Person of the Year: Bad Boy turned Brazen Brainiac: Oliver Kuttner
"In my 1978 yearbook quote," says Oliver Kuttner. "I said, 'Try and you'll make it.' That's been my personality the whole time,"
The 49-year-old real estate and automobile developer, who won a $5 million prize in automobile innovation, has been chosen by the Hook's news team as the Person of the Year, the individual who most affected the news in 2010.
If his name Oliver Kuttner conjures some sharp associations, there's good reason. He's the one whose tussles with the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review became legendary– so legendary that he packed his toolkit and took his urban visions to Lynchburg. But if building development brought him to that James River City, it was also the place he'd reconnect with an old love: automotive innovation.
"I wanted the fastest car– but I couldn't afford to buy it. So I built it," Kuttner recalls of his teenaged desire for speed.
Kuttner built his first car in high school. During college, he spent countless hours in his dorm room tinkering with car engines, trying to get it right. "By my junior year in college, I made a car that went 160 miles per hour," he recalls. And before getting things really right by winning $5 million in the Progressive Automotive X Prize, Kuttner took third– as a racer in a World Championship level race in either 1996 or 1997– he can't quite remember which year the race was held.
"I never became a great race car driver, but very few can say that they got third place in a World Championship race," notes Kuttner.
But Kuttner was not one to settle for a third place finish, no matter how illustrious the race.
"At that point I decided that I'm not a race car driver– it was very clear. Too old, too big, too heavy, just outclassed," he explains. "I wasn't going to dedicate my life to something if I wasn't going to win the gold."
There's a mantra Kuttner repeats frequently, one heard when he owned a body shop in downtown Charlottesville. "If somebody's made it before, you can make it. It's just a question of figuring out how."
"That's one of the rules that says you can go race in the World Championship race against Cadillac and Ferrari," even if you don't have impressive credentials, Kuttner says. "I wasn't supposed to be there. Once you understand that, you're willing to take different challenges."
Challenge is a familiar landscape for Kuttner. The last decade saw him battling city bureaucracy more often than not in his years spent developing massive downtown buildings. In the late 1990s, he created the Terraces, a mixed-use project over the former Woolworth's space on the Downtown Mall that appears much smaller than its 60,000 square feet. Around 2001, he converted the former Cavalier Beverage headquarters into the today's multi-use Glass Building, another 35,000 square feet of space, this one with the X Lounge as its anchor tenant.
"You have to have a lot of ego to continue building when someone tells you to stop a dozen times," he says. "I've been there, when I made a big bet and everyone says, 'No, this isn't going to fly.'"
Indeed, Kuttner displayed a stubbornness to get the job done his way. His Glass Building taunted naysayers as an early retail outpost not just past-the-railroad-tracks but immediately adjacent to Friendship Court, a subsidized housing project. Today, the Glass Building appears to have launched a commercial revitalization in an area now known to shoppers as the "Warehouse District."
According to Kuttner, there was never an instance of vandalism– and, in fact, he welcomed the children from the housing project once known as Garrett Square into the construction space after working hours were over.
"I'd give them something to do, give them two or three bucks– there were some that were regular. You could see that a lot of the kids were hungry for a male role model."
The boundary-pushing Kuttner– all six feet, four inches of him– might not strike the Planning Commission or the Board of Architectural Review as the ideal role model. But the developer stuck to his convictions and created spaces for local businesses to thrive.
"I don't think I'm radical– a lot of people have it in them, they just don't dare to do it," Kuttner says. "I'm a little more outspoken, but this is where my parents come in. If you are raised by people who are there when you absolutely need them, you have a security, so that you can go to the edge a little more. Your willingness to take chances is directly proportional to your confidence, where you stand."
Kuttner simultaneously credits luck and upbringing for his success. "A lot of what we do is luck, where we fall on the planet, when we fall there," he says. But ultimately it is the developer's slightly impatient nature– his need for action now that drives his endeavors.
"It is luck, but then you have to make something of it," he continues. Oliver Kuttner, a speed demon in all senses, has no patience for waiting.
When the Progressive Automotive X Prize was announced in 2007, all systems were go for Kuttner. The developer, who had recently relocated to Lynchburg from an allegedly bureaucracy-laden Charlottesville (City officials asserted that he simply wouldn't follow the rules), found both his renegade nature and his need for speed provoked. The grand prize– $5 million– was enough to persuade Kuttner to call up some old racing friends and assemble a team with the expertise and the make-it-happen drive to create what would become the Very Light Car, 2010's X Prize winner.
"A lot of it has to do with luck– what we did is something that's going to happen, and if we didn't do it, someone would do it," explains Kuttner. "What we're doing is defined by the laws of physics– what put us there was the big prize. That's what got my interest."
In the months since September, after the Very Light Car– a vehicle that weighs approximately one quarter the weight of a Mini Cooper– won the prize, Kuttner and his crew, Edison2, have found themselves walking the cusp of a peculiar precipice– courting international acclaim and attention while still dealing with the daily duties of automotive engineering.
The car is now in the re-design phase, where the team is tweaking and refining its shape and size to fit mainstream needs.
"We've taken the car beyond the car you know, making it more customer friendly," Kuttner says. "It's becoming awesome."
A full scale mock-up of version two is in the works, and all aspects of the car are being re-imagined to fit new and developing standards.
"We're getting telephone calls from people with the open minds, from the ones who are going to be fans, in high places and in the right places," he boasts like a proud parent. "The loss is for the ones who choose not to look at it. I've been down that road before where I know this is going to happen; it just takes time."
Kuttner and his car have been met with skepticism, criticism, and push-back from all corners of the industry– and the innovator willingly admits that his is not the be-all, end-all solution to the automotive crisis facing society. The Very Light Car is just the beginning, he says, and even if his contribution is done, he believes it represents the future of the automobile.
"One of the biggest contributions of the car is that we showed that it can be done," he says. "You don't have to agree that it's what you would buy or that it's the most elegant solution, but we're showing that we can do it."
"What separates me from a lot of people is my willingness to take the next step and do something," says Kuttner. "It involves risk."
Risk is another landscape familiar to Kuttner. It defined everything he did with his real estate in Charlottesville; it underlines his current project, the decision to cut back on his holdings and divest himself of 11 properties. In 2010, it was the headline for his innovations with Edison2: Huge Risk With Even Bigger Potential Payoff– not only for Kuttner and his team.
Kuttner and Edison2 showed the world it could be done– a car that can meet federal and state safety and emission standards while getting 100 plus miles to the gallon. But that doesn't mean America is entirely ready.
"I'm a thorn in the side of General Motors now," Kuttner says, citing a recent effort by eco-agencies to push the fuel efficiency standards higher, using the Very Light Car as proof of its possibility. "The Sierra Club is pushing a standard that's off the charts, saying, 'If this guy can do it and you say you can't...'"
Kuttner asserts that American companies are dragging their feet to offer support or lend credibility to the car which he contends can be affordably mass-produced.
"We're starting to have serious inquiries from serious people, mostly from far away, asking 'Can we buy a license for it, can we hire you?'" says Kuttner.
The developer can't quite understand why American companies aren't ready to take the plunge into the future. According to him, supporting a development like this is a no-brainer– just as developing a building across the train tracks from the Downtown Mall made sense for certain local businesses.
But Kuttner hasn't just made waves for the X Prize. Less than a month after being feted on national television including appearances on NBC's Today show and the PBS Newshour, Kuttner was pulled over for a traffic stop in Lynchburg– then handcuffed and arrested.
"I was not in a good mood that day– I was pissed off," explains Kuttner, who reportedly asked for his ticket and then attempted to rush off to a pre-arranged appointment. "But the guy pulls me over and doesn't tell me why– I got the right to know."
Kuttner wonders if his striking size and personality may have provoked Officer Nathan Godsie into calling for backup. And he speculates that the fact that his car's passengers were two black men might have incited the officer to pull him over in the first place.
"His point was that he saw me as a very large guy who wasn't necessarily being friendly, and he was going to show me who was boss," says Kuttner. "It doesn't feel good when you're being handcuffed. I didn't resist– but then somebody hurts you, not just once, but three times," he says. "He hurt me badly."
Godsie's not speaking, but Kuttner's complaint did launch an official city investigation which cleared Godsie and left the charges against Kuttner intact. Now, he faces an obstruction of justice charge in addition to problem that started it all: an expired plate.
Still, Kuttner openly praises the Lynchburg police for keeping his home and community safe.
"I'm glad the police exist– I'm able to go home tonight and know my home is in good shape," he says. "I do think there is another way to communicate, but I can also see it from his point."
Kuttner's scheduled to appear in court on the charges in early January. But for a man who's singleminded when pursuing his passions, it seems unlikely that this type of image setback will affect his larger goals. The Very Light Car, and the impact it could have on the mainstream automotive industry, provides Kuttner more than enough daily challenges.
"I'm very happy to be where I am," Kuttner smiles. "I'm given the opportunity to make a difference, but just because I know how to make a car better doesn't mean I know how to do everything else better. It took a lifetime to get where I am, but it just fell in my lap."
Despite his optimism for the Very Light Car, and his uncompromising commitment to see it to the next level, Kuttner doesn't expect everyone to like him along the way. But who says he wants them to?
"I'm a thorn in the side of people who don't want to change, and I'm a breath of fresh air for someone who actually wants to make a difference," he says flatly. "This has been my life. Some people really like me, and others would rather that I never brought up a subject."
Kuttner's solutions: Oliver offers advice on three of Charlottesville's Nagging Problems
On the City Market:
which has been seeking a permanent home for at least a decade
Kuttner wants to put the farmer's market smack on Monticello Avenue– a road that he alleges was grossly over-engineered with four lanes and a wide median in a planning era that emphasized speed over community.
"That was a misguided planning exercise," says Kuttner. "You can land an airplane on it."
On the local water supply
which pits Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris against Albemarle County
Ever since the record drought of 2002, local consumers have been consuming less, and Kuttner wants to dredge the existing Rivanna Reservoir rather than building a massive new dam and uphill pipeline, a scheme favored by County interests.
"The reason I know for a fact that the reservoir needs to be dredged is that when I was a crew coach for UVA, there were areas that my students would say, 'Three years ago, we could go out further, and now we can't.' I saw the encroachment, and I know not dredging it as maintenance was a fool's game."
Kuttner would like to see the dredgers sell the excavated sand and dirt.
On the unfinished Landmark hotel:
which has stood as an empty shell for about two years
Kuttner disagrees with the conventional wisdom that the low ceiling heights preclude conversion into apartments. The Kuttnerian solution is simply to turn over two of the eleven floors for mechanical systems to free up at least a foot of ceiling height on the remaining floors.
"Plenty of architects will say you can't make it into something," says Kuttner. "The 11 floors have already been built, so make it a nine-floor building where you can walk into the mechanical space. You could make a phenomenal thing, one of the most energy-efficient buildings in history if you suddenly have all this space to do stuff."
Race car driver Oliver Kuttner finished third in this World Championship race in the late nineties. Little did he know he'd cruise easily into first with the Very Light Car in 2010.
PHOTO COURTESY OLIVER KUTTNER
Oliver Kuttner and the Edison2 team win big at the Automotive Progressive X Prize.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
Oliver Kuttner stops by The Today Show on September 17 to introduce the Very Light Car to mainstream America.
PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER
A pre-X Prize winning Oliver Kuttner stands outside his Lynchburg workshop, where the Very Light Car was designed and constructed.
PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO
Oliver Kuttner, circa 2005, when his development schemes were riling Charlottesville bureaucracy.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO