A tale of two city builders

Paul Oberman of Woodcliffe and John Letnik of Captain John’s floating restaurant

Paul Oberman
This is about two businessmen who contribute in striking ways to the richness of our Downtown landscape and create destinations that attract visitors from around the world. Both, in different ways, deal in the preservation of history: one on land, the other on the lake. Don’t sell tourism short because it’s at the very heart of our Downtown economy.

Historic Market Street at last appears to be in very good hands as redevelopment slated to conclude in spring of 2012 is in the planning stage with community and business involvement.

“Downtown doesn’t have a heart and a soul,” Paul Oberman told a committee of the St. Lawrence Market Business Improvement Association (BIA) last month. The principal of Woodcliffe Corp., prominent in the preservation of historic buildings, says St. Lawrence Market—and the Old Fish Market building across the iconic street to its west—should serve that purpose. It is, after all, where Toronto began. And it’s been the city’s marketplace for over two centuries.

One of the city’s most prominent preservers of historic buildings, including the Flatiron Building and the North Toronto (rail) Station (now a huge, elaborate LCBO store), Oberman wins praise from preservationists such as the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.

His Market Street plan retains the scale of Old Town Toronto that Oberman refuses to breach, though his firm has a right to do so. Woodcliffe is allowed to build an additional 100 square metres of density that Oberman pledges not to build.

And there won’t be a McDonalds or Starbucks or other food-court chains in the several retail spaces at the ground level.

He says he’ll lease only to independent retailers, which means that the ground would be occupied by several small dining establishments with, he hopes, a broadened sidewalk. Ideally, he told the BIA, there would be no vehicle traffic down Market Street, at least during the days and hours when the outside tables are busy.

While the BIA was less receptive to that no-traffic notion, the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Association general meeting a few days later was almost unanimous in favour of a completely traffic-free zone. Oberman won their applause

After an easy remake beneath the second-floor ramp on Jarvis Street, Oberman says, shoppers who drive could use that side of the building for grocery pickups. As several people pointed out, the west side of Jarvis is already a traffic mess because of the unwise city plan to ramp the North Market building underground parking off that constricted street.

Back on Market Street, Oberman envisions the east side occupied by a lavish all-season European-style flower market in St. Lawrence Market that’s unlike anything in Toronto with glass windows that can be closed in cold weather.

Like much of what he hopes to do with property adjacent to his, Oberman knows the final word isn’t his.

He isn’t a fan of the iconic and ersatz Victorian street lamps in St. Lawrence Neighbourhood and would prefer to design something current that fits in with the historic theme. “But it isn’t my decision to make,” he told the BIA, “it is the city’s process and I fully believe in design criteria.”

What he seeks to do is “create a great pedestrian space through Market Lane Park, through St. James’ Park.”

Another Downtown attraction has a history older than most of our residents. For 40 years Captain John’s floating seafood restaurant and banquet hall has been docked at the foot of Yonge Street and is viewed as a landmark. That’s a big part of owner John Letnik’s problem, he says. The 72-year-old Letnik doesn’t think his ship should be a landmark. At least not for tax purposes.

You see, Capt. John wants to be taxed as what his facility is: a ship. “It’s a fully floating ship,” says Letnik. “It’s permanently moored on a 300- by 44-foot water lot. It’s floating. I’m the only one in North America who pays real-estate taxes on a boat.”

Trouble is, he says, the City of Toronto taxes his restaurant as if it were on land, at $35,000. He says he can live with that as a total annual cost, but he also has to pay fees to both the Toronto Port Authority and Waterfront Toronto. That runs his total annual fees to $60,000 for the water lot and use of the sidewalk that runs along the length of his ship. He’s not the only user of that sidewalk, but he’s the only one paying to use it. Now he’s $300,000 in total arrears.

He feels the city has mistreated him and owes him tax relief. He has supporters, including some past members of council and a very active proponent in the person of Alexander Nairn, a retired businessman who spearheads causes on behalf of the downtrodden and is recruiting more advocates for Letnik.

In 1981 the city-owned ferry Trillium crashed into one of two boats Letnik used for restaurants and party facilities, sinking the Normac, a smaller boat that was docked parallel to Queens Quay. After four years and six full weeks in court he finally got an award he says wouldn’t pay for his legal costs and those involved in re-floating the Normac

Restaurant reviewers have both praised and panned his restaurant’s offerings. But his party deck, well-decorated dining rooms and banquet halls are a hit and tourists—especially from Europe—are mainly charmed by dining on a circa-1957 Mediterranean cruise ship, the Jadran. It previously belonged to the former Yugoslavia’s first president, Marshall Joseph Tito. Letnik lives aboard the Jadran in an exquisite stateroom. But the ship needs work and some sprucing up. He is in a quandary because he doesn’t know whether the port authority and Waterfront Toronto will continue to enable the Jadran to remain where it is “It would be a tragedy if this historic restaurant and tourist attraction is forced to close,” says Alexander Nairn, his leading proponent. “Toronto would really lose something irreplaceable.”

What they are hoping for from the city is to wipe out the arrears and to quit taxing a boat as if it were real estate.

They hope the new city hall regime will climb on board—or at least toss Capt. John a life preserver.