Building boom boosts Charlottesville’s office space
Charlottesville is experiencing a building boom that will expand its premium commercial office space by 500,000 square feet in the next two years.
“That’s a ‘wow,’” says Chris Engel, Charlottesville’s economic development director. “That’s a big number. We’ve never experienced that before.”
It also gives Charlottesville the chance to attract businesses seeking newly built office space.
“We’re delighted to see this influx of commercial space,” says Engel. “It provides the opportunity for more business and job creation.”
He points to four buildings in particular that already are creating buzz.
The Center of Developing Entrepreneurs (CODE) building will serve as an architectural gateway to the west end of Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. Companies already have claimed five of the building’s nine floors, and the remaining slots are filling up fast.
“The CODE building is pretty unique,” Engel says. “It’s being funded by an individual who wants to build space for companies they invest in.”
The CODE building’s owner is Jaffray Woodriff, co-founder and CEO of Quantitative Investment Management, a $3 billion hedge fund. He and his wife, Merrill, who are University of Virginia alums, donated $120 million to U.Va. in January 2019 to create the university’s School of Data Science.
Woodriff also is a notable angel investor. “Over the last 10 years, Woodriff has made early-stage investments in more than 40 local startups and another 20 startups nationwide,” says Susan Payne of the Blue Ridge Group, a Charlottesville-based marketing, advertising and PR firm. “Woodriff strongly believes in the Charlottesville community and its many unique attributes that make it well-suited to all kinds of commercial and social enterprise.”
Developed by CSH Development Inc. and constructed by Hourigan Development, the CODE building “is a unique and innovative development promoting commercial, social and environmental well-being, featuring flexible space alternatives for local businesses and nonprofit organizations,” says Payne. Construction is already underway, with completion expected in summer 2021.
On nearby Garrett Street, the 3Twenty3 building, which is under construction, will offer 100,000 square feet of office space on nine floors in the heart of downtown. In early January, a crane collapsed on 3Twenty3, injuring a construction worker and damaging the building’s skeleton. Federal and state officials are investigating the cause while work is stopped. The building developer is Insite Properties LLC, and the builder is Batson-Cook Construction Co.
Not far from 3Twenty3, the new Apex Clean Energy building will bring together under one roof the rapidly growing business’s 200 employees, who currently work in several smaller buildings in the downtown area. The Charlottesville-based company helps corporations meet their clean energy goals. Riverbend Development Inc. is the building’s project developer, and Hourigan Development is the builder.
The Apex building demonstrates another trend in the construction boom, Engel says: “Most of the companies that are going to be moving to the new space are already in the area, so they will be freeing up secondary space that will then be available to others. So, the construction enhances Charlottesville’s overall inventory of commercial space.”
Cornering the market
In addition to new construction, the city is also seeing some significant mixed-use renovation projects.
The Dairy Market, a new food hall opening this spring, is a redevelopment of Charlottesville’s historic Monticello Dairy building. Anchored by a Starr Hill Brewery location, the project will include 30,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, 50,000 square feet of office space and about 180 apartments. At full buildout, the complex will hold 300,000 square feet of office, retail and residential space. The development is being spearheaded by Stony Point Design/Build, a Charlottesville-based management and acquisition firm, and constructed by Hourigan.
The food hall takes its inspiration from the popular food truck movement, gathering up to 18 different food venders in one location with ample space for customers.
The Dairy Market has paid particular attention to the building’s history and location on the corner of Preston and Grady avenues, a historically African American neighborhood, says Will Dozier, marketing coordinator for Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“They’re doing a great job of working with longtime [neighboring] residents to be sure the new development doesn’t negatively impact their neighborhood or cause rents to spike,” he says.
Starr Hill Brewery, a sandwich shop and a coffee shop are set to open in the Dairy Market this spring, with more restaurants expected to arrive this summer.
Knitting a new Woolen Mills
The city is not the sole locality in the region seeing development.
Perhaps the most eye-catching project in neighboring Albemarle County is the $25 million relocation of Charlottesville-based tech firm WillowTree Inc. to the historic Woolen Mills area. “WillowTree is a computer software company committed to helping clients realize the potential of rapidly evolving mobile technologies, from developing a mobile strategy to launching mobile products,” says Roger Johnson, Albemarle County’s economic development director. The company serves medium and large businesses as well as Fortune 500 corporations.
Woolen Mills, located on the Rivanna River, is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the Charlottesville area. It takes its name from the mill that operated from the mid-1850s until its closure in the 1960s.
Albemarle kicked in $1 million to support river access, a pedestrian bridge and transit services connecting the site with downtown Charlottesville, says Albemarle County spokeswoman Emily Kilroy.
“Albemarle recognizes the value of the significant private investment, job creation, and other direct and indirect benefits associated with WillowTree’s relocation and expansion,” says Johnson, adding that the project will retain 200 existing jobs and create 200 jobs with an average salary of $80,000 — “far above” the county average.
When complete, the campus will encompass 100,000 square feet in three buildings, including the WillowTree corporate campus and The Wool Factory — a restaurant, microbrewery and event space, says Kilroy. Construction is scheduled to be completed this spring.
“Albemarle County has been a consistent partner in the overall development of Woolen Mills,” says project developer Brian Roy. The county “has always worked to find solutions to challenges instead of answering with a hard ‘no.’”
A sunny outlook
As it prepares to welcome a flood of businesses attracted by the added office space, the area also is working to train its residents to step into local job openings.
The city government’s GO Programs — short for Growing Opportunities — aim to help low-income, historically disadvantaged workers sharpen technical and soft skills and equip them to find employment in various industries.
“We work with the employer first, and then we design a training program that addresses the needs of the employer,” says Hollie Lee, the city’s chief of workforce development strategies. “After we do that, we recruit individuals from the Charlottesville community. They go through the program, which is five to six weeks in length, and, after they graduate, the idea is that they will be qualified for the original job that we started with.”
Recently, the solar industry made inroads in the Charlottesville area, partly through the efforts of local company Sun Tribe Solar, which installs solar panels in school systems. “They got all these contracts and didn’t have installers,” Lee says.
So, the city stepped in, creating GO Solar, a nearly six-week program training unemployed or underemployed residents in the skills needed for working in the solar industry. “It’s a pretty labor-intensive job,” Lee says. “You’re talking about getting up on the roof, being out in extreme weather and carrying 80-pound equipment. This is a good example of an industry with a growing need and us stepping in and training people to fill that need.”
Not only does GO Solar train workers for mechanics of the solar industry, but it also fosters soft-skills development. “Often the reason people don’t get a job, or get fired, is because they don’t show up or don’t call in,” Lee says. “These soft- skills issues people have are prohibiting them from getting a job or maintaining it.” The GO Programs address these issues head-on.
“When they graduate, they have all these certifications and trainings, and they’re also a more well-rounded individual with various concerns addressed,” Lee says, adding that companies have offered jobs to a majority of the programs’ graduates. After graduating from GO Solar, for example, six of the seven trainees accepted positions with Sun Tribe Solar.
The city’s flagship GO Program, GO Driver, is a partnership with Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT) to train people to become bus drivers.
“We started that program five years ago because CAT told us they were having trouble finding reliable bus drivers,” Lee says. “They needed people not just with commercial driving licenses but also with customer service skills. We developed this training program and have run it 11 times, training 75 people.”
Graduates emerge from GO Driver with a commercial driver’s license learner’s permit, as well as a handful of industry certifications, including safety and security on a bus, dealing with passengers with disabilities, and CPR and first aid.
About 40% of GO Driver’s graduates now work for CAT, and the rest have taken jobs with the University of Virginia’s Transit System and JAUNT, a local transportation company. Others have gone on to obtain their Class A commercial driver’s license and become truck drivers.
Another program, GO Cook, fits in Charlottesville’s foodie scene. Trainees work with Chef Antwon Brinson to learn culinary arts and workplace readiness. After weeks of training, GO Cook’s participants shadow real chefs on the job. By the time they graduate, Lee says, they’re snapped up by restaurants and luxury hotels.
“The food industry here is so competitive,” Lee says. “Employers are fighting for workforce, and this is particularly the case in the food industry. Our six participants are still doing their job shadowing, but all have received offers already.”
In all, the city has run almost 30 GO Programs, training more than 200 people.
The GO Cook program highlights a reality in the Charlottesville area: Low unemployment leaves employers struggling to find people to hire.
The average Charlottesville unemployment rate is about 2.9%. A region has hit “full employment” when its unemployment rate is 4% or less, says Lee. “What that means for us is that there aren’t any people to fill jobs,” she says. “Everyone who is actively engaged in the workforce … [has] a job.”
Charlottesville’s skilled trades industry took a hit after the recession a decade ago, Lee says, because most development stopped. “Now that it’s on the upswing, we have a lot of skilled labor companies that are desperate to find people,” she says.
“For employers, it’s tough because they’re all struggling to find people to work,” Lee says. “But if you’re looking for a job — or a better job — this is definitely the market to be in.”
“A year or two ago, we had an influx of hotel space,” says Chris Engel, Charlottesville’s economic development director. “Now we’re moving out of the hotel phase to a more focused commercial space phase.”