New Economy Moves Into Old Town
February 21, 2000
By Steve Robblee
Ken Lopez grew up in Alexandria, Va., worked through high school pumping gas at an Exxon station in the city’s historic Old Town district, and today lives in the neighborhood among historic townhouses and the nearby marina.
So when he decided in 1996 to start a business specializing in creating legal graphics to use in legal cases, his first thought was…downtown Washington, D.C. After all, that’s where most of the lawyers - his potential customers - were.
But then he had another thought, why not Alexandria?
Lopez started Animators at Law in the eclectic neighborhood around Mount Vernon Ave., but soon moved the business to Powhatan Street in Old Town.
Lopez said that Old Town attracts the creative graphic designers he’s looking for, and offers options from lunch to auto repair within walking distance. Plus, the commute is simpler.
“I’m just a quick Rollerblade away,” he said.
Casual observers may think Old Town’s technology community begins and ends with Motley Fool Inc., the online financial services company with about 150 employees. But technology startups are popping up in all corners of Old Town, say executives at tech firms in the area. At present there are more than 200 companies in Alexandria designated by the city’s Economic Development Partnership as technology firms, with more than half located in Old Town.
Many are setting up on side streets and above the bars, restaurants, and shops that line the ground levels of the main drags - King Street, Duke Street, and Washington Street.
While the yearly Alexandria Waterfront Festival in June is better known, the city also sponsors an annual Technology Achievement Week in March and gives an award to the Alexandria-based company with the best application and use of technology. Last year’s winner was Animators at Law.
Brian Loew, chief executive of Internet content management company Worldweb.net on King Street, said city leaders are accessible and want to be supportive of the local technology companies. He said Alexandria Mayor Kerry Donley recently stopped by to talk - city officials regularly hold outreach meetings with companies of all types - and the two discussed starting an organization to foster communication among the tech companies. The quiet, residential character of the colonial period section - where Robert E. Lee grew up and George Washington frequently paused on trips between New York, Philadelphia, and Mount Vernon - should foster a more collegial atmosphere. But Old Town technology workers often acknowledge that they are too focused on their own business.
For example, Kathy Kelly, director of public relations for marketing communications supply company liveprint.com, said she rarely interacts with employees at GoodHOme.com, a home furnishings e-commerce company next door.
“I know they’re all here,” Kelly said of Old Town tech companies. “I just don’t see them everyday.”
The lace of communication among companies is one of several common themes that emerged after interviews with several Old Town technology businesses. Adequate parking is a luxury some companies don’t have, and office space is always at a premium.
“It’s difficult to find large, contiguous space,” said Worldweb’s Loew. “If you want an office with 20 people, you’re fine. If you need 100 people, it might be more difficult.”
Arlington, Va.-based Cyveillance Inc. left Old Town last May after less than a year in Alexandria. The company had 13 employees when it moved in and about 30 when it left, said Diane Perlman, Cyveillance’s director of marketing.
The company, now with 80 workers, simply outgrew the converted townhouse it occupied. Cyveillance, which provides a service to help clients protect their interests on the Web, moved to the Rosslyn section of Arlington because it offered more real estate choices while continuing to mix office, retail, and residential space that was part of Old Town’s appeal, Perlman said.
A secret among some Old Town’s tech community is that companies always keep one eye out for new available space. Worldweb is in the process of moving to larger digs at Canal Center Plaza on Old Town’s waterfront. Lopez is planning a move to a new Old Town site within the next six months. But the lease hasn’t been signed, and Lopez won’t disclose the new location for fear another firm might steal the space.
Technology executives say they’re willing to put up with Old Town’s inconveniences because they’ve become attached to the atmosphere. Old Town is reminiscent of many college towns, with narrow streets lined with small, local shops, restaurants and bars.
Many of the firms in Old Town say the area feels more amenable to creativity. There’s a heavy concentration of new media, such as animation, software development, and online publishing.
“The kind of atmosphere I want is not, ‘Hey look at that toll road, isn’t that neat!’” Lopez said.
Liveprint’s Kelly added: “it’s not hardware-oriented like in the Dulles corridor. It’s more of a commerce-oriented feel.”
In truth, there are plenty of e-commerce sites in Fairfax and Loudoun counties to the west. But there is also a heavy telecommunications emphasis because of the infrastructure in those areas. And the drive into Old Town is relatively easy, executives said, because it’s a reverse commute from Fairfax County and Washington. That could change, however, when construction to replace the Woodrow Wilson bridge across the Potomac begins soon.
Worldweb’s Loew grew up in Alexandria, and despite his affinity for the area, he just moved to Fairfax. His fiancée wanted to live in a house with a yard, something both rate and expensive in Alexandria.
He likes the new house, and the commute is an acceptable 20 minutes, but he said, “I kind of miss Old Town, to be honest with you.”