Developer remembered as a visionary

Oberman saw value of heritage

Few Torontonians have heardof Paul Oberman, but mostknow his work whether theyrealize it or not.He was the driving force behindthe brilliant renovation of the oldNorth Toronto train station onYonge St., better known as theSummerhill liquor store, as well asa number of heritage renovationprojects around the city.The Toronto real estate developerwas one of a tiny handful of builderswho understood the value ofarchitectural history and whomade it part of his work.His death Monday night in aplane crash over Maine will be ahuge loss in a city that places littlevalue on its past. Where most of hisfellow developers happily pay lipservice to preservation, Obermandidn’t just talk the talk — he alsowalked the walk.Last year, for example, he led alast-minute charge to save thevintage World War II hangars atwhat’s now Downsview Park. Hewent so far as to contact generalsin the Department of NationalDefence to persuade them thatthese old structures could find newlife in the 21st century.The fact he failed was more areflection of the fossilized thinkingand lack of enlightenment at DNDthan Oberman’s willingness tofight for heritage.“Where do you find land developerslike Paul?” wonders CouncillorKristyn Wong-Tam, in whose downtown ward Oberman livedand worked. “He was a visionary.He put forward a new model ofheritage preservation that alloweddevelopers and property owners tobe profitable while doing the rightthing. Every brick and stone in hisbuildings would be restored.”By the standards of the developmentindustry, Oberman’s commitmentto architecture was remarkable,even unique. Comparedwith most developers, who feelput-upon when asked to save afacade or two, Oberman went outof his way to restore, rehabilitateand reuse buildings of architecturaland civic significance.Most important of all, his abilityto make heritage pay for itself putthe lie to an industry that rarelylooks beyond the borders of itsown holdings.The recent destruction of the oldEmpress Hotel building at Yongeand Gould Sts. might have been amore typical fate for a Toronto heritagesite. Police say it was burnt tothe ground by an arsonist. But ithad been in poor shape for years.Oberman grasped that in addition to everything else, heritage makesgood business sense. But that successrequires time, money, imaginationand passion for more thanthe bottom line.“It wasn’t philanthropy,” arguesRollo Myers, manager of the ArchitecturalConservancy of Ontario.“It was business. Paul was able tomake a product that people werekeen to be associated with. It’s hiswork that we point to in order toshow how preservation should bedone.“He was never greedy for densitybut always managed to strike theright balance between modestintensification and fitting in. Healso had consummate taste. Theprojects I’ve seen in Ottawa andToronto set a very high standard.”Still, Oberman’s argument thattax incentives and heritage grantsreturn more to public coffersthrough increased rents and propertyvalues went largely unheededin a city with no long-term visionof itself.“How will we create a vibranturban environment consisting ofexciting and remarkable builtforms if we turn our backs on thegreat achievements — and even themere survival — of our past?”Oberman asked. “If we don’t valueour heritage, how will we createanything of value in the future? Adesirable future, I submit, is tied toour past.” Family friends said the son, whogoes to university in Halifax, hadbeen in Toronto for the funeral of afriend who died recently in a skiaccident.Colleagues remembered Obermanas the kind of person you callwhen a property needs some TLC.“Everything he did, he just didwith such enthusiasm and so well,”said Catherine Nasmith, an architectand publisher of a heritagenewsletter.Nasmith remembers Oberman aswise, compassionate and meticulousin the projects he worked on.She said his death is a devastatingloss to the heritage community andthe city.“He was rare citizen,” she said.Similar sentiments rolled in on aFacebook memorial page on Tuesday,where Oberman was rememberedas a visionary committed tocreating a better city.Oberman went to great lengths totry and save Downsview Airport’shangars from demolition, making itan issue that, friends say, reachedthe country’s highest offices.“In the end we did not succeed.But I never saw anyone work sohard,” said Lloyd Alter of the ArchitecturalConservancy of Ontario,who worked with Oberman to savethe hangars.Oberman also restored the iconicGooderham Building, the Shops atScrivener Square and was in theprocess of redeveloping and restoringMarket St. near the St. LawrenceMarket.Alter said Oberman’s dedication isevident in those projects.“They’re perfect. They’re gems.And that’s Paul.“He never skimped. He never cutcorners. He did it right.”In an obituary written by a familyfriend, Oberman is remembered asan adventurer who cycled, hikedand flew airplanes.Oberman leaves his wife, Eve Lewis,and six children.

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