Few Torontonians have heard of Paul Oberman, but most know his work whether they realize or not.
He was the driving force behind the brilliant renovation of the old North Toronto train station on Yonge St., better known as the Summerhill liquor store, as well as a number of heritage renovation projects around the city.
The Toronto real estate developer was one of tiny handful of builders who understood the value of architectural history and who made it part of his work.
His death Monday night in a plane crash over Maine will be a huge loss in a city that places little value on its past. Where most of his fellow developers happily pay lip service to preservation, Oberman didn’t just talk the talk, he also walked the walk.
Last year, for example, he led a last-minute charge to save the vintage Second World War hangars at what’s now Downsview Park. He went so far as to contact generals in the Department of National Defence to persuade them that these old structures could find new life in the 21st century.
The fact he failed was more a reflection of the fossilized thinking and lack of enlightenment at DND than Oberman’s willingness to fight for heritage.
“Where do you find land developers like Paul?” wonders City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, in whose downtown ward Oberman lived and worked. “He was a visionary. He put forward a new model of heritage preservation that allowed developers and property owners to be profitable while doing the right thing. Every brick and stone in his buildings would be restored.”
By the standards of the development industry, Oberman’s commitment to architecture was remarkable, even unique. Compared with most developers, who feel put upon when asked to save a façade or two, Oberman went out of his way to restore, rehabilitate and reuse buildings of architectural and civic significance.
Most important of all, his ability to make heritage pay for itself put the lie to an industry that rarely looks beyond the borders of its own holdings.
The recent destruction of the old Empress Hotel building at Yonge and Gould Sts. might have been a more typical fate for a Toronto heritage site. According to police, it was burnt to the ground by an arsonist. But it had been in poor shape for years.
Oberman grasped that in addition to everything else, heritage makes good business sense. But that success requires time, money, imagination and passion for more than the bottom line.
“It wasn’t philanthropy,” argues Rollo Myers, manager of Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. “It was business. Paul was able to make a product that people were keen to be associated with. It’s his work that we point to in order to show how preservation should be done. He was never greedy for density, but always managed to strike the right balance between modest intensification and fitting in. He also had consummate taste. The projects I’ve seen in Ottawa and Toronto set a very high standard.”
Still, Oberman’s argument that tax incentives and heritage grants return more to public coffers through increased rents and property values went largely unheeded in a city with no long-term vision of itself.
“How will we create a vibrant urban environment consisting of exciting and remarkable built forms if we turn our backs on the great achievements — and even the mere survival — of our past?” Oberman asked. “If we don’t value our heritage, how will we create anything of value in the future? A desirable future, I submit, is tied to our past.”