Oberman Way: The best way to honour a developer who dreamt big

Left to right, Frank Pal, Eve Lewis, David Henderson at the site of the planned Paul Oberman Way. Photo by Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail

How can a city thank someone for making it a better place?

Name a place after that person, so he or she becomes part of the city fabric. With that name forever on resident’s lips, the debt is repaid; better yet, in a hundred years, history buffs will want to know who and why, and a whole new generation will learn.

A school is good, a park even better, but, in my opinion, a street is best.

When Paul Oberman, president of Woodcliffe Landmark Properties, died tragically in a plane crash at the age of 53 this past March, it wasn’t long before those who worked closely with him decided to see if such an honour was feasible.

Unlike ordinary developers, Mr. Oberman didn’t shy away from the difficulties and costs associated with the restoration of heritage properties. In fact, he embraced them: “He sort of set the standard for us to think beyond our buildings, to think about the larger precincts and context within which our buildings were,” said architect Bruce Kuwabara on a local television call-in program this past May, “and if you look at the buildings he’s actually worked on, they weren’t just any old heritage buildings.”

I’ll say. Mr. Oberman was a champion of adaptive reuse with a keen eye for places that enriched city living. That’s evident in his works, starting in the late 1980s with the magnificent King James Place – which Mr. Kuwabara’s KPMB worked on for Woodcliffe, the Gooderham Flatiron building, the North Toronto Station (now the Summerhill LCBO) and the recently completed retail strip across the street from the old station known affectionately as the Five Thieves. What’s less known is the amount of personal time he gave to fight the good fight: in late 2009, Mr. Oberman fought – though he ultimately lost – for the retention of the Second World War-era hangars at Downsview Airport.

And he didn’t stop at Toronto, with projects in Montreal and Ottawa. But his heart, and his best work, is here, including the short city block of Market Street from Front to The Esplanade. Opposite the St. Lawrence Market, Mr. Oberman assembled three heritage properties – one dating as early as 1858 – and a small automotive garage (demolished in 2010) and enlisted Taylor Smyth architects to envision a tourist-friendly concentration of restaurants contained within them, along with the design of a new two-storey marquee restaurant at the corner of Market and The Esplanade (currently under construction). Tucked into what is currently a dark, dead zone below the market’s east side deck, a European-style flower market could spill onto the street in summer and shelter behind glass doors in winter.

“It just makes the street more animated,” says Eve Lewis, Mr. Oberman’s widow, a veteran real estate professional and the new president of Woodcliffe. “And I think, when people go shopping for food, flowers are part of it.”

A new street name could be a part of it, too.

Shortly after Mr. Oberman’s passing, architect Michael Taylor floated the idea of having the block renamed “Oberman Way.” Employees at Woodcliffe got behind this, as did the Oberman family, and a website was created last month, www.pauloberman.ca. Visitors can sign an online petition in support of the re-naming and, if they’d like to carry it a step further, the creation of a pedestrian-only zone from Front to The Esplanade as well as the flower market idea – both things about which Mr. Oberman felt strongly – can be clicked as well.

Once the petition reaches 5,000 names, Woodcliffe will file an application with the city for the street name change. In addition, they’ll be able to make a stronger case for the pedestrian zone and the flower market when those items come up for debate. And they most certainly will: Naysayers will lament of the loss of parking along that stretch of Market Street, and others will argue that the changing of a long-standing street name is no way to honour a heritage-loving developer.

Hopefully, cooler heads will remind them that when the new St. Lawrence Market North Building is completed a few years from now, those parking spaces will be replaced … along with dozens and dozens more, and those with a fondness for the Market Street name will take comfort in the knowledge that it will still exist south of The Esplanade. The fiscal-minded will understand that the more people-friendly places Toronto has, the better it is for the economy.

“Pedestrian-only is not just for the restaurants, it’s for the Market, it’s for people to go outside,” offers Ms. Lewis. “This is one of those unique opportunities, and they don’t come very often –most people aren’t crazy enough to assemble a whole street,” she laughs.

But Paul Oberman was “a dreamer” says Mr. Kuwabara. When I dream about a restaurant/heritage district with that je ne sais quoi that comes with “café society” (to borrow Ms. Lewis’s term) and a new pedestrian corridor that will connect the Novotel and condominiums along The Esplanade to the market, up to architect Jerome Markson’s award-winning Market Square building and then to King Street and beyond, I get chills.

Ted Rogers got his Way. Let’s thank another of our modern city-building heroes the same way.


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