Market Street revitalization is a model of adaptive reuse at its best

Market street with David Crombie and Barry Lyon in foreground
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ Market street with David Crombie and Barry Lyon in foreground

There is a lot of arguing these days about heritage preservation; many think that with a few exceptions of notable classic buildings, preservationists are really NIMBYs preventing the free market from building 40 storey apartment towers. They would look at the crappy old buildings on Market Street in Toronto and blow them away. So would most developers, perhaps leaving the facades as wallpaper along the street with glass boxes above.

The late Paul Oberman was different. He would leave money on the table, not build to the height limits, not throw up cheap glass boxes when he could do something right and create something special. When I was President of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario he was my hero and friend, fighting together to save historic airplane hangars, hotels and whole streets in Brantford, Ontario. After r he was killed in a plane crash his wife, Eve Lewis, already a force in Toronto real estate, took over the company and finished Market Street in style, in a way that Paul would have approved of.

Lloyd Alter/ Eve Lewis and her six kids/CC BY 2.0

Heritage development like this isn't cheap or for the faint of heart. Eve told the Globe and Mail recently:

It wouldn’t have been a heritage restoration if the total costs didn’t come to more than I expected,” Ms. Lewis says. It generally costs at least twice as much to restore a heritage building than it costs to build from scratch, she’s found. “And whenever you deal with heritage buildings there are always going to be unexpected costs.

Lloyd Alter/ View up Market Street/CC BY 2.0

However there is the return when it is done right; Eve notes that tenants are often willing to pay the price.

People like the feeling of being a part of history and they will pay extra to live or work or have a restaurant that has historic character if it’s done right.” Heritage restorations Woodcliffe has done can command a rental premium in excess of 25 per cent.

Lloyd Alter/ Stone wall in Barsa restaurant/CC BY 2.0

The buildings were brought up to date inside and out; a new service corridor runs along the back so that the street doesnt get clogged with delivery trucks. Even the foundations are exposed (like in Barsa here) to give the inside as much character as the outside.

Lloyd Alter/ Bollards/CC BY 2.0

On the other side of Market Street is the very busy St. Lawrence Market; the street also serves as the loading area for trucks delivering to the market, so there is a delicate balance that has to be achieved, between the commercial needs of the existing uses on the east side of the street or the new restaurants and public spaces on the west. Paul came up with a really ingenious solution; note that there are no curbs in the street, just a drain and a row of bollards.

Lloyd Alter/ Sidewalk on Markham Street/CC BY 2.0

In summer, the restaurants all have sidewalk cafés that stretch out to the bollards on the right, forming their enclosure; in winter, the bollards on the left are removed and the sidewalk becomes parking; the patio area becomes a wide protected sidewalk closer to the buildings. it is a very clever change of uses as appropriate for the season, and you have no idea how difficult it is to achieve such a thing when there are such things as engineering standards for city streets. What? No curb? It took years.

Lloyd Alter/ new Taylor Smythe building/CC BY 2.0

There used to be an auto repair garage on the corner, that obviously had to go. Most heritage developers would do a cutesy extension of the olde style of the block; Paul was always interested in mixing it up, putting in really high quality modern architecture like this building by Taylor Smyth Architects to finish off the block. The restraint shown here, when they might have piled up 40 storeys, is remarkable.

Lloyd Alter/ Paul Oberman Walk/CC BY 2.0

The plaque says it all. More at Tastes of Market Street.

Here is a video tribute that was done a few months after Paul died. I am in it, but apologize for my dreadful appearance; I raced in from my cabin and bicycled down to be filmed and had no time to shower or shave. Paul would have been appalled, he was always perfectly done up.

Tags: Ban Demolition | Preservation | Toronto