Q&A: Where Should the Vendors from the Bronx Terminal Market Go?

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More than 20 food merchants will be displaced under new plans to redevelop the Bronx Terminal Market into a shopping mall. But Irwin Cohen, a real estate developer who has had great success with the Chelsea Market, and other properties built around manufacturing tenants, says that these food vendors would prosper at a market-style establishment elsewhere in the borough. The Center for an Urban Future recently asked Cohen more about this at the Chelsea Market.

CUF: With the Chelsea Market, you proved that food-manufacturing businesses can anchor a successful development. Could something similar be done with the food vendors at the Bronx Terminal Market?
IC: When I met the people from the Bronx Terminal Market, it got me very excited. Because the Bronx Terminal Market really is New York City. In New York, you can find a concentration of uses and if you get that concentration together you draw the public. That’s the beauty of a market.

So, you think it’s important for the vendors to remain together?
Yes. New York City is one of the few cities in the entire United States that has such a huge number of similar businesses. Where else can you have a section called Madison Avenue with advertising agencies? Where else do you have a theater district? These are markets. The Bronx is a terrific place for this market. The fact that these wholesalers want to stay in the Bronx is the most exciting part of the whole plan, because everyone else wants to be in Manhattan. But if they’re willing to work in the Bronx, you can combine them with other uses to spur development there.

Should the city have tried to keep the vendors where they are?
The evolution of the Bronx has made this a very valuable site, and there’s nothing wrong with these wholesalers moving someplace else–that would become a very valuable space. By having the central core of food manufacturers and distributors, [they] can start a whole new community. And then you bring in other allied businesses and develop an intense area where people have to come to shop.

Is this why the Chelsea Market has worked so well?
Think about the Chelsea Market. Nobody has to come here. It’s on the periphery of the neighborhood. The next thing you see is New Jersey. But why do people come here? Because we have a concentration of vendors. Every company is family-owned. There are no chains. If you want to get that special birthday cake that Ruthie’s Cheesecake sells, you can’t get it anywhere in New York except here, because this is where it’s made. And if you want Amy’s Bread as it’s coming out of the oven, this is the only place to get it. You’re not going to get Amy’s bread from Gristedes. That’s why people come here. Markets work.

In addition to Chelsea Market, you’ve developed buildings in Long Island City for manufacturers. Can manufacturing still succeed in New York?
Absolutely. Where else do you have a diversity of people that we have in New York City, where there’s any kind of labor you need?

Yet, I always hear that there’s a shortage of manufacturing space in the city. Why aren’t other developers seeing the potential here?
I don’t belong to a country club. And I don’t play golf, and I don’t play tennis. But I have friends who belong to country clubs. And when they hang around with their buddies, they like to talk about these great developments in Manhattan, and the apartment house they just built. They like to talk about sexy deals. That’s what gets other people excited. But there is excitement in manufacturing. There’s a lot of manufacturing that can be in New York. Food works–just because the amount of food that’s consumed in New York is so great.

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