MORE THAN A DEVELOPER, HE SEES WHAT NEVER WAS AND ASKS WHY NOT?
By Linda Marx
Charles Cohen leads the kind of life we see portrayed in the movies: interesting with a twist of mystery.
Handsome, successful, wealthy, creative, artsy, generous, and focused on areas in which he is impassioned, the New York lawyer cum real estate tycoon spends his days breathing new life into old properties, and his nights enjoying the award winning films, such as Frozen River, which he produces and distributes around the world.
Dividing his time among homes in New York City—he combined six apartments at the Ritz Towers into one glam pad—a suburban Connecticut home with a movie theater and a state of the art gym, and an $8 million Breakers Row apartment in Palm Beach, Florida, the father of four children between the ages of three and 27, is President and CEO of Cohen Brothers Realty Corp., based in New York City.
This thriving commercial business includes ownership of the D&D [Design & Decoration] Building in New York City, the Decorative Center Houston, the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, California, and the DCOTA [Design Center of the Americas] in Dania Beach, Florida.
“Since my family was in real estate, I got involved in the business by age 11,” says Cohen, who will be sixty this year. “I showed apartments and worked summers learning what I could.”
But after he graduated in 1974 from Tufts University, and three years later from Brooklyn Law School, he sought his dream of Hollywood. Cohen wanted to be an entertainment lawyer so he could make money and have fun at the same time.
He felt entertainment law would be a good way to combine his creative instincts, love of film, and prestigious law education into a fascinating and lucrative life.
“The only problem was finding a law job in that area because they were scarce,” he remembers “So instead, I did credit training on Wall Street and also learned the banking business.”
In 1979, his father Sherman Cohen asked if he would like to learn more about the real estate business which the elder had started years ago with brothers Edward and Mortimer, and got humming in 1955 when, according to published reports, New York’s elevated rail line along Third Avenue came down, and the siblings were able to buy apartment and office buildings at rock bottom prices.
Real estate sounded good to the younger Cohen, who was eager to delve into a career. He began engaging all aspects of leasing, management and zoning development. Before long, he discovered he liked the challenge. By 1983, he encouraged the company decision-makers to buy substantial buildings, beginning on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
“I grew 3.5 million square feet to 12 million,” he says of his own input, “My vision is defined by design. I went from office skyscrapers to corporate parks to design centers.”
By breathing new life into commercial properties, Cohen has anointed himself as a redeveloper. His moxie of repositioning and maximizing the potential in underutilized buildings has put him in a class by himself. For example, he transformed the vacant 39-story Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield building into an office tower that became world headquarters of McCann Erickson Advertising Agency, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and HypoVerinsbank. He also repositioned 623 Fifth Avenue into a corporate center for giants Merrill Lynch, UBS Securities and Cargill.
“I do work a lot and like to learn new things,” he admits, “but these days I try to pace myself because I have a new young family and want to spend more time at home with them.”
Married to beautiful second-wife Clo Jacobs, a former Gucci marketing executive whom he reportedly met at a party in London, Cohen was a bachelor for several years after divorcing longtime wife Alexandra, the mother of his older children.
These days, his time is spent with famous architects like Philip Johnson, Adam Tihany, Helmut Jahn, Jacques Garcia and Cesar Pelli, whose designs Cohen finds “timeless but spectacular.” And with his Cohen Media Group, he received two Academy Award nominations for the 2008 film Frozen River, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Quentin Tarantino described the film as a “wonderful depiction of poverty in America. It took my breath away and then somewhere around the last hour, it put my heart in a vice and proceeded to twist that vice until the last frame.”
Cohen has released other films, such as My Afternoons With Margueritte, and more recently, a documentary called Chasing Madoff, written and directed by Jeff Prosserman.
“I love film and am fascinated with the art form,” he says of his passion. “I heavily exposed myself to it, including writing a book called TriviaMania that is full of movie related information.”
The modern day Renaissance man, who loves boating, playing tennis, swimming and skiing, also gives back. According to the Wall Street Journal, he gave $1.2 million to vision-loss nonprofit Lighthouse International in order to rehabilitate the theater it operates in Manhattan. He is on the board of The Public Theatre, Filmmakers Cooperative, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Stella Adler Studio, and Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
He has been honored by B’nai B’rith International for his humanitarian and community service. And in 2002, Cohen received the Israel Peace Medal at a luncheon event that raised a record $52.4 million for Israel Bonds.
“I am fortunate that I love what I do and am able to live a balanced and productive life which allows giving,” he says, “and I constantly challenge myself to do better.”