America’s Progressive Developers, Charlottesville Edition: Oliver Kuttner
An architectural primer on how to "break up" large buildings so that they look smaller.
Charlottesville, VA — Building new structures in historic downtown areas can be tricky for developers. Especially in small towns, residents cherish the existing fabric of small older buildings, and dislike incoming ones that blow up this scale. Meanwhile developers, looking to reach financial viability, tend towards constructing buildings that are large, simple and cheap. But as I learned during a recent visit to my hometown of Charlottesville, VA, there is a largely unrealized way that developers can do both. It is by “breaking up” their large buildings to appear like multiple smaller ones.
This concept was mastered here in 2001, when local developer and entrepreneur Oliver Kuttner completed The Terraces, a mixed-use development that consumes half of a block on our Main Street. For some background, Charlottesville’s Main Street was converted in the 1970s into a pedestrian mall, which has since become successful. For about a mile, the brick-layered, tree-lined mall features cafes, coffeehouses and antique shops, many of them nestled into historic brick rowhouses.
Kuttner’s lot stretched from the pedestrian mall and down the alleyway to Water Street, which runs parallel to Main. It contained an old building that once housed a Woolworths, and at purchase time was being leased to Foot Locker. After the lease ended, Kuttner could have knocked down the building and constructed a larger one with modern materials. But instead he preserved it, restoring certain parts and replacing others, while strengthening the foundation to add stories above. During repairs, he added multiple new facades at street level, and several different massing levels along the roofline. Thus, what was once a singular brick building now appears like multiple smaller ones, actually fitting better than before into the existing urban context.
While in town, I got Kuttner to walk with me one afternoon around the building. We began by analyzing the Main Street/pedestrian mall portion of the facade, which has since become an upscale gift shop. The building’s original exterior was white painted brick. But Kuttner–who designed, built, and even did some manual construction of the project–had wrapped that front part in metal, to give it a more modern look. Once around the corner, though, he left that brick exposed, to preserve its historic quality.
About 50 feet down the alleyway, he was forced because of disrepair to rip out the rest of the old exterior wall. He replaced it with a newer, lighter red brick that compliments, but is clearly delineated from, the faded white brick. That portion of The Terraces also features different arches, doors and window panes, making it appear like a different building altogether.
The building once again changes at the Water Street corner, providing a variation of brick, stucco, glass and tile from ground-level to roof. From Main Street down to Water Street and in between, the 220 x 75 foot building contains a gift shop, a live music venue, an entryway into the upstairs apartments, and three specialty clothing stores.
Kuttner also added much variation into the roofline. At its maximum height, the building rises 5 stories, but staggers downward and inward at many points. The lowest height range, pictured in photo 1, is the part that faces the pedestrian mall. Kuttner kept that storefront at its original height, and didn’t begin adding stories until about 10 feet back from the site boundary, because he “didn’t want to smother the mall.” From there on, he added height incrementally, and filled it in more, until it reached its peak height and massing at the Water Street corner, pictured below.
What was Kuttner’s reasoning for this roofline variation? Water street is at a lower elevation than the pedestrian mall, and faces parking lots. So it is better equipped, aesthetically, for a bigger, taller structure. But having similar heights face the pedestrian mall would have been imposing, casting shadows on trees and cafe seating.
Because of these varied street-level and roofline details, The Terraces look, to the naked eye, like they are a collection of four, even five smaller buildings. But they are all part of one.
Yet Kuttner claims that very little real estate was lost because of the minimized roof line. He noted that The Terraces have nearly the same square footage as the nearby Omni Hotel and Waterhouse Condos. But the Omni–a 1980s modernist project bolstered by eminent domain, tax increment financing, and a huge taxpayer bailout after first failing–is infamous for walling off the downtown mall from adjacent neighborhoods. And if not for a little ceiling-level glass, the Waterhouse project would look like a giant prison hovering over downtown. Meanwhile The Terraces’ multi-faceted nature prevents it from being an eyesore, or even much noticed.
The Terraces are not the only thing Kuttner is known for. He is designer of the Edison2, an ultra-light car that achieves extraordinary fuel economy. He also has a real estate portfolio in Lynchburg, VA, and other Charlottesville projects. His bona fides as a progressive developer have been evident in each of these Charlottesville projects, given that they feature some element of preservation or aesthetic flair. The problem, as he repeatedly noted, is that young developers with similar principles will be less able to follow in his footsteps.
“In Charlottesville today, you couldn’t build such a building,” he said of The Terraces.
He cited multiple reasons, having to do with both the public and private sectors. Investors today are less willing to finance projects that are unique. Such projects may have bigger long-term returns, but present more upfront risk. But the main reason is regulatory. Parking requirements prevent many downtown projects from being financially-viable. Modern building and fire codes require everything to be wider and more open, producing out-of-scale design. And the approval process costs time and money, stripping away resources that would go towards better architectural detailing.
“I do believe that every time you add an extra layer in city hall, you make interesting buildings less likely.”
He cited The Terraces as an example. By any objective measure, the building is a masterwork in scaling and contextualization. But during design and construction, Kuttner constantly battled city bureaucracy, enduring not one, not two, not three…but eighteen Board of Architectural Review hearings. The board micromanaged every last detail, from the stairwell location to the kind of arches he placed above windows. On that latter point, Kuttner had found some 200-year-old arches from a historic church that was being dismantled. He wanted to install them above some windows, but was not allowed to because one board member disapproved. Ultimately, certain design and placement grievances prevented Kuttner from opening a restaurant anywhere within The Terraces, as he had first wished.
And Kuttner has had additional conflicts with city hall. For example, he recently proposed a project several blocks from The Terraces that would feature 233 studio apartment units in a 9-story tower on 1.33 acres. But during the planning review process, the number of units had to be reduced–and the parking spaces increased. Previous disputes like this had actually impelled Kuttner several years ago to move his headquarters to Lynchburg.
But in spite of the government obstruction, Kuttner’s Terraces represent a case study for how to build large structures in quaint, historic, small-town areas. Rather than plopping down monolithic, out-of-scale buildings, developers can build ones that are complex, diverse, and multi-faceted, simply by breaking them up.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.]
Scott Beyer owns and manages The Market Urbanism Report. He is a roving cross-country journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine and HousingOnline.com.