In 2005, fed up with the tangle of bureaucratic red tape he said was stifling creativity in Downtown development, Oliver Kuttner vowed he was done with building in Charlottesville. The man who has a historic connection to nearly every large Downtown Mall-area project from The Terraces to City Walk to the Landmark Hotel packed up his money and headed south to Lynchburg, where he set to work buying and renovating empty warehouses while simultaneously founding Edison2, a company that developed a 100 mpg vehicle and won $5 million in 2010 in the Progressive Automotive X Prize competition.
Time has a way of soothing old frustrations, apparently, and earlier this year, 52-year-old Kuttner did what he swore he’d never do again: He started a new project in Charlottesville, this time at a property he already owns, the Glass Building on the corner of Second and Garrett streets. The three-story addition on the building’s southwest corner isn’t huge—just 10,000 square feet that will eventually house retail and commercial space on the first two floors and three small apartments on the top—but as anyone who knows Kuttner might expect, he has a bigger vision for the rest of the site that he believes will help with Charlottesville’s lack of affordable housing, and his attitude about development hasn’t changed.
“If you keep making it more and more complicated to develop, you will lose the creative part,” said Kuttner, recalling his first local project, the old Skatetown building at 1117 E. Market St., which he purchased in 1984 when he was 23 for $240,000 after the building’s former owner agreed to finance the sale to the budding entrepreneur.
Renovating a building back then was a simple process, Kuttner said, and involved filling out minimal paperwork with the city and then doing the work to convert what had been a large open space that housed a roller skating rink into several separate commercial units. He estimates the pre-construction costs, including his time, to have been around $500.
“Today, to do the same thing could cost $70,000 to $80,000,” he said, citing zoning issues, obtaining building permits, the stringent standards of the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review, and the carrying costs associated with owning an empty property while waiting for final construction approval.
He recalls the frustration of working on The Terraces between 1999 and 2002 when stop work orders piled high, and at the Downtown Tire Center building, current site of the new Waterhouse, where he notably overcame a BAR requirement that he preserve the old garage doors by constructing walls around them.
Financial burdens created by the lengthy bureaucratic process, he said, are closing the doors to entrepreneurs and creating an environment in which only large corporations and the very rich can enter the development game. That dynamic can lead to cookie cutter designs, he warned. But in a seeming contradiction, he said Charlottesville has been fortunate to avoid much of that type of unimaginative construction thanks to the very organization that’s given him headaches.
“The BAR is my nemesis, but I like them,” said Kuttner, explaining that he doesn’t object to restrictions on construction in any form, but only the multiple layers of bureaucracy that slow projects down and make developing too expensive.
“I give them 100 percent credit that we don’t have a Mall full of McDonald’s,” he said of the board.
Fortunately for Kuttner, he has one less hoop to jump through for his current construction at the Glass Building. It doesn’t fall under BAR control, since the property is outside the historic district, south of the railroad tracks, tucked between the Water Street Parking Garage and Garrett Square. Kuttner and a partner, Lisa Murphy, bought and renovated the project 15 years ago even as some questioned the investment because of its proximity to public housing.
“The Glass Building started everything on the other side of the tracks,” said Kuttner, citing the subsequent development of the nearby Gleason’s Building and ACAC health club’s decision to build it’s Downtown location across the street from the western side of Friendship Court, the low-income housing development previously known as Garrett Square.
“We dispelled the myth that if you’re next to Garrett Square, you have problems,” he said. “You don’t.”
That’s why Kuttner’s confident that after completing the current addition to the Glass Building, his next vision for Downtown Charlottesville will have broad appeal even if, in typical Kuttner fashion, it already features outside-the-box ideas: 80 affordable apartments and 20 affordable condos, all under 600 square feet, on the parking lot next to the Glass Building.
The idea of $1,000-a-month apartments and condos priced at $200,000 raises questions for one real estate expert and business owner who acknowledges high demand for Downtown housing but questions the reality of constructing affordable housing one block from the Mall—and somehow keeping the value from rising.
“I’m not sure why the premier location Downtown should be affordable,” said Roger Voisinet, a real estate agent and co-owner of the Main Street Arena. ”That’s contrary to all the indices of real estate. It’s more of a wish.”
Kuttner, however, believes increasing the housing supply just off the Mall would lower Downtown housing costs across the board, and while that might not sound like good news to other developers—or to Downtown property owners hoping to maximize money made on their own investments, Kuttner’s concerned less with profit margins than with quality of life in the community and his own legacy, which rests on having big ideas and then making them happen.
“I can do very little and sit on the money I have, or I’m going to change the world,” he said. “I think it’s going to be the latter.”
He’s back, all right.
The Oliver touch
Oliver Kuttner’s played a role in numerous developments around Downtown Charlottesville, including some you might not know about…
The Landmark Hotel (1), 201 E. Water St. Kuttner bought the property from developer Lee Danielson in 2006 and announced plans to construct a nine-story building that would be either a hotel or affordable housing. A year later, frustrated by city bureaucracy and the high carrying costs associated with owning the vacant structure, Kuttner sold it back to Danielson, whose ill-fated partnership with CNet founder Halsey Minor fell apart amid Minor’s numerous financial woes. It was sold at bankruptcy auction in June, 2012 to Atlanta businessman John Dewberry and remains unfinished.
The Glass Building, 313 Second St. SE. Kuttner partnered with Lisa Murphy in the early 2000s to develop the Glass Building, home to The Bluegrass Grill, the now defunct Glass Haus Kitchen, and a variety of small businesses. Kuttner is currently adding a three-story addition to the building’s southwest corner and envisions residential units on an adjacent parking lot.
Waterhouse, 216-218 Water St. Kuttner purchased the former Downtown Tire Center property in 1994, renovated the building and bolstered the foundation to prepare for construction of a large structure. He sold to architect Bill Atwood, who was able to woo WorldStrides educational travel company to relocate its headquarters from the county to the city. The upper levels are high-end condos that are still mostly unoccupied.
The Terraces (2), 100-106 Main St. Kuttner designed and built this massive Downtown building, owned partially by his family. It houses a variety of upscale retail stores on the ground level and offices and apartments on upper floors.
Old Skatetown building (3), 1117 E. Market St. Kuttner still owns the first building he ever developed, a former roller skating rink that houses a variety of light industries.
Old National Linen building (4), 1304 E. Market St. Kuttner purchased the large warehouse building that formerly housed the National Linen Company in 1996. He still owns the property, now home to the Woolly Mammoth restaurant and a variety of light industrial businesses.
Ix (5): Kuttner was one of several developers including the late Gabe Silverman who worked on the Ix project, the sprawling property between Monticello and Elliott avenues. Kuttner’s father, Ludwig, and brother Fabian, are now developing the site.
The Coal Tower (6): The old Coal Tower along the CSX railroad tracks is now part of the City Walk development and a row of townhomes along an extension of Water Street. Kuttner owned the property for five years between 1998 and 2003 and sold it to Coran Capshaw.
After a nearly 10-year hiatus from local development, Oliver Kuttner is doing an addition at the Glass Building and has a vision for affordable housing Downtown. Photo: Elli Williams
“We dispelled the myth that if you’re next to Garrett Square, you have problems,” Kuttner said. “You don’t.”