Oliver's twist: Developer or activist?
At six-feet, four-inches tall, 230 pounds, and with a tiny remnant of a German accent left over from his European childhood, downtown developer Oliver Kuttner could present an intimidating first impression.
But sit down and chat with the man responsible for much of downtown's recent revitalization, and you find– could it be– a softie?
A man who says that for the past decade he has raised rents in his properties by only four percent a year– no matter what the market might bear? A man who, despite considerable resources, drives a 13-year-old car? A man who recently became a doting father to not one but two children?
Don't let the sweet side fool you. Kuttner says he's not one to let injustices pass unnoticed, and he hasn't hesitated to go head to head with the city over a variety of issues he believes are keeping Charlottesville from being all it can be.
"The zoning department is out to lunch," blasts Kuttner, who says the ever-growing mountain of paperwork required to get approval on even simple projects has led him to scale back his in-town property development projects.
But should he change his mind on that, the city wouldn't object.
"We enjoy working with him," says Jim Tolbert, head of neighborhood planning. "He's a good friend, and he does good work," admits Tolbert, "But he marches to his own drummer."
Kuttner's done a lot of that marching. In addition to owning the old National Linen building and the Skatetown building on East Market Street, he oversaw most of the construction on The Terraces (the former Woolworth's building that now houses Foot Locker). With partner Lisa Murphy, he also developed the former Cavalier Beverage Building– now better known as The Glass Building for its walls of windows.
During his work on the Downtown Tire building– now a hive of Water Street boutiques including Eloise, Blush, and Lushlife as well as local music haven Spencer's 206– Kuttner showed a special knack for getting around red tape.
When the Board of Architectural Review told the developer he'd have to present a detailed plan for the building before any external work could be done, he fought back– by simply retaining the sliding garage doors on the western end of the building. Since all changes happened behind those doors, he was able to complete the renovation without having to secure approval.
Surprisingly, the BAR didn't frown on Kuttner's maneuver.
"I thought it was great," says BAR chair Joan Fenton, calling the solution "incredibly creative."
But while Kuttner has spent the past five years renovating buildings, it's not his only talent. In addition to running a used Maserati parts shop, which he calls a "slow but very steady business," Kuttner has long been a racecar driver who's whizzed around tracks at speeds up to 200mph.
These days, however, life has slowed a little. The birth of son Christoph eight months ago, and his February marriage to wife Kimberly, mother of four-year-old son, Ronnie, made a quick family man of Kuttner.
"It was a huge adjustment," he admits.
But it hasn't put his life entirely in park. The Kuttner clan has "driven across country, gone to Mexico and Germany a couple of times," Kuttner reports. This summer the family will head to New York and to Europe for a lengthy stay.
"I have it made," he says, shaking his head. "I have a really nice life."
What brought you here? My parents had a house here, and I got into grad school at UVA in 1983. But I didn't graduate.
What's worst about living here? The size of the community is not large enough to support the kind of industries I find really interesting. There are times I think I would be better off in a larger market. If it wasn't for my kids, I'd probably be living part time in the L.A. area or in New York City.
Favorite hangout? My shop on Market Street
Most overrated virtue? Appearance
What would people be surprised to know about you? I don't think anything surprises anybody about me.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I'd like to weigh 30 pounds less.
What accomplishment are you proudest of? The fact that I've figured out how to have a different career every five years. I keep the best of what I learned or did and start venturing down a different road. I like the fact that I've had many careers, and I will continue to do so.
What do people find most annoying about you? I'm probably fairly forceful when it comes to getting my point across– and I usually do get it across.
Whom do you admire? My friend Jim because he has his priorities straight. [Kuttner declines to give Jim's last name because "he likes being low key."]
Favorite book? The World According to Garp.
What subject causes you to rant? Inefficiency
What thrills you about life in the 21st century? The fact that oil prices are going up is going to cause a lot of things to be rethought that should have been rethought a long time ago. I'm a proponent of $5-a-gallon gasoline. I'd have no trouble with that at all. I think we should be driving little cars and we should be more responsible.
What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? The extreme short-sightedness with which a lot of things happen. One reason we're in the richest country in the world is that we have a lot of existing wealth, and now we're building things that won't last. I think it's a shame.
What do you drive? A 1991 BMW 750– I tow my trailers with it. It's the least gas hog you can tow a trailer with.
What's in your car CD player right now? I listen to NPR
What's your next journey? Ohio
What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? I got arrested for illegal entry into Venezuela. My ex-wife packed her passport instead of mine, and they thought I was pulling some kind of stunt. They caught me leaving [the airport] and didn't like that. Life got inefficient.
What do you regret? I don't regret much. I guess not having made a deal with John and Alice from Oxo when they talked about opening the restaurant in the Downtown Tire building. I think they're really great, and I wish I had done that with them.
Favorite comfort food? Rice pudding
What's always in your refrigerator? Rice pudding
Must-see TV? None
Favorite cartoon? Don't have one
Describe a perfect day. 60-75 degrees back down to 70, slightly overcast. I'd be racing a car.
Walter Mitty fantasy? To have become an engineer
Who'd play you in the movie? I'd play myself
Most embarrassing moment? I don't get embarrassed much– I'm sure there's something, but I don't remember.
Best advice you ever got? If someone else made something, it can be made again. Charlie in my body shop said that about mechanical devices. It's good advice. I don't think there's a whole lot that I couldn't do.
Favorite bumper sticker? "My other car is a broom" is cute.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO