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Meet the female developers driving Seattle’s urban real estate boom

🕐 8 min read

Hui-yong Yu (c) 2014, Bloomberg News. SEATTLE — It’s a sign of Seattle’s urban real estate boom that the only vehicle showroom left on the stretch called Auto Row is the Ferrari dealer. The rest have been swallowed up by new development.

The crush of food venues, stores and apartments that have arrived since Liz Dunn finished her first project in the neighborhood 13 years ago has helped turn around Capitol Hill, one of the city’s oldest districts, said Tino Perrina, owner of Ferrari & Maserati of Seattle. “She was the ignition.”

Dunn is part of a cadre of developers, including Lisa Picard of developer Skanska USA and Ada Healey of Vulcan, who are transforming historic neighborhoods or creating new ones close to the urban core during Seattle’s biggest building surge in three decades. Construction is raging to keep up with employers such as Amazon.com that are hiring and adding office space — and creating a need for housing — near downtown.

“It is still somewhat rare to see women in real estate development,” said Jim Castanes, founder of Seattle’s Castanes Architects. “Many more women have entered this field but very few make it to the top like Liz, Lisa and Ada have done.”

While they differ in approach, their impact underscores the changes in the city that’s the fastest-growing of the 50 largest in the U.S. Residential rents climbed 13 percent in two years and the median home price rose 12 percent in one to $517,000 in September, eight times median household income as of 2012 and far above the ratio of three times that’s considered affordable.

Putting the brakes on development, as some critics have suggested, would only worsen affordability issues, said Picard, 46. The building will continue “unless we figure out how to stop Seattle from being an attractive place to live.”

Picard, the West Coast development executive for Scandinavia’s largest construction company, opened her first project for Skanska in August: a new headquarters for running shoe maker Brooks Sports. The unit of Berkshire Hathaway moved to Seattle after 20 years in the suburbs when Picard sold Chief Executive Officer Jim Weber on a location across the street from the city’s main jogging and bicycling trail. Now Picard is developing a 14-story office building in South Lake Union pre-leased by anchor tenant Tommy Bahama, the Seattle-based retailer known for Hawaiian-style shirts.

“She got our brand right away,” said Weber, who began scouting for a city site in 2010 after Brooks outgrew its space in Bothell, Washington. Brooks has almost 600 employees, about 260 at its headquarters, and will have sales of about $540 million this year.

Dunn, 50, is renowned in Seattle for the 2010 conversion of an old auto garage at the edge of downtown into a European-style market collective featuring a local butcher, shellfish store, bar, florist and the Sitka & Spruce restaurant. Working with developer Scott Shapiro, Dunn modeled Melrose Market on places such as London’s Borough Market and rue de Buci in Paris.

“I can’t even recount how many people talk about doing the next Melrose Market,” said Bryce Phillips, founder and CEO of evolution Projects, a Seattle-based development firm whose work includes the Fremont Collective restaurant, retail and skate-park complex one block north of the new Brooks headquarters.

Dunn’s newest project, aiming to open in January, is a seven-story office building called Chophouse Row; it has a midblock passage lined with stores that opens onto a courtyard accessible by tenants on both 11th and 12th avenues.

Of the trio, Healey, 52, oversees the largest real estate portfolio by far. She runs property investments for billionaire Paul Allen, owner of the Seattle Seahawks football team and co- founder of Microsoft. Since joining Vulcan in 2001 from the former ING Clarion, Healey has put up 25 buildings totaling 5.4 million square feet (501,660 square meters), helping forge the district known as South Lake Union.

“I give Ada and Vulcan an enormous amount of credit for having the vision and determination to make South Lake Union a viable neighborhood,” said Jack McCullough, a land-use attorney and past board chair of the Downtown Seattle Association. “A lot of this development was happening at a time when the economy wasn’t robust.”

All three developers live close to the city center, Dunn and Healey on Capitol Hill and Picard in Greenlake. Dunn, who founded Dunn & Hobbes in 1997, is an independent developer who uses her own money and relies on a network of investors and banks to finance her projects.

Concerns about density have accompanied Seattle’s growth, along with traffic, a scarcity of parking spots and crime. The city has lifted building heights in urban areas and eased restrictions on mixed-used development to manage growth while protecting the natural environment.

“The natural areas are our wealth,” Castanes said.

Picard located the new five-story, energy-efficient Brooks office at the foot of Stone Way North, a street long known mainly for paint and plumbing-supply stores. The building has a gym, showers and the company’s first-ever retail store at its base, and a glass-walled central staircase that offers views of the surrounding hills.

As the first corporate headquarters on Stone Way, Brooks is adding to a rejuvenation that was under way with restaurants and apartments. Even a city dump next door is getting a green roof as part of a makeover due to be finished in 2016.

Picard exudes energy. She spent the last Thursday in July pedaling 150 miles (240 kilometers) around Mt. Rainier, climbing 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), for an annual ride called Ramrod. Before joining Skanska in 2011, she worked for Hines, the Houston-based developer, and for Canyon Ranch spas, building its Miami Beach property. She earned a bachelor’s degree in urban planning from California State Polytechnic University and master’s degrees in real estate and in urban planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dunn took a non-traditional route to real estate development. A native of Canada, she grew up in a century-old farmhouse in southern Ontario that her parents renovated. After majoring in math and computer science at the University of Waterloo, she went to work for Microsoft. Then she took a leave to get a master’s in business at INSEAD in France, and later got a second master’s at the London School of Economics.

Dunn’s focus is remaking old automotive buildings in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. A mix of specialty local retailers draws people to neighborhoods, bolstering property values over the long run, she said. Dunn carefully picks tenants for the ground floor, which until recently got little attention from developers because most of their income came from higher floors.

“The ground level is your strategy — what happens up above is how you collect on that strategy,” she said. “A lot of developers didn’t get this until very recently.”

Dunn’s 1310 East Union Lofts condominiums on Capitol Hill were the first in the Northwest to use European-style vertical vehicle lifts. Her second project was remaking the Pacific Supply building into a neighborhood hardware store.

For her third project, Dunn transformed the historic Piston & Ring Building, whose low-rise appearance at street level masked a day-lit space below ground. The mezzanine floor Dunn installed splits the 40-foot-high space in two, creating offices at the lower courtyard level and restaurants at street level.

“Liz has an incredible instinct for what will make a neighborhood better,” said Tom Craig, a founding partner of DSC Capital, a Seattle-based real estate financing company.

Healey, a Georgia native, studied history and political science at Duke University and got a master’s in business administration from New York University. In the early 1900s, her family developed the Healey and William-Oliver buildings in downtown Atlanta, the latter of which is named for her great- uncle and grandfather.

She remembers riding with her great-grandmother Ada Moore Healey in her chauffeur-driven car, and that she was promised a diamond ring for being her relative’s namesake. She never got it. By the time she grew up, “the relatives had spent all the money,” Healey said, laughing. “I’m still mad about that.”

Allen hired Healey to make a return from almost 40 acres he had accumulated in the years following his support for building a public park to be called Seattle Commons, an idea that voters rejected. Allen had plenty of land and money but lacked expertise when Healey came on board. After initially teaming with other developers, Healey hired about 35 people and expanded the South Lake Union land holding to more than 60 acres.

On sunny days, lunching workers swarm the steps of the Whole Foods Market at 2200 Westlake, Vulcan’s first condo project. On the sidewalk is a sculpture Vulcan commissioned called “Three Women,” depicting a girl, young woman and mother with baby, by Seattle artist Akio Takamori.

“One of our highest priorities was activating the street,” said Healey. “Not every block was contiguous so we didn’t control every retail storefront.”

All the development in South Lake Union means there are no more gas stations in the neighborhood, although there are more than a dozen charging stations for electric cars.

Auto Row on Capitol Hill got its nickname a century ago for its concentration of vehicle showrooms, auto-parts stores and repair shops. An AvalonBay Communities apartment building is going up on the site of the former Mercedes-Benz showroom. The Volvo dealership closed last year to make way for a Starbucks roasting plant and tasting room.

“It was very different when I came into this neighborhood,” said Perrina, the Ferrari dealer’s general manager. “Now clients dropping off their car for service have a choice of restaurants, coffee and shopping. Seattle’s exciting.”

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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