Charles Cohen on DCOTA’s next chapter, his new hotel and producing movies

Cohen wants to bring more office tenants to DCOTA, offering meeting space at Le Meridien Dania Beach

Charles Cohen and Design Center of the Americas
Charles Cohen and Design Center of the Americas

Charles Cohen controls a room. Wearing a perfectly fitted custom suit with sleek round glasses, he looks like he’s groomed straight from “The Bonfire of the Vanities” as he signs checks in his Dania Beach office.

The CEO of New York-based Cohen Brothers Realty Corp. has a lot to talk about. He’s overseeing the largest design center showroom in South Florida, the Design Center of the Americas (DCOTA) in Dania Beach, and is set to open the high-end Le Meridien Dania Beach hotel on Wednesday.

But Cohen is most excited to discuss the Oscars, which he attended earlier this week, and the importance of the film Parasite winning best picture. In addition to being a real estate developer, Cohen is also a film producer. His company’s films include the 2017 Academy Award winner The Salesman. In 2018, he acquired Landmark Theatres, one of the country’s largest movie chains focusing on independent films.

There are parallels between Cohen’s real estate ventures, especially DCOTA, and his movies. The showroom has seen the loss of some tenants and skeptics are critical of whether large-scale design showrooms are still viable in 2020. But Cohen dismisses the critics, the loss of tenants and the property’s past issues with its loans. Instead, he said DCOTA is just on to its next chapter.

The Real Deal sat down with Cohen at his office in Dania Beach. The interview has been condensed.

1. What’s going on with DCOTA? What are your plans for the property?

I purchased DCOTA in 2005 before the recession. With a lower leverage burden to bear, it gives us the opportunity to spread its wings and [take it] into its next decade for being all things designed for people that can afford to have their designers work with us in our showrooms. What I have always done from the get-go is to create an environment for designers to do their very best work with a terrific array of high-end products for their discerning clientele.

The tenants that have left DCOTA have really left for one reason. Which was that they found a much more compelling rental opportunity offsite in warehouse-type buildings that are not of the quality that DCOTA is or has to offer. We have a very strong educational program, we have restaurants, we are going to be completing our fitness center on site. DCOTA’s connection to the business community has been very well received.

2. Are you looking to do more office space?

In the adjoining site. The 1815 [Griffin Road] building is one that we are working on to build another 400,000 square feet of office. This campus is unique in that we’ve assembled under one owner 40 acres of properties, so it is its own campus. Having the [Le Meridien] hotel come on line at this time was fortuitous, and I think a game changer for the entire campus, allowing people here to have their meetings, their board meetings, their sales people, their out-of-town components to come in and be close to the offices they have here. We have meeting rooms, we have ballrooms, we have hotel rooms, we’ve got great food options not only inside the DCOTA, but inside the hotel, so it becomes this synergistic cosmos.

3. You mentioned that some tenants have moved out of DCOTA. Are you planning to lower rents at all?

No, I think the rents we charge are fair. They are what a tenant in today’s world will expect. I can’t compete with the $10 rents across the road in some one-story factory warehouse building. I can’t compete with that. They aren’t providing the common area, maintenance, the security and landscape, lighting and signage and all the things we provide in a closed-in Class A environment.

4. So different types of tenants?

Yeah, I think [the warehouses] are attracting tenants that are financially motivated to save as much money as they can and feel they can accomplish their business. I am a great believer that design centers are uniquely American in idea, and play upon the idea that, no different than a major mall, when someone goes to a major mall or design center they can accomplish a lot in one place without having to get back in their car. In other words, it’s a very efficient use of time, and here by grouping under one umbrella the highest end you could possibly deal with.

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5. How does foot traffic compare to where it was ten years ago?

I think that foot traffic is right where it should be. Right now, it’s growing from where it may have fallen. But remember all shopping has been affected by the advent and proliferation of internet based sales. But not so much here because our products are specialty manufactured. We are not selling what you can buy in Bed Bath & Beyond.

6. In terms of your loans that you had to refinance, why did you go through the foreclosure process? (DCOTA recently settled a foreclosure lawsuit for $172.9 million from Wells Fargo over delinquent loans.)

Well I didn’t elect to do that. I was in touch with the lender for two years before it came due and we had done a series of extensions, which got us to a point where I realized that there was no way that loan could have gotten repaid. And I guess it just took the lender and its consultants and advisors time to realize that what I said was so. The loan just matured. It was not a default of I didn’t pay interest. It was just that way of being able to repay it in full. So I know that they went out through a bidding process, and I was pleased they were able to work through it and now take DCOTA to the next level.

7. How does that help you?

We were refinanced at a lower principal amount and a lower rate.

8. In West Palm Beach, what are your plans with the redevelopment of the Carefree Theater?

We are waiting for zoning approval. In April or May we will be ready to go before the commission for approval, and and then once we have that we will be jumping into our working drawings. We would like to start construction by the end of the year.

9. Do you have another project in West Palm Beach?

I was selected to develop the Tent Site, which is an office site. I’ve gotten to finalize my lease with the city. That should all happen in the late spring as well.

10. What’s next for DCOTA?

Now that the hotel has opened, my energies go toward the expansion of office premises and new office development and completing the renting program here, and some of the common area enhancements that were kind of stalled. And now we are getting back on track. All of that is coming together. It’s a leaner, smarter, higher-end DCOTA.

11. What movies are you working on?

I have a movie shooting in London right now called Operation Mincemeat. I am the lead producer. Colin Firth is the actor. I just acquired Curzon Cinemas in London. I also purchased the distribution company. We have a distribution company. And I just came from the Oscars. Landmark shows Parasite. Curzon not only shows it but is the U.K. distributor, and it just opened there, and it’s going gangbusters.