Neighbours only knew him as “Manny,” a quiet and sometimes cranky landlord who lived in their area.
But more details of the life of Manuel Gomes, a single man who never married, had no children and amassed a fortune in real estate in a west-end block of Toronto, are coming to light following his death in July.
The Portuguese immigrant came to Canada in 1965 with barely any money in his pocket. But he landed a job as a TTC bus driver and purchased several properties in the Davenport Rd. and Ossington Ave. area starting in the late 1970s, with his younger brother Armando — who arrived in Canada nine years after Manny, broke as well — eventually chipping in money.
When Manny died of stomach cancer at age 82, he left behind a collection of nine properties including subdivided single-family homes, storefronts with rental units on top, and a Portuguese restaurant that served “churrasco-style” chicken. The listings for the properties, $15 million in total, went up Sept. 19.
He had developed a vision for his properties, and years ago tried unsuccessfully to convince local property owners to join him in adding more density to the neighbourhood.
It’s a vision that may only be realized after he’s gone.
His brother Armando, 70, the executor of Manny’s estate, is here in the city, working with a Toronto real estate agent in a bid to get the properties sold.
“(Manny) came here as a young boy, poor and wanted to prove to himself that he could accomplish a lot. He worked like hell,” says Tony Natale, a real estate agent who knew Manny for over 30 years.
Neighbours and business owners in the area remember Manny as a “character” who had his friendly engaging side, but who could also be gruff at times.
“Manny was a real character — his mood depended on the day you caught him. In some ways he was like Neighbourhood Watch,” keeping an eye out in the area, remembers Leigh Tynan, who with a partner operates a video production company on Davenport Rd. near Gomes’ properties.
“He was actually really good to me. I’d say sell your properties and go retire in Florida. He’d just laugh and say ‘I’m an old man what am I going to do?’ He was emotionally tied to those properties. They were part of his identity and he didn’t want to part with them,” Tynan says.
Manny Gomes and his family are from Areias, a small parish northeast of Lisbon. Manny was the oldest sibling.
There was younger brother Armando, and their three sisters, one who passed away. The two surviving sisters — Maria Cremilde and Maria dos Aujos — lived in Canada for a period of time but have since returned to Portugal and have grown children.
When Armando came to Canada, Manny was already working as a driver for the TTC. The brothers lived together briefly, Armando working for an auto parts company in Toronto. In an interview, Armando says he wasn’t happy with the money he was making for the company so he reached out to some friends in the Thunder Bay area.
They helped Armando land work that led to him becoming a lumberjack for pulp and paper giant Domtar in the area.
“The job was supposed to be a year for some money, but I retired there,” he says.
Armando rented an apartment there, never married and had no children, like his brother.
The brothers got along well, though Armando jokes: “Sometimes we were friendlier when we were far away from each other.”
Meanwhile in Toronto, Manny became interested in buying property. Armando had no family commitments and ended up saving a lot of money, some of which he sent to Manny, who purchased properties in his own name.
Over the years, Armando says he sent different amounts, $50,000 or $60,000 or $80,000 to his brother.
Manny was the man with the “nose, the vision” for real estate, says Natale, the listing agent for the Gomes properties currently for sale.
One of Manny’s early purchases was a two-storey, 1920s-era single-family home on Alberta Ave. that he bought for $85,000 in 1985, according to property records. Now it’s assessed value is over $1 million, records show.
Natale says Manny eventually subdivided his single-family properties to generate rental income and pay his mortgages. He balanced his busy day job with running around fixing plumbing and doing numerous other repairs at the properties.
He purchased properties near each other, as they became available.
Manny purchased a corner property at Davenport and Alberta in 1977 for $56,000, records show, and later turned it into a restaurant called Cafe O Abrigo that had a bar in the basement. It’s now listed for $1.6 million.
Doing the renovations to convert the home into a restaurant — including building the kitchen and putting in the bar — was a “big job” for Gomes, Natale says.
But Manny, who lived nearby on Alberta St., was up to the task, working tirelessly, Natale says.
“He was like a bull. A solidly built man with power to spare,” the agent says.
The restaurant would become a popular local spot that Manny ran for years until he recently fell ill.
In all, Manny’s properties sit on about one acre of land that has residential zoning behind Davenport and zoning that permits residential-commercial uses fronting Davenport.
The parcel includes an 11,000-square-foot portion of unused green space that runs vertical to Davenport, that’s home to an apple tree and is at the top of a slope where you get an eye-catching view of the city.
Around 2009 Manny wanted to build four or five homes on the green space behind Davenport. But neighbours objected and the plan didn’t materialize. At the time there was a builder that had a deal with Manny to buy the property if the city could approve it. But the city didn’t support the deal in large part due to neighbourhood opposition, Natale says.
After a 2005 fire burned down an auto repair shop at the corner of Davenport and Winona Dr., Manny purchased the vacant plot. About four years ago he tried to sell that property, but to no avail. (The plot is included in the $15 million listing).
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Throughout the years, Natale and Manny had been talking to other owners on Davenport about combining properties and creating a larger portfolio to sell to a developer.
“Manuel’s vision was to get a block together that could lead to the creation of something spectacular. He wanted to see something that would improve the neighbourhood,” Natale says.
Matt Norwood, a patent lawyer who lives on Winona Dr. near the properties, says, “Manny was an interesting guy. I was friends with him, I may have been one of the few. He alienated a lot of people over the (proposal to develop the green space) and being an ornery guy.”
Additional density on Gomes’ property would add further “disruption” to an already tight parking situation in the area, Norwood says, adding that driveways on the street are for houses built in the 1920s that you can fit a mini Cooper on, but that’s about it.
Tynan notes that several of Manny’s properties, including a storefront on Davenport that was a bakery, are mostly empty and need work done on them.
Gomes’ reluctance or inability to sell his portfolio while he was alive meant the area couldn’t really get a facelift, Tynan says. Now that he is gone there are possibilities, Tynan says.
Manny’s death came as a shock to those in the neighbourhood who knew him.
“I didn’t see him for a while, then when I saw him in the spring he looked like he had lost a ton of weight. I said to my friend that Manny must be sick,” says Tynan.
Close to the time of his death, Norwood noticed Manny wasn’t around, so he began asking questions.
Norwood’s wife looked into it and learned that Manny had been checked into Toronto General hospital.
Norwood works near the hospital and decided to drop by and check in on his friend.
He found Manny’s hospital room.
“He was in bad shape. Stomach cancer is brutal,” Norwood says of the visit.
It was hard to talk to Manny. He was in a lot of pain.
Norwood told Manny: “I’ll come back and see you tomorrow.”
But there was no tomorrow.
Manny died the next day.
His vision for the block he hoped for, however, may now one day materialize.
Natale and Armando have also listed a “potential assembly” that includes three additional properties owned by others — two on Davenport between Winona and Albert, one on Winona — plus a public lane that could work together as a package.
That would cover the entire front on Davenport that could become a future site for or five-storey building, and clean up the strip, Natale says.
“Let’s work as a team and everyone will benefit,” Natale says of the potential group of properties.
Local city councillor Ana Bailao, (Ward 18, Davenport), who didn’t really know Gomes (she only met him once, recently regarding a minor property concern), says the new listings have potential.
“It’s a big piece of land, a good opportunity to do something appropriate that fits in with the neighbourhood, that brings some housing and revitalizes the neighbourhood,” Bailao says.
Not a tower, but some “missing-middle” housing (which includes duplexes, triplexes, townhouses and row houses) could be a good fit for the area, Bailao suggests.
Valerie Benchitrit, an agent with Sutton Group Associates Realty who is quite familiar with the properties, believes $15 million is a lot to ask for Gomes’ property.
“Real estate spread out like this. I’m not sure who will want to but that,” she said.
On the other hand, if the city were to acquire the green space and turn it into a park or something “eco-friendly” and the public laneway and other owners’ properties are added in, something interesting could be done in the area including a lowrise building on Davenport, Benchitrit says.
Natale says that since the new listings went up there has been a lot of interest.
“We’re hearing from everybody. Investors who want to hold the properties and continue assembling and bringing in more lots. We’re also hearing from bigger developers,” the agent says.