Recently, BUILD llc sat down with visionary developer Liz Dunn for an interview regarding her philosophy on the evolution of neighborhoods.

Melrose Market, Seattle, Washington. Photo: BUILD llc

Melrose Market, Seattle, WA. Photo: BUILD llc

BUILD: The work you’re doing at your development company Dunn + Hobbes fosters “urban villages” and currently focuses on infill projects and reusing old buildings along Seattle’s Pike-Pine corridor. You’ve created some wonderful places in town, including 1310 E. Union, the Piston & Ring Building, the sleek Agnes Lofts and the recently completed Melrose Market. Tell us a bit about how this focus came about.

Liz Dunn: I started with one piece of land that no one else seemed to want. It was 3,200 square feet—smaller than most single family lots in Seattle but zoned for six stories. I love skinny lots because they’re such an interesting urban challenge—and the completed projects can have such great visual impact. The development we were seeing in Seattle at the time wasn’t particularly inspiring, and skinny urban buildings can inject so much life into their blocks.

It was difficult to get the process going; that first project, 1310 E. Union, was an exercise in bootstrapping—pooling some equity with friends and miraculously finding a lender. I teamed up with Dave Miller [Miller Hull Partnership] on the project, and neither of us had ever done an urban mixed use project before. But that was probably a blessing because we weren’t hampered by pre-conceptions.

1310 East Union Lofts. Photo: BUILD llc

1310 East Union Lofts. Photo: BUILD llc

B: Development work is a treacherous business—what can be built all too often depends not on good intentions or talent but on the financial market and the banking system’s willingness to lend. How are you keeping such a consistent level of quality in your projects?

LD: Building trust with lenders is an incremental thing. The process needs to go smoothly, everyone needs to get paid and the finished projects need to be good. And I think banks appreciate the positive press that comes with innovative projects that the community seems to appreciate. After 1310, the next time around, the same bank loaned money on a much larger assembly of properties and supported me in incrementally tackling the slices one by one—improving buildings and filling in urban voids. I guess I’ve had good luck finding lenders who believe in the long-term value of these urban neighborhoods and who understand that good urban infill isn’t a cookie-cutter product.

B: Your concern for the well being of a neighborhood seems rare for a developer.

LD: Well, hopefully less rare, lately. I see the old guard finally moving over for a new generation of developers who are truly interested in urbanism. Traditionally, most developers used a model based on paper profit and not on building in places they would ever live. They’d have the demographic information but didn’t really understand the dynamics of the neighborhood for which they were developing a new project.

I think there’s a new breed of developer working at a smaller scale because they’re building for themselves in the places they already live. And there’s also a demographic shift underway in terms of where and how a lot of people want to live. Developers and architects are creating places that they actually want to live in (and often do), so they care about characteristics like the sidewalk life, neighborhood character, independent retail and having “eyes on the street.”

B: You’re speaking our language. Do you think it’s possible for a developer to be intimately involved in a project and still be profitable at the same time?

LD: Partly, it’s a question of time frame. Traditional developers and institutional investors want a pro forma that shows an easy 5–10 year payback and often try to flip a project as soon as it’s finished. If you design and build a project in the right location that you believe in yourself – so you know it’s got durability and long-term appeal – and you can afford to hang on to it, the bigger profit will come later. I would also say that for long-term design appeal, you’re better off with a small site than a big one. Every neighborhood has a scale, and it’s really hard to make a crisp, enduring statement on an over-sized site, where the same elements have to be repeated too many times—which is why those projects look like outdated sardine boxes from day one. Some banks and investors are finally coming around to this way of thinking—though it would be nice if someone would set up a bank for people who do great adaptive reuse and nice skinny infill and an equity fund to repeat this a few times within a neighborhood, so that the benefits of the projects can play off each other.

Piston & Ring Building, Seattle, WA. Photo: BUILD llc

Agnes Lofts, Seattle, WA. Photo: BUILD llc

B: Your mission statement about attracting more people to live and work in urban neighborhoods is inspiring, and it seems to be working quite well. How do you measure your progress and success so far?

LD: One way I track progress or success is by the presence of other elements in a neighborhood that aren’t my projects but maybe were encouraged by my work or the planning we’ve put into place in those areas. The slow, incremental layering and evolution of a neighborhood is an important indicator of progress to me; the eclectic mix of adaptive reuse combined with modern infill that allows for a lot of local business opportunity—people milling around on the sidewalk day and evening, enough of them to support even more local businesses and great places to hang-out. It’s a virtuous circle until one day you know you’ve been too successful and the out-of-neighborhood developers with their bad, too-big projects turn up! It’s tricky.

B: One of the benefits of your work is more people walk around the Pike-Pine corridor rather than drive. Does it defeat the purpose when you create a neighborhood so cool that everyone wants to get in their cars and drive there?

LD: Ideally, everyone would have their own urban village like the Pike-Pine corridor within walking distance of where they live, so they wouldn’t need to drive to ours. I think that’s gradually happening in Seattle. Or they could take the streetcar across town, or taxis would be more ubiquitous. But in the meantime, yes, we hear complaints about parking. The problem is you can’t have this great walking environment – the cool, old buildings and skinny infill and clusters of retail and restaurants spilling out onto the street– and have parking in these buildings. It wouldn’t work economically for the owners, and we’d have gaping parking entries on every block. The Seattle Times did a big story on parking a few years ago in which I tried to explain that if we had put a lot of parking in the Pike-Pine corridor, the neighborhood wouldn’t be successful in all the ways that make people want to visit it—but of course, they took one weird, little sound bite.

B: You’re involved with the Preservation Green Lab; what are the current happenings of that group?

LD: It’s a policy effort, kind of a think-tank that I started up for the National Trust two years ago. Rather than “preservation” in the traditional sense, the goal is to make the case that all of our old buildings are part of thriving urban environments and give them an identity in sustainable urbanism. Many of these older buildings were built in a far more sturdy and adaptable way than contemporary buildings.

And people love them—tenants, customers, visitors. We’re really just trying to keep old buildings—not as “historic” structures but as buildings that are interesting and useful and constantly being adapted.

B: As someone who’s in the trenches of urban issues, do you see solutions to better bring an integration of old and new to the United States?

LD: I think you need to get it out of the hands of the type of preservationists who are only considering the history of a building, not its future. The conversation needs to include adaptation and reuse. The Pike- Pine corridor provides a good example of a new policy to retain buildings while not making them so precious that they’re unusable. We need a smaller grain model for the preservation of ordinary buildings here in the United States.

B: We’re not big fans of the term “green”—what’s your take on it?

LD: Oh, dear. I’m probably going to get myself in trouble for saying this because I work on lots of “green building” policy issues, but my personal definition of sustainability puts a lot more focus on neighborhoods of buildings, physical connectedness, social and economic opportunity, resiliency and sustainable infrastructure. To me, sustainability means neighborhoods that fire on all cylinders. I don’t mean to pick on green building, but design schools are way too focused on green building technology and don’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.

B: We couldn’t agree more. What are some new strategies that you’re applying to design and development?

LD: I’m interested in new kinds of conservation overlays for neighborhoods that aren’t about bottling up the past but adapting into the future, helping this pencil-out for owners of older buildings by making adaptive reuse more flexible from a code perspective, and promoting policies that encourage public infrastructure investments for things like district heating systems in older neighborhoods. And policies for letting development capacity get moved around within a neighborhood so that reusing buildings doesn’t come with a penalty. In the Pike-Pine corridor, you now get a density bonus if you build on top of an existing building, rather than demolishing it, and we want to create a program that makes it possible to sell unused air rights. Again, if we can focus more on creatively reusing buildings, and offering incentives to do so, that’s a good thing.

 

Piston & Ring Building, Seattle, WA. Photo: BUILD llc

Piston & Ring Building, Seattle, WA. Photo: BUILD llc

B: Are you a fan of the urban planner and hero of ours, Jane Jacobs?

LD: I know it’s a cliché, but I’m a huge fan of Jane Jacobs. She’s still the smartest urban design person ever, even though she’s not with us anymore. You’re probably familiar with the website called walkscore.com, which rates the walkability of neighborhoods. We’ve talked about how they should come out with a version that adds in all the Jane Jacobs’ concepts about building age and diversity and local businesses, and they could call it Jane Score. They’ve promised me that they will get right on it.

B: What advice do you have for the next generation of architects coming up the ranks?

LD: The next generation of architects is going to have to embrace the idea that there is glory in adaptive reuse. Architecture schools still set unrealistic expectations for young architects – namely, that success as professionals is about creating new icons – whereas I think the role of the architect is becoming more about adding a thoughtful new layer of design to something that someone else has created. The profession is becoming more about contextualism and urban infill. There is pride and visibility in that, and some architects are embracing this change more quickly than others.

B: How are the roles at Dunn + Hobbes divided between you and your business partner?

LD: Well, my original partner was my dog, Hobbes, and he hasn’t been with us for a while.

B: That’s not the answer we were expecting. Sorry to hear about your dog.

LD: In the early days, before I had a real office, Hobbes would be the reason I would get out of my pajamas—so that he could be taken out for walks. So to answer your question about roles, I guess he scheduled my meetings.

B: What are you currently working on?

LD: At the moment, in addition to being director of the Preservation Green Lab, I’m studying urban policy in the Cities program at the London School of Economics.

B: What’s it like getting assigned homework after you’ve basically saved an entire neighborhood?

LD: Homework still sucks, especially group projects. I mean, my group is great, but remember when you were in school and you had to work in groups and no one would ever do any work? It’s still like that. But the nice difference this time around is that I’m super-interested in the content.

B: Is there anything we didn’t ask that you’d like to cover?

LD: It’s important to make clear that I am both pro-density and pro-building-reuse—I think we can do both successfully within the same neighborhoods. But policymakers seem to focus on making the most dense places even more dense—when suburbia also needs density. So let’s spread the love.