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Paul Reichmann, 83; developer who helped transform skylines

New Yorkers danced in front of the World Financial Center, which Mr. Reichmann and his brothers had developed.

James Estrin/New York Times/File 1998

New Yorkers danced in front of the World Financial Center, which Mr. Reichmann and his brothers had developed.

NEW YORK — Paul Reichmann, the Canadian real estate developer who made and lost billions of dollars while transforming the skylines of Toronto, New York, and London, died Friday in Toronto. He was 83.

His death was announced by a spokeswoman for ReichmannHauer Capital Partners, an investment firm.

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Mr. Reichmann and his brothers, Albert and Ralph, led Olympia & York, their family’s real estate development firm, which counted among its greatest projects the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan and Canary Wharf in London’s East End. At their apex in 1990, the Reichmanns held about 8 percent of New York City’s commercial office space, more than twice as much as their closest rival, the Rockefellers.

In all, Olympia & York owned 40 major office towers in a dozen cities and controlled $20 billion in assets. But in 1992, they ran out of cash while building Canary Wharf, and their real estate business quickly collapsed.

Peter Redman/Financial Post/1990

Paul Reichmann was his family’s business strategist.

Mr. Reichmann, a tall, soft-spoken man, was clearly the family business strategist and chief decision-maker. He and his family were lavish contributors, mostly to Orthodox Jewish causes; they donated up to $50 million a year to yeshivas, synagogues, and hospitals around the world.

Despite his austere demeanor, Mr. Reichmann took enormous business risks. He bet that each development project could exceed the size of the previous one and attract enough tenants to produce a windfall.

“For Paul, it is like being a gambler, like being a heroin addict — he cannot stop,” Andrew Sarlos, a prominent Toronto investment banker and Reichmann family friend, said in a 1988 article in Maclean’s.

Mr. Reichmann scoffed at that sort of criticism. “You don’t get the returns if you don’t take the risk,” he said in an interview with Institutional Investor magazine in 2000.

Mr. Reichmann’s track record was so impressive that his creditors did not seem to mind his high-roller approach. His sense of timing in the notoriously cyclical real estate market seemed infallible, and he was viewed as a master negotiator with an uncanny understanding of financing techniques.

But the Reichmann empire crumbled in 1992. The immediate cause was the Canary Wharf project in London. With real estate prices plunging around the world, other major Reichmann properties were also in the red.

Crushed under debts of more than $20 billion, Olympia & York went bankrupt. The Reichmanns were left with a net worth of less than $100 million — one of the most astonishing financial collapses in history.

Paul Reichmann blamed his overconfidence. “The fact that I had never been wrong created character flaws that caused me to make mistakes,” he said.

Mr. Reichmann and his family partly rebuilt their fortune. In a personal triumph, he recovered control of Canary Wharf in 1995, as a minority partner. He retired in 2005.

The strains of commerce and religious orthodoxy were often inseparable. Olympia & York closed its construction sites on the Jewish Sabbath and during religious holidays.

Mr. Reichmann’s first foray in the United States involved the purchase of eight prime Manhattan office buildings in 1977 for $325 million. New York City seemed on the verge of bankruptcy. But a decade later, the same properties were valued around $3 billion.

By then, Mr. Reichmann and his brothers were involved in their most heralded project, the World Financial Center.

By the end of the 1980s, the Reichmanns were the seventh-richest family in the world, according to Fortune. But they still lived relatively modestly in the same upper-middle-class homes they built for themselves in Toronto’s suburbs.

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