Bad boy's back: Kuttner buys hotel building

Time heals all wounds. That seems to be the message Oliver Kuttner is sending with his recent purchase of the Central Fidelity building on the Downtown Mall, more recently home to Boxer Learning. After all, it was just two years ago that Kuttner, after several squabbles with City officials, announced he would not build in Charlottesville again.

"Too much red tape," he explained at the time, touting his new vision for Lynchburg and praising that city's developer-friendly attitude. Although he hasn't given up on the Hill City to the south, it seems the renegade developer, dubbed "Mr. bad guy" in a 2005 Hook cover story, has decided to give Charlottesville a second chance.

On Wednesday, May 3, Kuttner signed a contract worth $3.7 million for what he calls "the best building in Charlottesville," putting an end to developer Lee Danielson's plans for a nine-story beacon-topped hotel on that site– at least for the moment.

Proposed two years ago by Danielson, the so-called Hotel Charlottesville– designed by the architect of Californias famed Hotel del Coronado– won Board of Architectural Review (BAR) approval for an exotic light atop its nine-story tower. Contacted by email, Danielson declined to comment on the sale, but expressed hope that his vision would eventually be realized.

"The hotel may still be a viable option," wrote Danielson, "and it should be built."

Kuttner says he hasn't ruled out the possibility of eventually adding floors for hotel space. But unlike Danielson, Kuttner says he plans to keep the original building whose 22,000 feet of space stretch along Second Street SE from its black granite facade on the Mall all the way to Water Street– and simply renovate the interior for retail and restaurant space. He'll consider storefronts along Second Street– a block away from his other well known Mall project, The Terraces.

It was during the 1999-2002 construction of the Terraces– retail, office, and upscale apartments in the former Woolworth's building between Water Street and the Downtown Mall– that Kuttner's frustration with city bureacracy reached critical mass. He eventually was forced to remove a pair of gothic stone arches he had installed without explicit BAR approval.

"Everything is talked about 100 times," he once lamented. "By the time you're done, you've spent 10 or 20 percent of the budget on paper."
At the time Kuttner voiced those complaints, City official Jim Tolbert called him a "good friend," and avoided direct criticism, acknowledging only that Kuttner "marches to his own drummer."

Tolbert did not immediately return the Hook's call for comment on the Boxer deal, but Kuttner says he believes working with the city will be different this time.

"Part of my red tape complaint," he acknowledges, "comes out of my own incompetence in dealing with red tape."

By accepting that he must follow rules, Kuttner says, "half the problem is gone." And the other half of the problem, he says, "I hope is gone because I think we have a better BAR, from what I hear. I think they'll work with me."

For the project to succeed, Kuttner and the BAR will have to work together, and work well, or Kuttner could be in trouble.

"This is the deal that could sink me," says Kuttner, citing the Boxer building's $1,000 a day carrying cost. Although the deal may be a financial stretch, this occasional race car driver says he's accustomed to taking risks.

He bought his first Charlottesville property the former Young Mens Shop building– with just $25,000 down and says he found the cash to buy the Boxer building by recently selling his Water Street Downtown Tire complex of storefronts and parking lots along with several condominiums in Lewis & Clark Square.

He's recently been taking his financial maneuvering to Lynchburg, a city he paid $1 for a crumbling warehouse in 2004. Since then, he says, he has increased his commitment to the city by accumlating 700,000 square feet of buildings in the central business district.

Kuttner, co-owner and frequent driver of the Charlottesville-to-New York direct bus service called the Starlight Express, says he now has his eye on developing in the Big Apple within five years. And tackling the Boxer building is one way to get ready for the bigger pond.

"If I can't deal in Charlottesville," he laughs, "how can I deal in New York?"

Kuttner at his delay-plagued Terraces project in 2001

Lee Danielsons proposed hotel, center, would have cast a shimmering light toward the equally tall Wachovia tower.