Irwin Cohen, an inventive developer who transformed a derelict factory where the first Oreo cookie was produced in 1912 into Chelsea Market, an exuberant 21st-century food bazaar that helped revitalize its New York City neighborhood, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 90.
His son-in-law Blair Effron said he died of pneumonia in a hospital.
In creating the market, Mr. Cohen reconfigured the former National Biscuit Company plant — a complex of 17 brick buildings dating to the 1890s, filling a block between Ninth and 10th Avenues and West 15th and 16th Streets — into an industrial-chic destination for foodies and a home for video production studios.
Repurposing the plant spurred the gentrification of West Chelsea. It also contributed to the conversion of the meatpacking district, to the market’s south, into a hotbed of trendy venues; helped secure the success of the High Line, a reimagining of an abandoned elevated railroad on the market’s west flank as a verdant, ribbonlike park; and set the stage for a proliferation of high-tech firms that rebranded the neighborhood as Silicon Alley.
Mr. Cohen recalled in a 2005 interview with the Center for an Urban Future that when he purchased 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 it, and I said that my goal was to have an 8-year-old child come here by public transportation, shop and go home, and his or her parents would feel safe. And that’s how it worked out.”
Carl Weisbrod, who was president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation when Mr. Cohen bought the old Nabisco plant, said in an interview: “Irwin was one of the wisest, most thoughtful real estate developers I ever met. His specialty was creatively transforming older buildings, and Chelsea Market is a prime, one-of-a-kind example. It was a catalyst for today’s Chelsea.”
Mr. Cohen and his daughter and business partner Cheryl Cohen Effron enlisted the architect Jeff J. Vandeberg and the sculptor Mark Mennin to re-engineer the ground floor of the labyrinthine hodgepodge of buildings into a meandering 800-foot-long central concourse 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 instead to emphasize food as 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, the 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 were rented to Spectrum News NY1, Major League Baseball Productions, the Food Network and the Oxygen Network.
Mr. Cohen had managed apartment buildings and sites for garment manufacturing around the city. The name of his company, A.T.C., stands for “around the clock,” the kind of environment he hoped to create.
“The building is a community, and he is the mayor of Chelsea,” Stuart Romanoff, who represented NY1 in its lease of 55,000 square feet in the building as an executive with the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, told The Times in 1999.
Chelsea Market’s eclectic space is punctuated by remnants of the Nabisco plant, 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 area 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 help from private investors. Jamestown Properties later bought a majority stake. In 2018, Google bought 75 Ninth Avenue for $2.4 billion.
In 2003, after he sold off 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 home to Del Posto, an acclaimed Italian restaurant opened by Mario Batali and the mother-and-son team of Lidia and Joseph Bastianich. (Del Posto closed in 2021.)
Irwin Bernard Cohen was born on Sept. 29, 1933, in Brooklyn. His father, Jack, was a tailor who had a sewing contracting 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 degree in business from New York University in 1954 and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1958, having worked as a photographer to pay his tuition. He joined a law firm that was a pioneer in real estate syndications.
In 1957, Mr. Cohen married Jill Framer; she died in 2017. In addition to 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 died before him. He lived in Manhattan.
Inspired by a shark aquarium that he saw in a Las Vegas hotel, Mr. Cohen hoped to make waiting for elevators at Chelsea Market less tedious by installing overhead tanks with transparent bottoms that provided unobstructed views of congo eels, salamanders, African jumping frogs and crayfish squirming, entwining and sometimes devouring one another. Asked in 1997 why he wanted reptiles rather than more commonplace aquatic creatures, he replied, “Anyone can do fish.”
Two years later, though, he acknowledged that the reptilian display might have been one — perhaps the only — design experiment at the market that was a trifle too exotic. The eels and salamanders and frogs and crayfish were replaced by more prosaic tropical fish.
“The other ones ate each other,” he said.