During the early design stages of Vue, a $175 million, 16-story condo project in the heart of downtown San Pedro, Raffi Cohen was unsatisfied with the cabinet finishes.
Rather than settle for a finish he didn't want, the longtime commercial developer hopped on a plane and flew to Canada, where he searched for cabinets that met his high standards and he personally negotiated a deal with the cabinetmaker.
Most high-profile developers wouldn't bother with such a minor detail, but associates of the principal officer of Beverly Hills-based Galaxy Commercial Holding LLC said he does things a bit differently.
With loads of energy and a dedication to his work, Cohen has built his company into one of the largest residential developers in the county. Now, with the Vue project, Cohen is leading a charge to make San Pedro relevant again and bring some cache back to a community that has suffered decades of decline.
"He walks with a purpose," said Rhonda Slavik, marketing director for Galaxy. "He came in when there wasn't anything more than four stories in San Pedro. He was able to come in the area and say this is going to be great. It was something that people in San Pedro hadn't seen."
It takes self-confidence to build the first ever high-rise condo tower in a modest waterfront community. But Cohen has taken on the challenge and it is already paying off.
Construction is nearly complete on the residential behemoth and move-in is expected to begin in October. Already, 250 of the 318 units about 80 percent have been sold despite the downturn in the housing market.
The project likely never would have happened without Cohen.
City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who has long fought to revitalize San Pedro, said Cohen "got the idea" almost immediately and saw that the area had tremendous untapped development potential.
"He got very excited when he also caught the vision," she said. "He wants to do more. He wants to build more. He is more excited about this place at times than even I am."
Now in his late 50s, Cohen is responsible for a number of large developments, including Blu, a 37-unit luxury condo project in Beverly Hills. In 2007, Galaxy ranked No. 10 on the Business Journal's annual list of the largest residential real estate developers in Los Angeles County.
Cohen's career is not unblemished, however. In the mid-1990s, county officials nixed a deal with the developer to build an office project next to Los Angeles City Hall after he fell behind more than $1 million on rent and property taxes.
But in San Pedro, the sailing has been somewhat smoother.
The waterfront community, once a vibrant tourist destination with a thriving fishing industry, has suffered from a lack of investment. But in 2003, Cohen bought the dilapidated Pacific Trade Center building at the corner of Fifth and Palos Verdes streets with an eye toward demolishing it and building the largest condo development San Pedro has ever seen.
In summer 2006, Cohen drew cheers when he imploded the building, which had become a symbol of the community's decline. Construction on Vue began shortly thereafter.
When the ultramodern glass-and-steel tower is completed in the next few months, it will feature a rooftop terrace, a yoga room and other luxury amenities.
In San Pedro, Cohen has made an effort to become involved in the downtown community. He and his wife, Lauren, actively participate in the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce and they are becoming household names locally.
"I've heard Raffi's name for a lot of years," said Herb Zimmer, a local business owner and 34-year resident who has served with Cohen's wife on the chamber's waterfront committee.
Cohen's affinity for a working-class town like San Pedro can be understood, in part, by looking at his past. He is the immigrant son of an Israeli cab driver. A 1985 Los Angeles Magazine article featured on Galaxy's Web site describes the then-up-and-coming developer as a "penniless immigrant who couldn't speak English" when he came to the United States in 1976.
After just a few years in the industry, Cohen already was making his mark with the $350 million Figueroa Plaza in downtown Los Angeles.
And while not described by associates as shy, Cohen, with a thick accent, is rarely interviewed by the media.
He was not made available to the Business Journal for comment.
Meanwhile, Cohen continues to see promise in San Pedro. He recently sought to purchase a parcel of land along Beacon Street in the hopes of developing a second local project. That effort, though, fell flat due to a state law that would have forced him to cough up $200,000 for every affordable housing unit he demolished at the site.
Still, Slavik, the Galaxy executive, said Cohen believes San Pedro has a bright future. "We anticipate that more people will want to build and live in the neighborhoods," she said. "Because of the interest we've seen in the area, we're certainly looking for other opportunities."
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