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The New York Observer | Robert Cohen


Robert Cohen / Robert K. Futterman

By Daniel Edward Rosen

As Soho continues its 20-year transformation from bohemian enclave to luxury retail bazaar, brands like Apple and Uniqlo have added to the neighborhood’s near impenetrable aura of luxury and glitz by converting old spaces into fashionable shopping destinations. But simply boasting a Soho address isn’t always enough for some retailers. To M.A.C. Cosmetics, which operated a storefront on 113 Spring Street for more than 15 years, foot traffic appeared enviously higher throughout the nearby Broadway corridor.

“They were definitely leaving some money on the table by not having all the footfall that Broadway provides,” said Robert Cohen, 39, a Robert K. Futterman & Associates retail broker who represented M.A.C. Cosmetics in its move earlier this year to Broadway.

The New York-bred broker, who carved a niche by bringing luxury brands and big-name designers to Soho, said he spent two years canvassing Broadway on behalf of M.A.C.

“We probably exhausted five or six other opportunities along the street over the last two years.”

Among the buildings Mr. Cohen and the Estée Lauder brokerage team looked at were 496 Broadway and 518 Broadway. Given the pride M.A.C. Cosmetic takes by offering customers an interactive shopping experience—its sales people double as make-up artists—Mr. Cohen sought space boasting a minimum width of 20 feet, “to really lay out the store.”

The new Soho space also had to be interactive: The ability for potential customers to peer through the store’s Broadway window from the sidewalk—“like an open kitchen,” said Mr. Cohen—was a high-priority throughout the two-year scavenger hunt.

In the end, M.A.C. chose a three-story ground-floor space on 506 Broadway totaling nearly 3,000 square feet that abuts Bloomingdale’s Soho, among the neighborhood’s most trafficked clothing stores.

Currently, 506 Broadway is under construction and set to open in 2012, two years after M.A.C. Cosmetics opened its flagship New York City store in Times Square.

“We felt like we got just an amazing three-story building,” said Mr. Cohen, who divides his time between New York City and Los Angeles, where he lives.

“We got the entire building.”Since launching his retail brokerage career, Mr. Cohen’s list of clients has rapidly grown to read like the first 40 pages of advertisements in Vogue: Polo Ralph Lauren, Swarovski, Diesel, Montblanc, and Giorgio Armani, to name a few of his most prestigious retailers.

Still, he has a soft spot for Soho, a neighborhood he first began exploring in the 1980s and 1990s after landing assignments from designers like Todd Oldham, Cynthia Rowley and Isaac Mizrahi. After all these years, he remains bullish on Soho and its retailers.

“Right now, Soho is cycling back big time,” he said. “Soho is nothing short of amazing.”

Indeed, from a landlord’s perspective the neighborhood has been performing well. Availability rates have continued to drop to 4.2 percent, down 1.7 percentage points from the previous quarter, according to a recent Manhattan retail report by Cushman & Wakefield. Average asking rents, meanwhile, jumped by $33 to $301 per square foot.

The recent additions of Tiffany & Co., which signed a 7,000-square-foot lease that will combine 97 Greene Street and 106 Wooster Street into a unified space, and Lacoste’s new storefront on 541 Broadway also helped boost the area’s allure.

The Soho of today is a far cry of the Soho of yore. When he began his career at Edward S. Gordon, and later when he was at Helmsley-Spear, the ground-floor spaces across Soho were often used as apartments for artists, and often illegally, as the spaces were not zoned for residential use. There was also a good deal of manufacturing in the area.

“I remember walking into some of my first stores back in the mid-’80s and seeing steel plates in a lot of the hardwood floors to support the floor load for a lot of these machines that were there,” said Mr. Cohen.

But peeling back the metal floor plates and the industrial facade revealed beautiful Corinthian columns and 18-foot ceilings—even skylights that seemed ideal for commercial use.

His first clients shared his enthusiasm for the neighborhood: They were either Soho-based or wanted to relocate south of Houston Street. When he first started at Helmsley-Spear, he set out to learn that market inside out. Around that time, a wave of up-and-coming designers who considered themselves artists showed interest in basing their showrooms and stores in Soho, itself an artists colony.

Mr. Cohen said he cut his teeth learning the real estate business by working with these designers and helping them find new spaces.

“That’s what got me started, and 27 years later I have done over 75 deals in the Soho market as well,” said Mr. Cohen. “I have worked all over the city and all over the country, but I have such a great sense of pride for Soho and love that market and any chance I get to work there is very exciting.”

From Soho, Mr. Cohen graduated to bigger deals, like helping Old Navy land in all three of its city locations, putting Diesel in its largest flagship store on Fifth Avenue, and leasing 25,000-square-feet to Prada for its Rem Koolhaas-designed Soho store.

He’s worked with Ralph Lauren Polo for 20 years, the Gap for the past 18 years, and Estée Lauder for the past 15 years. He worked with John Varvatos in the designer’s first deal, and helped bring the designer to the former CBGB club space on the Bowery.

Last year he estimates that up to 40 percent of his deals were done in Los Angeles, where Mr. Cohen has lived with his family since 2002. But the deals are not as lucrative as the average New York City deal.

“In L.A., you need to make twice as many deals—three times as many deals—to make nearly what you make in New York,” he said.

Mr. Cohen is now focused on helping Robert K. Futterman, a chairman at the eponymously named RKF & Associates, increase the firm’s reach throughout the United States.

“We feel there is a lot of legs with our brand to help it grow across the country,” said Mr. Cohen.


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