Building opportunity: Kuttner’s Second Street project morphs along the way

Oliver Kuttner’s new building next to the Glass Building is called The Treehouse.
Staff photo Oliver Kuttner’s new building next to the Glass Building is called The Treehouse. Staff photo

A year ago, developer Oliver Kuttner announced plans for a three-story building on the Glass Building site at the corner of Second Street SW and Garrett Street. The structure, the first part of a multi-phase project he has planned for the site, is now well underway with several commercial tenants already signed on to occupy the light-filled, high-ceilinged spaces. But anyone familiar with Kuttner’s previous projects won’t be surprised to hear the design and plans for the structure have changed along the way.

“The building morphed when I’d see opportunity,” said Kuttner on a recent morning tour of the building that a friend’s son has dubbed The Treehouse. Instead of three small apartments of roughly 500 square feet each on the top floor, for instance, there will be two to allow one of the commercial suites to be larger at a tenant’s request, an adjustment that also added a fourth level. And when the structural steel arrived on site months ago, Kuttner realized that some of the beams had been cut to the wrong length, a potentially expensive disaster.

“Most people would sue the people that messed up,” he said. “I decided it was an opportunity sent my way to think about the building.”

Because the ceilings in the building are already so high— more than 20 feet in some places—Kuttner could play with the levels. He simply created a mezzanine and worked with the beams he’d been sent.

“I spent an extra $30,000 on welding, but I had a lot of fun with it,” he said.

That’s Kuttner for you.

The guy who led a team of auto engineers to a $5 million victory in the 2010 Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize doesn’t really like rules, a trait that’s put him at odds with city planners in the past. He famously wrangled with city hall over the development of The Terraces on Water Street more than a decade ago, but the location of this new project south of the tracks downtown means he’s free of oversight by the Board of Architectural Review, and he said this time around, the process has been relatively smooth.

“The city has been very nice to deal with and very positively interacting and working toward a better product,” he said.

The building has attracted a slate of high-tech tenants who appreciate Kuttner’s flexible approach. The second floor will be occupied by two businesses: the graphic design co-op Ten Flavors and PsiKick, a business that builds low power wireless sensing devices and is currently housed in the Glass Building.

“It has a wow factor to it when you walk in,” said Laura Roseberry, owner of graphic design firm Roseberries and a member of Ten Flavors.

The third floor, a sprawling 6,000 square-foot space with views of Carter’s Mountain and much of downtown, will be home to Willow Tree Apps, a local start-up that’s grown to 85 employees and is still expanding.

“They’re building the office of the future,” Kuttner said, praising the design that will provide a variety of workspaces from private glass-walled rooms for group meetings to two-person cubicles that encourage collaboration to phone booth-style spaces that allow isolation for when a project requires total focus.

Willow Tree’s Vice President of User Experience Blake Sirach said the company prioritized a location near the Downtown Mall and sought a space they could customize.

“The new construction was a natural place because of the proximity to the mall, but also for its architectural intrigue, Oliver’s unique architectural style,” said Sirach. “It kind of melds with the Willow Tree mantra of staying flexible, agile. The style of the building matches the culture of our company.”

The bottom floor of The Treehouse will house a couple of food-related businesses, and Kuttner expects those leases to be finalized in the near future. The Treehouse isn’t the end of his building downtown, however. He already has plans for three more residential buildings on the adjacent parking lots designed by the Downtown Mall-based Design Develop firm and has applied for a special use permit to build up to 233 units. The project next goes before the Planning Commission for a public hearing on June 9.

The one-bedroom units will be small—450 square-foot apartments that Kuttner believes are in high demand among the younger generation, Millennials who he said have eschewed the trappings of suburbia in favor of a more minimal lifestyle that offers convenience and frees up money for travel.

City planner Brian Haluska agrees that smaller, more affordable rental units downtown have appeal, even if there may be potential stumbling blocks. “He’s forward thinking possibly beyond the extent of our ordinances,” Haluska said. “The question is, can he translate the ideas in his head to a project that the Planning Commission can review and say O.K., we’re comfortable with this on this site.”

Kuttner is confident he can.

“What I’m building is the way people will live,” he predicts. And if he’s wrong?

“Well, we’ll just knock down some walls,” he laughs.

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