Startups finding their place near UVa, Downtown Mall
By Courtney Beale
Monday, May 7, 2012
Amid recent community discussions about innovation, entrepreneurship and industries targeted for growth, the physical spaces sought by startup companies seem less likely to be found in a traditional office or research park.
Buildings in close proximity to the University of Virginia or directly on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall appear to be gaining favor.
Michael J. Prichard, chief technology officer and founder of WillowTree Apps, chose the Downtown Mall instead of a traditional office park as the location to grow his business.
“As a tech company, we like to be more in an urban area rather than somewhere removed,” Prichard said. “[The Downtown Mall] is more of a metropolitan, city feel and better for our company culture.”
“Having all the restaurants, coffee shops, etc. in walking distance is a huge plus for our team,” said Tobias A. Dengel, chief executive officer of WillowTree Apps.
Prichard elaborated that he didn’t think those experiences would be as likely to happen in an office park.
“Our employees would revolt if we tried to move. It would be pretty hard to pull us out of here,” said Prichard. “For us, it’s just the fact that you would be removed from the center of town. Most of the parks I know are a little bit outside of the city … you have to drive to go anywhere.”
“Optimizing place becomes an economic strategy for the attraction and retention of young talent,” Loflin said.
She said many young adults think, “I will choose a place to live in, that I want to be in, over my dream job.”
Mark Crowell, UVa’s director of innovation partnerships, said that many of the up-and-coming businesses he works with want to be on the Downtown Mall. They are also attracted to the pedestrian environment.
“People that work in startup companies often keep crazy hours so they like the idea of being downtown, where you can go get a meal, go get coffee, interact with someone in a UVa lab. It just makes more sense,” Crowell said. “I’m not saying it happens that way every time but it does seem to be a prevailing thought.”
Loflin quoted Mitchell Silver, chief planner for Raleigh. N.C., and president of the American Planning Association, during her presentation as saying, “Office parks are so 20th century.”
Lee Catlin, assistant to the county executive for community and business partnerships, said that Albemarle County has noticed the same trend of young people wanting to work in mixed-use environments and is attempting to provide businesses with alternatives that possess at least a somewhat metropolitan atmosphere.
“Albemarle is working to create those kinds of environments in other places in our community, for example in the Hollymead Town Center area, around the Shops at Stonefield and in Crozet, so that there are more viable options for businesses who are interested in locating in a thriving urban environment,” Catlin said.
UVa’s research parks also attempt to create this type of atmosphere for businesses. The Fontaine Research Park, near the Fry’s Spring neighborhood, and the UVa Research Park, on U.S. 29 in northern Albemarle, were designed to have urban environments despite their locations outside of downtown. But their pedestrian amenities are not what typically attract prospective businesses.
“The UVa Research Park has attracted tenants from town into the parks because of its Class A quality, university ownership [and] prestige and because of its proximity to the airport, housing in the northern portion of the region, and Rivanna Station and because of its ease of access to the 29 corridor leading to the D.C. area,” Deborah van Eersel, chief of staff for the UVa Foundation, the university’s real-estate arm, said in an interview.
Although they were designed to be mixed-use, neither location yet offers much in the way of on-site dining or retail.
“Most people go to Hollymead Town Center [for lunch] but a lot of people who work here are going to the cafeteria across the street,” said Debbie Hall, an employee at PRA International, a business housed in the UVa Research Park.
On sunny days, employees of businesses in the Fontaine Research Park can be seen walking to eat lunch at restaurants in the nearby Fry’s Spring neighborhood, and, despite the lack of walkable destinations, tenants in the UVa Research Park can be seen enjoying trails that run through the complex.
“I think it’s attractive to be in a work environment where at lunch time you can go for a walk … stimulate some brain activity,” said Barry Clive, another PRA International employee.
While neither is located near downtown, the Fontaine Research Park is filled to capacity and the UVa Research Park has a 16 percent vacancy rate, which van Eersel said was on par with other research facilities around the country.
Although the research parks offer their own advantages, Crowell said he finds businesses still maintain that they want to be downtown.
“So many of the companies we are working with are brand-new, emerging and, not surprisingly, a lot of them say, ‘Well, you know the Park is great, but we kind of want to be downtown because we want to be closer to the university. We want to be close to each other,’” Crowell said.
The conversation of what type of environment is most marketable to new businesses will continue. Crowell said that UVa Innovation is holding monthly informal meetings with the heads of economic development for the city and the county, as well as with the head of the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development, to coordinate their efforts and help businesses coming to the area to find their ideal location.