a little different than its Manhattan model, Mr. Cohen said, but it will rely on many of the same synergies that have made the nine-year-old Chelsea Market as successful as it is.

“I think the Bronx Terminal Market merchants are already exactly what I asked of the Chelsea Market when I walked into this,” he told The Observer in a Jan. 16 interview. “I wanted every tenant to be family-owned, and that is the way it is at Bronx Terminal Market. Looking at the second generation is key to the survival of the Chelsea Market—and at Bronx Terminal Market, the second generation is already there.”

The Bronx Terminal Market is a sprawling set of eight down-at-the-heels buildings, a leftover from a more vigorous age of wholesale markets that suffered in the hands of a neglectful landlord. The merchants who have remained say they still do a healthy business supplying restaurants, bodegas and individuals with ethnic foods, and they employ about 700 people. But in 2004, the lease of the market, which is on city land, was turned over to Steve Ross’ Related Companies, which plans to build a million-square-foot shopping mall there instead.

So far, the merchants are losing. Despite a spirited campaign to brand the deal a boondoggle, they have struggled to enlist broad-based support in the City Council, which will vote on the arrangement on Feb. 8. One by one, the merchants have been defecting, choosing an aid package to relocate to scattered sites over solidarity. Only 16 merchants remain; they argue that if they split up, they will lose their synergy.

Then along came Mr. Cohen.

He has shown the merchants drawings of a narrow two-story building on a 5.5-acre slab of undistinguished land across the Major Deegan Expressway from the shopping-mall site. The land was first going to be turned into an indoor bicycling track for the Olympics—and then, once that dream died, into a park. Mr. Cohen has also made his pitch to city officials, who have neither embraced nor rejected the option. “We take that to be a good sign,” said Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist for the merchants.

The South Bronx may sound risky, but the area isn’t a lot different from the far-west corner of Chelsea he took on in the early 1990’s.

That was when Mr. Cohen, who had successfully developed a number of Long Island City properties for industrial use, convinced a group of Russian investors to buy a former Nabisco plant at Ninth Avenue and 15th Street. At a real-estate luncheon in 2002, he told of how, in order to scare away the prostitutes who would lurk outside, he put up blinding lights—but that only encouraged the street workers to pose under them. He finally got rid of them by hiring off-duty state police. Slowly, he lured wholesalers from nearby into his building, promising lots of space, low rents and a stunning vision of the future.

“He’s very charismatic; he’s very convincing; he’s very passionate, very confident,” said David Porat, the owner of Chelsea Market Baskets, who was there on opening day, April 10, 1997. “I came in with the idea of renting 500 square feet of office space, with additional storage area for a wholesaling business, and he talked me into creating a retail portion and renting 9,000 square feet.”

“He took me upstairs where there were already tenants, and they all hugged him and said, ‘If you move in, you will love Irwin,’” recalled Amy Scherber, founder and owner of Amy’s Bread, one of the first three tenants. “I thought, ‘This is sort of crazy. I’ve never seen anyone treat their landlord like that.’”

The idea of having wholesalers doing retail, and of retailers doing wholesale, was all Mr. Cohen’s idea, and it’s what gave the market its cachet. It’s what makes Chelsea Market feel more authentic than, say, just another Saturnalian assemblage of gourmet boutiques, like what one finds at Grand Central Terminal. “As food gets Wal-Mart-ized, people like to have the personal contact with people who are making the food,” said Steve Davies, senior vice president at the Project for Public Spaces, which runs workshops for public markets across the country. “At the Chelsea Market, you can see all the production onsite.”

The 800-foot-long corridor through the center of the building passes by the ovens of Amy’s Breads and the chopping blocks of Frank’s Butcher Shop. Ronnybrook Farm Dairy uses its back room as a staging area for New York deliveries. Supermarkets pick up from the Manhattan Fruit Exchange. Technically, Chelsea Market provides all four food groups—though the heavy presence of sweets would cause a few cavities if one shopped there daily. Two years ago, the Food Network, declaring the location to be “food-centric,” built a $17 million studio upstairs, where it produces Emeril Live! What more, really, could a developer want?

A market in the South Bronx, by comparison, would be easy. Just this month, Barbara Corcoran declared it one of the five up-and-coming real-estate markets of the country. The tenants and a customer base are already there. Mr. Cohen said that he would attempt to round out the selection with food preparers as well as create an esplanade fronting the Harlem River where customers can eat. He also thinks that Bronx merchants could make money by selling to cruise ships.

Mr. Cohen first spoke publicly in favor of the merchants back in June, at a City Council hearing. The November-December issue of City Limits, a small magazine for the city’s nonprofit organizations, carried an interview with him speaking in favor of “an intense area where people have to come to shop.” Bronx Congressman José Serrano saw the article, and an aide called Mr. Cohen to persuade him to take on the cause personally.

But when he was asked why he wants to save the market, Mr. Cohen downplayed his own heroism. “Saving it?” he said. “That’s a big word.” When asked, by contrast, whether he thought he would make money off of the Bronx market, he said, “I haven’t really thought about that.”

Mr. Cohen has met several times with the merchants, who enthusiastically support the idea, even though, as they point out, the new building wouldn’t replace the 400,000 square feet that they currently occupy. “It will be two floors with high ceilings,” said Stanley Mayer, president of the merchants’ association. “He has encouraged us to think in terms of cubic feet, because we can pile our goods on top of each other.”

Before the holidays, Mr. Cohen mentioned the plan to Jesse Masyr, a lobbyist for Related, at a fund-raiser at Chelsea Market for Congressman Serrano, and the two have had a few telephone conversations since then. But Mr. Masyr said he hasn’t seen drawings.

The Related Companies has no official authority over the proposed site, but considering its investment in the area—and the promise of 2,100 permanent jobs at the mall—its opinion will undoubtedly play a role. Mr. Masyr said the developer needed to know more details, particularly about how traffic to the market would affect traffic to the mall. “If you are asking whether I think the two uses are incompatible across the street like that, the answer is no, not at all,” Mr. Masyr told The Observer. “We have an open mind. Irwin’s a creative guy.”

The Bloomberg administration has refused to build a new hall for the merchants, saying that renting existing space would be much cheaper. But having someone else build and run the market is another story. Mr. Cohen may even be able to persuade the city to help finance or fund construction—some $8 million was set aside for tenant relocation, after all. Mr. Cohen said he hadn’t thought about those details yet. The city’s Economic Development Corporation, meanwhile, wouldn’t answer questions about Mr. Cohen’s idea.

“We are considering a number of options, and we are not commenting on any of them at this point,” spokeswoman Janel Patterson said.

The merchants’ strategy at this point is to convince City Council members to consider the two land-use proposals that will come before them separately and to approve the one rezoning the area for the mall, if they must. But Mr. Lipsky, the merchants’ lobbyist, wants Council members to force the Bloomberg administration to reconsider the proposal for the waterfront parcel, where Mr. Cohen would build, which is now slated to become a park.

Persuading Council members from the Bronx to vote against more parkland could be tricky. Helen Foster, who represents the area just to the north of the market, has been one of the few outspoken critics of the shopping mall in the City Council, calling it a “sweetheart deal.” But she said she was also concerned that Mr. Cohen’s proposal would stunt the growth of parks. “I don’t want to lose any parkland,” she told The Observer.

It remains to be seen whether the riverfront esplanade will be sufficient to appease Ms. Foster and others like her. But Mr. Cohen’s entrance into the debate has transformed the terms of the struggle over the Bronx Terminal Market in a way that was unimaginable six months ago. Instead of a David-versus-Goliath fight involving a group of small-time vendors struggling against a corporate behemoth, Mr. Cohen has put forth one of the most powerful weapons in New York real estate: a vision to turn something that was about to be discarded into a going concern. Now he has to make it work. The Chelsea Marketeer  Sets His Sights on SoBro