Creative sparks: The value of undeveloped spaces in Charlottesville

The developer and the ‘undeveloper’

Brian Wimer says the IX Art Park was an attempt to bring some Burning Man vibe to Charlottesville. He calls the area “‘undevelopment’...a form of development, utilizing a space that wasn’t utilized before, but it’s as inexpensive as can be and as immediate as can be.” Photo: Eze Amos
Brian Wimer says the IX Art Park was an attempt to bring some Burning Man vibe to Charlottesville. He calls the area “‘undevelopment’…a form of development, utilizing a space that wasn’t utilized before, but it’s as inexpensive as can be and as immediate as can be.” Photo: Eze Amos

The IX Art Park was conceived on the plains of Burning Man. In 2013, Brian Wimer was discouraged with trying to foment revolution in Charlottesville. Wimer had been one of the organizers of the movement to do something radical and visionary with the Belmont Bridge redesign, but that whole effort was getting mired in bureaucratic intransigence (and, ultimately, rejected and moved back to square one). But he was making his fourth trip to Burning Man, the festive freak out/creative community that springs into being every year in the Nevada desert. Wimer heard that Ludwig Kuttner would be there, and he thought it would be interesting to talk with him.

Kuttner and his wife, Beatrix Ost, are fixtures in the Charlottesville art scene—and in the international art scene, for that matter. The pair cut quite a figure—flamboyant dress, a continental air and committed support to the arts and artists in both Charlottesville and New York, where they divide their time.

Kuttner is also a businessman, one of the partners in the redevelopment of the former Frank Ix & Sons textile manufacturing plant—the 17-acre keystone to the SIA, now repurposed into a burgeoning collection of shops and restaurants and offices. All of that commercial activity is clustered in the large building at the south of the property. The north end of the IX property in 2013 contained nothing more than a vast sea of open space and a single, multifaceted, light-industrial building/bunker. In other words, the place was like catnip for pioneer creatives.

So when Wimer heard that Kuttner would be setting up camp at Burning Man, Wimer sought him out: “I went by there and we started talking about how do we bring some of this [Burning Man] vibe back to Charlottesville—and the opportunity and possibilities that existed at IX.”

Ludwig Kuttner is one of the partners in the redevelopment of the former Frank Ix & Sons textile manufacturing plant—the 17-acre keystone to the SIA, now repurposed into a burgeoning collection of shops and restaurants and offices. Photo: Brian Wimer
Ludwig Kuttner is one of the partners in the redevelopment of the former Frank Ix & Sons textile manufacturing plant—the 17-acre keystone to the SIA, now repurposed into a burgeoning collection of shops and restaurants and offices. Photo: Brian Wimer

Chalk it up to the good mojo generated by what is probably the world’s premier creative commons, but that was all it took: “We didn’t know at that point what it was going to become. We formed a task force that fall and did a fundraiser and just started populating the space.”

The results you can see any time by walking through the IX property. Kuttner made available the land (and a bit of seed funding), Wimer held open the door, and the area became colonized and enlivened by the creative placemaking energies of dozens, maybe hundreds, of people—murals, public art and creative structures, music, performance art, maker studios, event space.

The space became, in Wimer’s words, “activated,” a process that he sees as the exact antithesis of the development that has upscaled so much of the available real estate downtown. “I like to think of what happens here as ‘undevelopment,’” he says. “It was magical, the notion that you can change how people perceive and use a space with a simple coat of paint. That’s a form of development, utilizing a space that wasn’t utilized before, but it’s as inexpensive as can be and as immediate as can be. You can’t put a price tag on that. And a hotel or a luxury condo would not do that. Hotels and luxury condos do not inspire people. This inspires people.”

But, inspirational as it is, it is also under exactly the same knife as all the other space currently occupied by creative pioneers in the SIA. Kuttner is a committed patron of the arts. He has a vision, as he told me in a conversation more than a year ago, of a European piazza unfolding at IX—shops, cafes, open space, creative activity. And that is exactly what he has fostered there, much to the neighborhood’s benefit.

But Kuttner is also an investor and a businessman. I heard from a number of sources that there may already have been offers made for the IX property. That amount of undeveloped land in a city like Charlottesville is irresistible to speculators. And, as property values rise in the neighborhood, due in part to redevelopment and in part to the value brought by the IX Art Park itself, how long before the right offer walks through the door? And what would the right offer be, in Kuttner’s mind? I reached out to Kuttner to ask him that question, but I was unable to get him to respond.