I frequently get questions from my other technologist friends in SF, Boulder, NY, and elsewhere about what it’s like in Charlottesville. I’ve lived here for a little over a decade now, and while New York will always be my home, Charlottesville has many things to recommend it.
The technology profession has the great advantage of not requiring us to be tethered to a specific physical location; if you’ve got a laptop and Internet, chances are good you can work from anywhere. So if you can work anywhere, does it make sense to put this city on your shortlist? I think the answer is yes.
It’s difficult to describe the advantages and disadvantages of Charlottesville succinctly, but in this post I’d like to give as good a summary as I can. What follows are some of the notable qualitative and quantitative highlights of this interesting city from the perspective of a technologist.
Brief local history
Charlottesville was founded in 1762 to serve as the seat of Albemarle County and named after Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, the monarch whose various taxes and slights against colonial Americans eventually provoked the Revolutionary War. It sat along a major highway, Three Notch’d Road, that led from the state capitol of Richmond to the Great Appalachian Valley; today, the cross-country Interstate 64 highway follows in its footsteps.
In 1819, Thomas Jefferson founded what is now one of the highest-rated national public universities, the University of Virginia. UVA is a major nexus of activity in the regional startup and business market, and it’s the largest employer the area. Among many other interesting people, UVA has matriculated the poet Edgar Allen Poe, seven NASA astronauts, artist Georgia O’Keefe, writer and comedian Tina Fey, journalist Katie Couric, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
In the 20th century, the area’s culture and commerce gradually began to rise around three big areas: agriculture and food, technology, and healthcare. The rise of the University of Virginia as an affordable, public, high-quality research institution also helped attract more citizens. During the 1970s through 1990s, the City undertook a series of ambitious public-works renovations to build the Downtown Mall, which today is one of the largest pedestrian malls in the US.
What it’s like living here
Charlottesville is somewhere in between a large town and a small city, with a population of about 50,000 people spread over 10 square miles. Despite the modest scale, it seems to have the influence, amenities, and prestige of cities many times its size.
Charlottesville consistently wins accolades like “best place to live in America”, “happiest city in America”, and “best college town for people who aren’t in college”. It’s pretty nice here!
It’s a challenge to generalize broadly about Charlottesville residents. They tend to be from all walks of life, status, and birthplace. While there’s a sizable contingent of people who lived and grew up nearby, the majority were attracted by jobs or the University. The median income, wealth, and education for Charlottesville residents is above the national average in all cases, and Virginia as a state scores well on these metrics relative to other states. Similarly, most people who live in Virginia were not born in Virginia, and that’s especially true in Charlottesville.
Charlottesville is a predominantly liberal city situated in a broader rural region, Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, that skews conservative. This is evident in a lot of election results, for example, where Charlottesville will tend to vote for the more progressive candidate in a contested race, while the broader district votes for the more conservative candidate.
Climate and location
Charlottesville forms a triangle with Washington, DC two hours away to the northeast and Richmond, VA one hour away to the east. Outside the city, the scenery rapidly becomes more rural and less developed, with mountains to the west and forests, farms, and vineyards to the south and east. The Blue Ridge Mountains and skiing at Wintergreen and the surrounding area are thirty minutes by car; Atlantic beaches are three hours.
Weather is very pleasant. There’s about 220 days of sunshine per year, so it’s much more likely to be sunny than not, and there’s usually a light west-to-east wind coming from the mountains.
|property||San Francisco, CA||New York, NY||Washington, DC||Charlottesville, VA|
|annual total precipitation (in)||20.7||49.9||39.7||46.7|
|annual snowfall (in)||< 1||25.1||14.5||16.3|
|annual sunshine (days)||259||212||203||219|
|mean February humidity (%)||84||60||61||66|
|mean February temperature (°F)||60||42||47||51|
|mean August humidity (%)||75||66||69||72|
|mean August temperature (°F)||68||80||87||77|
|annual days above 85°F highs||3||15||37||42|
|annual days below 30°F lows||0||78||84||113|
Summers are warm and sometimes on the humid side, albeit milder than Virginia as a whole. Typical summer temperatures are in the high 70s. Very brief summer thunderstorms are common, and then it’s quickly back to sunshine again.
Winters are milder, with infrequent snows. Over the last 20 years, snowfall has varied considerably; a typical year sees zero to three snowfalls of 6” or more each. Occasionally there is zero or minimal snowfall in a year.
Extreme weather is rare. Occasionally Atlantic hurricanes make landfall near Charlottesville, but it’s far enough inland that the brunt of the storms are mitigated. On very rare occasions, Charlottesville has been subjected to powerful storms known as derechos that inflict substantial damage.
Things to do
Food: Charlottesville is chock-full of highly-rated excellent restaurants and eateries that place a premium on high-quality local ingredients. Local restaurants run the range from 3 AM burger joints to world-class eateries, and have routinely garnered high praise from national reviewers. A few local venues and their chefs have won awards at the national or international level, including Hamilton’s, Peter Chang’s China Grill, Ivy Inn, Citizen Burger, Fossett’s, and Bodo’s Bagels.
Every Saturday morning is the City Market, a pop-up bazaar that lasts a few hours and frequented by street vendors, farmers, potters, artisans, and so on. It’s a great way to sample excellent local food. Charlottesville has a large faction of specialty coffee enthusiasts; Mudhouse, Java Java, Grit Cafe, and several other locations all make top-quality brews.
Shopping: Charlottesville is home to three large shopping districts: Fashion Square Mall, Barracks Road Shopping Center, and the Shops at Stonefield. All have large anchor department-store tenants and chain eateries. Grocery needs are supplied by Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Harris Teeter, Food Lion, Kroger, and a number of other chains. A Costco will open at the end of 2015 in Stonefield.
Entertainment: Charlottesville is home to a wide range of venues; John Paul Jones Arena (15,000 people), the Paramount Theater (1,000 people), and the Pavilion (5,000 people) are the biggest, and they consistently draw performers both large and small. During the off season, the University of Virginia’s Scott Stadium also hosts the bigger events that are part of large national tours (e.g., U2, Rolling Stones). There’s also a fourteen-screen IMAX cineplex, a 20,000 square foot indoor trampoline park, a renovated drive-in movie theater, and various other interesting spots.
Culture: The Charlottesville area has a number of museums, public classes, and festivals. The nationally popular Virginia Film Festival and Virginia Festival of the Book are both hosted in Charlottesville, as is the Tom Tom Founders Fest. The museums and historic sites of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Ash Lawn-Highland, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Fan Mountain Astronomical Observatory, and Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum are all within an hour’s drive. Public adult-education and general-interest classes are offered by Piedmont Virginia Community College, the University of Virginia, and the McGuffey Art Center.
Breweries: The craft brewing scene is in full swing in and around Charlottesville; a few breweries have national acclaim. Because of a quirk in the alcohol regulations of Virginia, many breweries that don’t serve food let you bring your own food in (as long as you buy their beer).
This results in a number of such breweries being interesting local meetup spots for friends or groups; you bring your own pizza and the beer’s already waiting for you. The most convenient ones to Charlottesville are South Street Brewery, Three Notch’d, and Champion Brewery. Farther out are Devil’s Backbone, Wild Wolf, and Blue Mountain Brewery.
Wineries: There are several dozen wineries with tastes and portfolios to suit almost anyone. Charlottesville also has two area cideries, Albemarle Cider Works and Castle Hill Cider, that put out consistently great offerings.
Nightlife: There’s a very lively bar scene on the Downtown Mall, particularly when the free live concert series Fridays After Five is in full swing. During the summer, vineyards often have summer concerts and picnic nights. For a different sort of nightlife, the University’s Observatory offers starlight viewings every other Monday. Options for dance clubs are minimal; R2 and Escafe (LGBTQ-friendly) are the biggest choices.
Nature: Charlottesville is next door to Shenandoah National Park, a sprawling rectangle of over 300 square miles that stretches along the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are dozens of great trails, but set aside time for the strenuous hike and rock scrambles of an Old Rag Mountain day hike. Charlottesville also the Rivanna Trail, an extensive network of hiking and biking paths that almost-loops around the city’s perimeter.
Recreational sports: Baseball, kickball, and soccer are popular sports in the city’s social leagues, which range from very competitive to laid-back. There are also sports leagues of a less traditional kind, including kickball, ultimate frisbee, and flip-cup.
Perhaps the most important reference point for prospective technological citizens: Internet service is pretty good. It’s primarily provided by three mutual competitors: Ting Gigabit (1,000/1,000 Mb/s, no hard caps), Comcast (105/10 Mb/s, no hard caps), and Embarq DSL (10/1 Mb/s, no hard caps). Ting has a limited rollout to about 3,000 homes at the moment, but is expected to reach about 10,000 homes by the end of 2015, mostly in the North Downtown, Martha Jefferson, Locust Grove, and Belmont districts.
Cost of living
Charlottesville has an extremely competitive cost of living compared to a number of major cities. This is especially true when measured against the nearest metropolitan counterpart, the Northern Virginia pan-urban area, but holds up for several different metrics.
|property (national = 1×)||San Francisco, CA||New York, NY||Washington, DC||Charlottesville, VA|
|goods and services||1.1×||1.5×||1.0×||1.1×|
|overall cost of living||1.8×||1.7×||1.3×||1.1×|
Quality of life
Charlottesville’s general quality of life is excellent, especially given the low cost of living. About 90% of Charlottesville residents rated it an “excellent” or “good” place to live, according to the 2014 National Community Survey.
|property||San Francisco, CA||New York, NY||Washington, DC||Charlottesville, VA|
|weekly commute time (hours)||4:57||6:18||4:49||1:26|
|monthly rent, 1 BR apartment||$3,500||$3,000||$2,000||$1,100|
|marginal state income tax rate at $100,000||9.3%||6.7%||8.5%||5.8%|
|general sales tax rate||8.8%||8.9%||5.8%||5.3%|
|walkability score at median rent||71||89||96||95|
While most residents give Charlottesville high marks across the board relative to similar cities, it’s not without complaints. When Charlottesville citizens express concerns, the majority of them fall into one of three big areas:
Traffic and parking. Peak traffic spikes very high during specific weekends – football games, the University of Virginia graduation and move-in weeks, and major John Paul Jones Arena or Pavilion concerts. While Charlottesville has a rush hour, it doesn’t last very long, usually about 30 to 45 minutes in the mornings and evenings. Free parking is in very limited supply near the Downtown Mall, especially during big events, when you’ll almost always have to use one of the nearby parking garages.
Affordable housing and homelessness. Although Charlottesville has low overall cost of living, it’s much higher than the surrounding rural areas, and there aren’t a lot of entry-level or mid-level jobs for people outside of white-collar positions. This has created steady upward pressure on rents, which makes it difficult for younger, less-skilled, or lower-paid workers to establish a foothold. This, in turn, exacerbates an existing homelessness problem. Additionally, the city also prefers a “slow burn” approach to growth, and actively tries to encourage dense construction that favors family-size units within city limits – this makes single-person housing more expensive, and/or forces them to live with roommates in larger units.
Safety. Charlottesville’s crime rate is about 10% below than the national average on a per-capita basis. However, a number of high-profile crime cases have hit Charlottesville in the past few years, drawing unwanted national media coverage. Some of these come from reported incidents at the University of Virginia, which generates a higher than average quantity of nonviolent crimes like theft, vandalism, and public drunkenness. The overall crime rate is also on the decline, having steadily trended downwards every year in the last two decades. 96% of Charlottesville residents say they feel safe in their neighborhoods.
There are also some secondary problems that may be of particular interest to younger professionals moving here:
Dating is tough. A significant fraction of the twentysomething dating pool is at the University. That means that there may be an implicit time bomb attached to any relationships you strike up if you date a student: once your prospective partner’s graduation date approaches, there’s a choice to make.
No coherent vision from the City. A secondary complaint from a lot of professionals is that the city doesn’t offer any kind of idea of what the future is like for technology. The city doesn’t directly fund any major technology initiatives, doesn’t particularly encourage economic development of technology-industry firms any more than others, and so on. The absence of any signals about the local government’s intent, coupled with limited opportunities for advancement in tech fields that aren’t directly related to or supporting software development, can make staying in Charlottesville a career-hurting move compared to a city more favorably inclined to technologists.
Technology jobs and community
Charlottesville is a regional hub for technology jobs, and employs approximately 13,000 people in the technical, software, and hardware domains. These positions across a range of different companies, from multinational conglomerates like SRA and Northrop Grumman to small, newly-funded startup outfits.
Major technology employers
Other interesting technology employers of note include (but are certainly not limited to):
- ArcheMedX, healthcare informatics and e-learning provider for clinical professionals.
- Borrowed and Blue, wedding marketplace startup connecting vendors with couples.
- CCRi, software engineering and data science company.
- CFA Institute, global nonprofit for investment professionals that provides the CFA accreditation.
- Crutchfield, national audio electronics retailer that was one of the first Internet retailers.
- Elder Research, a data science company whose CEO wrote one of the definitive texts on data mining.
- FireEye, public company offering network threat forensics and malware protection.
- General Electric Intelligent Platforms, industrial engineering venture of General Electric.
- Open Source Connections, search relevance
- PsiKick, designs ultra-low-power wireless chips with widespread industrial and commercial applications.
- Quantitative Investment Management, one of the world’s largest managed-futures hedge funds.
- Relay Foods, online grocery delivery and shopping service.
- RoomKey, hotel search engine operated as a joint venture among several hotel chains.
- SNL Financial, business intelligence and financial information provider.
- Ting, nascent gigabit Internet and mobile provider deploying fiber into Charlottesville.
- UpHex, analytics monitoring and reporting startup for businesses.
- VividCortex, SaaS provider of performance management tools purpose-built for databases.
- WillowTree Apps, small mobile-apps development firm and winner of multiple Webby awards.
Here’s a list of statistically-significant phrases for the Charlottesville job market – phrases which are more likely to appear in a Charlottesville technology job posting than the nationwide average.
|technology phrase/keyword||likelihood above national mean|
|Epic||█████████████ 13 ×|
|robotics||███████████ 11 ×|
|sensors||██████████ 10 ×|
|biomedical||████████ 7 ×|
|Ruby||████▌ 4.5 ×|
|Go||███▌ 3.5 ×|
|Python||██▌ 2.5 ×|
|.NET||██ 2 ×|
Notice it’s top-heavy on sensors and medical applications; the top-ranking term, Epic, is a healthcare software provider. Charlottesville has an outsize funding presence in biomedical startups and applications, owing to the influence of the University of Virginia in this domain.
The startup community in Charlottesville is still very nascent but steadily growing over the last decade or so. There have been some outsize superstars, like Reddit; Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian met at UVA and built the site that would eventually become Reddit here in Charlottesville. There have also been some spectacular failures from the 1999 dotcom bubble, like Value America.
Official statistics aren’t kept by the city on this, but my estimate is that there are at least 100 startup businesses employing a total of about 1,000 people, where “startup” means “a company whose primary goal is to search for a business model”. There are a number of demonstrably successful startups with good traction and broader publicity outside the Virginia area, including Relay Foods, Borrowed and Blue, and VividCortex.
While there is some capital for startups available, Charlottesville doesn’t have a large capital base. Still, it’s possible to fund a compelling business idea without needing to extend a hand to VCs that might be further afield, but the bar is somewhat higher than it might be in Silicon Valley or another hub. Startup funding comes from one of four primary sources:
Angel/seed funds. There are a handful of local seed-stage funds that provide capital to launch businesses, but the quality and expertise they can bring to the table vary substantially.
Individual angels. A small number of high-net-worth individuals who are also sophisticated investors play a significant role in startup funding in the area. Warm introductions, a reputation that precedes you, or an idea with strong traction are prerequisites for getting in the door.
Family offices. Assets controlled by family wealth-management offices are occasionally a local source for new startup capital. One office in particular has done a number of technology deals.
Government entities. The CIT GAP Funds, which are funded with state income tax revenue and run as a quasi-private institution, serve as a de facto form of seed capital. As of 2014, CIT has invested about $13M across about 100 portfolio companies, of which about 15 have been acquired or gone public. Student entrepreneurs have some additional options in the form of seed funds at the University, like the Virginia Venture Fund.
Charlottesville has a relatively diverse technical community. Local or regional meetups are hosted for a number of major languages – Ruby, Python, .NET, and so on. Charlottesville technologists seem to be polyglots more often than not, perhaps motivated by the diversity of the technical jobs in the area. A general software-technologist group focusing on software craftspersonship, beCraft, is well-attended. There are also less structured and more social meetups like First Wednesdays and Charlottesville Women in Tech.
Charlottesville doesn’t have a code school or a boot camp, but there are small group-learning classes in various contexts, like that offered by Rails School or the frequent meetups hosted by the Center for Open Science. Our neighboring city, Richmond, is larger and offers many more options for meetups within a reasonable drive.
Twice a year there are two larger software conferences: beSwarm, a day-long informal unconference focused on showing things you’ve built or learned, and beCamp, a more general two-day technology unconference that covers broader topics. Other technology conferences also take place in Charlottesville, like edUi, which targets web professionals working in educational environments.
Charlottesville residents enjoy some of the best commutes in the country; the mean is below 20 minutes, and 28% of Charlottesville’s labor force walks to work. Getting around town is pretty easy.
The major arteries through and around the city are West Main Street, Route 250, Interstate 64, and Route 29. Traffic in Charlottesville is light on average, but most problematic on these arteries. If you live and work somewhere in the boundaries of the City, you can expect your commute to be 15 minutes or less on a typical day if you drive, or under 40 minutes if you walk and use public transport. Rush hours are brief but intense, usually dissipating in under an hour.
Charlottesville is very pedestrian-friendly; crosswalks are frequent, clearly marked, and well-maintained. An eight-block district of the city, the Downtown Mall, is pedestrians-only; vehicles are not permitted except at two crossings. In general, police are not shy about ticketing cars for failing to yield to pedestrians, which carries a fine of up to $500 and is a moving violation.
Charlottesville is one of a small handful of cities in the US to receive a “Gold Level” award from Walk Friendly Communities, which rates cities according to their walkability.
In the city proper, you can expect sidewalks or mixed-use paths on most major roads and in suburban neighborhoods, with the exception of Route 250 and Interstate 64, which are both high-traffic corridors.
Charlottesville’s public transport consists of a network of ten paid bus lines and a free trolley that travels between the University and the Downtown Mall districts. Fares for the bus lines are usually cheap:
- $0.75 per trip
- $1.50 day pass, unlimited rides for the day
- $20.00 monthly pass, unlimited rides for the month
Coverage is generally excellent; most of the city is within five blocks of a bus station. The downside is that some routes are very long and it can be inconvenient if you get on at a point which is far away from your destination. Some routes have a loop which takes 90 minutes or more to complete, meaning it could take you that long to get where you want to go.
Uber is available in Charlottesville, especially on weekend nights and for traveling to and from the airport. Surge pricing generally doesn’t kick in except during right around 2:00 AM, the latest that bars can legally close in Virginia, or during big events like football games and UVA’s graduation. Uber’s Charlottesville fares are:
- base fare: $2.75 per trip
- time fare: $0.25 per minute
- distance fare: $1.50 per mile
- plus a $1 Safe Rides fee
Charlottesville has a number of taxi providers. While taxi drivers must be licensed drivers by state law, there is no state or local taxi authority, and taxis are free to set their own rates.
Most of Charlottesville’s major roads (but not the highways or Interstate 64) have dedicated bike lanes. Cycling advocacy organizations have in general been pushing for more bike space, and Charlottesville scores well on various bicycle-friendly metrics. Charlottesville is rated “Silver Level” by the League of American Bicyclists.
If you prefer to stay off-road, recreational cycling on trails is widely available within a short distance from the city at Walnut Creek, Mint Springs, and Preddy Creek. Inside the city, the best options are McIntire Park and Observatory Hill.
Amtrak provides northbound service between Charlottesville (CVS) and Union Station (WAS) in Washington, DC, and southbound service towards Lynchburg, VA (LYH). Travel time is about 2.5 hours, roughly 15% faster than traveling by car without any traffic. From Union Station, Amtrak’s Acela train stops at Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, New Haven, and Boston.
Charlottesville has a regional airport with about 200 flights per day to various destinations, of which approximately 70% are general commercial aviation (the rest are private air taxi services or military flights).
If you’re going anywhere else in the US, you’ll probably take a short flight to a nearby international airport, like Washington Dulles (IAD) or Atlanta (ATL) first. Otherwise, the airports with direct flights from Charlottesville are:
- Charlotte, NC (CLT) via US Airways
- Atlanta, GA (ATL) via Delta
- Washington, DC (IAD) via United
- Philadelphia, PA (PHL) via US Airways
- Chicago, IL (ORD) via American Eagle
- New York, NY (LGA) via Delta, American Eagle
You too, perhaps?
Making the choice about where to live is both difficult and deeply personal. While there are many objectively great reasons to live in Charlottesville, perhaps the biggest one for me is completely subjective: it just feels like home.
I’ve loved living here, and would be hard-pressed to trade the experience for anywhere else. I hope you’ll visit and feel the same way, too!
Acknowledgements. Thank you to:
- Kyle Redinger for his excellent summary comment on the startup environment; and
- Waldo Jaquith and Spencer Ingram for looking over my shoulder on this article
Any errors or omissions are entirely my own.