As more businesses take root on Harris Street, walkability concerns grow

As more firms seek to open offices on Harris Street in Charlottesville, owners of existing businesses want city officials to pay attention to what they say are unsafe conditions for pedestrians.

“Frankly it’s dangerous,” said Martin Chapman, president and CEO of Indoor Biotechnologies. “There’s hardly pavement on some sides of the street. At the same time, over the past 20 years, the number of people walking up and down Harris Street has increased dramatically.”

Harris Street runs for two-thirds of a mile from Preston Avenue to McIntire Road. On the city’s zoning map, the roadway is surrounded by gray blocks that represent Charlottesville’s industrial areas.

“Harris Street has a lot of unique qualities to it,” said Chris Engel, the city’s economic development director. “It’s still accessible to the downtown area. The zoning is very permissive and it’s one of the few industrial areas in the city of any significance.”

Engel said rents and property sale prices are lower than in other parts of the city.

“At the one end, McIntire Plaza does very well with locally serving and retail-oriented businesses,” Engel said. “Along the corridor itself you have quite a variety of nonprofits, biotech and life science companies all situated in there fairly tightly.”

However, the road does not yet comply with the city’s Streets That Work initiative.

In an interview, City Councilor Kathy Galvin called Harris Street “auto-centric, dominated by asphalt, devoid of plant life and human activity.”

The sidewalk on the western side of the road only travels one block to Dale Avenue before the first of many breaks. The sidewalk is continuous on the eastern side of the road from Preston Avenue before ending north of the GoCo convenience store.

There are no sidewalks as Harris Street meanders downhill to the east toward its intersection with McIntire Road.

“You can’t walk safely down that street to get to C’Ville Coffee,” Chapman said. “You can go back through the Habitat [lot] and go that way.”

Despite the street’s urban design shortcomings, at least two new companies have opened offices there in the past six months.

The male contraception firm Contraline opened its first permanent home across from the Habitat Resale Store in December. The space previously was occupied by Indoor Biotechnologies.

“We had the opportunity to lease a facility that had a move-in ready laboratory and facilities that met our specifications,” said Nikki Hastings, chief operating officer for Contraline. “We were spinning out of the University of Virginia and the lab was available and ready for us to take it at the time we needed it.”

John Ashley is the director of administrative services for Sigora Solar, which in April moved its sales and office staff to the company’s new headquarters at 1222 Harris St.

“A lot of our clientele is based in Charlottesville, and we’re working on expanding our reach into the Richmond metro market,” Ashley said.

Ashley said the company had toyed with the idea of moving all of its operations to the city, but opted to retain warehouse space in its home city of Waynesboro.

Ashley said that while the company is interested in improved walkability, it won’t hold them back in their desire to expand in place.

“We’ll need to think more about parking and people getting here on their bikes and scooters and other ways,” Ashley said.

Both Ashley and Hastings raised concerns about vehicular congestion.

“We have a lot of the big trucks at Allied Concrete coming out frequently,” Hastings said. “The cars move pretty fast on the street, probably much faster than the speed limit.”

“I can tell you from personal experience that it’s tough to get out of here at 5 p.m. just because of the nature of the time of the day and because this turn is very sharp and people come around both ways pretty quickly,” Ashley said.

The City Council adopted a bike and pedestrian master plan in 2015 that lists the top sidewalk priority for each neighborhood. The No. 1 project for North Downtown is 1,540 linear feet of sidewalk on Harris Street from Rivanna Avenue to McIntire Plaza at a cost of $338,800.

“It is anticipated that this sidewalk would be completed in the next five years as part of the Capital Improvements Program,” said Alexander Ikefuna, the city’s director of neighborhood development services.

However, the adopted CIP sets aside just over $1 million for new sidewalk construction over the next five years. The total cost for priority sidewalks in the city’s 19 neighborhoods is more than $3.6 million.

Galvin said Harris Street is one of 12 locations in Charlottesville that the current Comprehensive Plan specifies could benefit from a small-area plan. She said she wants the city to hire a staff person who can create such plans and research innovative ways to fund them.

But first, she said, residents and businesses have to demand plans be created.

“Local residents and businesses can come together and insist that council fund the McIntire/Harris/Allied (MHA) small-area plan, putting them at the helm as decision-makers,” Galvin said.

But those already on Harris Street say their time is best spent building up their businesses.

“If the city saw [walkability] as a priority, I think we would be in favor of it,” Hastings said. “They’ve got a lot on their plate. It’s not something we expect or are demanding but it would be an improvement in the quality of our work life.”

Chapman said the city needs to address the lack of continuous sidewalks on the street because the number of pedestrians will only increase as more companies set up shop there.

“This is a very simple problem that needs to be fixed and it should be almost a routine part of the city’s plan of activity,” Chapman said. “I’m not quite sure what kind of advocacy they think we should do but if it’s something along the lines of forming a committee and waiting two to three years for something to happen, well, there’s no point in any of us getting involved with any of that because we’re about making things happen now and not in three years’ time.”

Chapman said the street’s proximity to the Downtown Mall has always been important but Preston Avenue is increasingly so. The company recently relocated to space in the D.G. Silk Mill building at 700 Harris St.

“When we wanted to upgrade, they had 18,000 square feet of space available and we took 13,000 of it,” he said. “We’ve been calling it lately just ‘H Street Bio’ because it really is ground zero for the biotech industry [in Charlottesville].”