Liz Dunn is the owner of Dunn & Hobbes LLC, a Seattle-based real estate development and property management company. Her focus is on repurposing older buildings and constructing new “skinny infill” mixed use projects. These include the 1310 east union lofts, the Piston & Ring Building, Agnes Lofts, Melrose Market and Chophouse Row. Liz also works as a consultant on urban design, retail curation and policy initiatives around building reuse and neighborhood fabric. Affiliate companies of Dunn & Hobbes include the Cloud Room, a membership-based shared office and social club, and Cloud Studios LLC, a podcast recording and band practice rental studio facility.
Liz is passionate about supporting other entrepreneurs. Most of her retail and restaurant tenants are women-owned, BIPOC-owned, or both, and she is an active angel investor in tech, alternative energy, cannabis and consumer-facing companies. Liz currently participates in a board or steering member capacity for the Bumbershoot Arts & Music Festival, the Downtown Seattle Association, Capitol Hill Housing, the Pike-Pine Urban Neighborhood Coalition, and Lid I-5 and is a long-time member of the national Small Scale Developers Forum. She is an affiliate fellow at the University of Washington’s Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies and a regular guest lecturer in the real estate program at UW’s Foster School of Business.
Read the podcast transcript here
0:00:08 – Eve Picker
Hi there. Thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate. For Good. I’m Eve Picker and I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. I love real estate. Real estate makes places good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or not. In this show, I’m interviewing the disruptors, those creative thinkers and doers that are shrugging off the status quo in order to build better for everyone.
0:00:43 – Eve
Liz Dunn is a real estate artist. After spending the early years of her career as a software developer at Microsoft, Liz made a hard pivot and launched her own Seattle company in a completely different field: real estate. The last 20+ years have been filled with people and buildings for Liz. Of her 35 or so retail tenants, all are local and over half are minorities or women. Fascinating names like Chophouse Row, the Agnes Lofts and Melrose Market label even more fascinating spaces. And then there is the Cloud Room. It’s a Culture club, lounge and bar packaged as a coworking space and located inside one of her buildings. Liz runs two affiliated businesses as well: Cloud Studios, a practice facility for musicians; and the Overcast Room, a podcast-recording studio. These businesses add a vibrant dimension to already fascinating buildings. With an organic but masterful style, there’s lots to learn from Liz, so listen in!
0:02:01 – Eve
Hi Liz, I’m so excited to chat with you today.
0:02:07 – Liz Dunn
Hi Eve, I’m excited to be here.
0:02:10 – Eve
So, you’re 20 years into life as a real estate developer now and I’ve been to your projects, and they are just completely inspired places that I really, I really can’t get enough of them. I mean really. With destinations with fabulous names like Chophouse Row and Agnes Lofts and Melrose Market. They just inspire me thinking about them. So, tell me about your company and when it began and where and why.
0:02:44 – Liz
Okay. Well, I fell into real estate development a bit accidentally. I did a major career pivot at about 35. I left tech and I really was going to go back to architecture school, try and get into the Masters of Architecture program somewhere. But of course, I didn’t have a portfolio and my skills were all tech and project management and I’d done an MBA, so I knew a little bit about finance and so I enrolled in a couple courses at UW to try and get a foundation while I worked on a portfolio.
And the portfolio just didn’t go very well because I got sucked into my first project, which was this tiny piece of property 3200 square feet, so 40 by 80, like that’s smaller than most single family home lots in Seattle, and, but it was zoned commercial six story and some friends who were also sort of interested in real estate development, it was in a good neighborhood, it was a weird property in a good neighborhood, they said let’s come, let’s go do this, let’s go do this together.
And so, you know, I was taking my courses and we were sort of trying to figure out this property and, long story short, the portfolio never happened and the application to architecture school never happened because they then decided to leave Seattle and move to another city and left me with this weird property. And in some ways, that’s good because, you know, none of us really knew what we were doing. So, three people who don’t know what they’re doing can just be chaotic. And, of course, I did everything wrong on my first project, and I think it’s really important to talk about that, because I know a lot of developers who feel like they did everything wrong on their first project.
0:04:37 – Eve
I did everything wrong on my first project. It took me about three times as long as the second one.
0:04:43 – Liz
Well, it’s funny, like how much you learn, and both good and bad. We used a great, fantastic architect who also had never done a multi-story building. He did beautiful AIA award-winning residential and institutional projects but had never done a multi-story mixed-use building. And we decided to do condos. So, like, I’ve never done for-sale products since then. But for some reason I thought it would be a great idea we were going to do these industrial lofts. They would be for sale.
0:05:13 – Eve
Liz, that was my first project too.
0:05:17 – Liz
Right? I mean it’s a great idea.
0:05:18 – Eve
I’m serious. Condos downtown. Eight of them.
0:05:20 – Liz
Condos downtown. Eight of them! That’s exactly right. Eight of them. Steel and concrete buildings. Spare no expense. And I’ll tell you, I want to, I don’t want to belabor this story too much, but fast forward to 911. Okay, so, as we’re building the project, the tech market melts down. You know, the dot com bubble burst. So, all my buyers, theoretical buyers have been eviscerated. And then 911 happens, two days before we got our certificate of occupancy. And the people may not remember who are younger than you and I but the real estate market came to a standstill and I had already taken deposits from two buyers who literally walked away from their deposits, they were so freaked out by 911. So, long story short, this is also pre internet, so you couldn’t do this fabulous instant guerilla marketing campaign to show people how fantastic the units were.
You had to, I had to wait a year until the Metropolitan Home article finally came out and the architectural record article finally came out, and in the meantime my partner at the time and I had to move out of our house and rent it to make the mortgage payments and move in. We ended up living in three different units of those eight units. We just moved, we just moved from unit to unit for two years. So, that was my first project. But the bank got paid and that’s an important lesson, right? Everybody got paid except me. I lost all my equity, but I did live to fight another day because, well, with that project was under construction, with the same bank, I purchased a much bigger property down the street and because I got such a fantastic deal on it, they lent me both a 90% loan-to-value long-term loan and they lent me the other 10%, my down payment. They lent me my down payment on a one-year line of credit.
0:7:29 – Eve
Those were the years!
0:07:30 – Liz
Those were the years. That does not happen anymore.
0:7:32 – Eve
No, it doesn’t happen anymore. No, it’s like 50%. You gotta go find the other 50%, right?
0:07:39 – Liz
Exactly, exactly. And I don’t recommend it. It did, it was why I lived to fight another day, because then I had this fantastic property and then the rent paid off that line of credit in the first year. So it was, it was structured to work, and the property was worth a great deal more than I paid for it. That’s a long story that I won’t bore you with today, but that’s what actually got me back on my feet as a developer, and that was five buildings and two empty lots in a package that I’ve been incrementally developing for the last 20 years, 23 years because I bought it in 2000, and one by one by one, so that’s Chophouse Row in the end. But I did it one building at a time, and each time I did a building I carved out a piece of that courtyard in the middle of the block to make it bigger. So, you’re familiar with that project.
0:08:36 – Eve
Oh, it’s just beautiful. It’s an organic piece of art. It’s lovely.
0:08:41 – Liz
It’s very eclectic because I did it one piece at a time, so some of it’s very old, old for Seattle. Some of it’s over 100 years old, pieces of it and other pieces are brand new. And I picked up one more piece along the way much later, and so there’s an alley that I carved out of one old building and a courtyard that I carved out of three others. So that’s what I love to do, and I’ve had some really great friends along the way that have helped me. Like I don’t want to pretend all the creative vision was mine, I have one architect friend, Jim Graham, who I met when he was working at Olson Kundig for Tom Kundig, who’s become very well known. But Jim peeled out of there pretty early and started his own firm and has helped me with a lot of these commercial projects and he’s got creativity coming out of eyeballs and he’s very good at the things that you see and touch, you know, at the ground level of these projects. And he helped us with Melrose Market as well.
That’s one that we did, I think we… oh well, I do remember the timing on Melrose Market. I had had an option on that property for many years, but the seller needed to figure out a 1031 exchange. He was an old guy who owned these three auto body shop buildings. He needed to figure out a 1031 exchange. He ended up buying a cattle ranch in Montana, which I thought was an interesting proposition to the IRS, but in any case, he did it and at that point it was time to close on the property, but it was 2008. So, I think we closed, no kidding, the last commercial loan in Seattle, which is an uncomfortable feeling. September 30th, we closed the loan 2008 and, joking aside, that’s literally the week that Lehman Brothers melted down and bankers were jumping out of windows. Like, it was not, it was terrifying, in fact. And we would have left a quarter million-dollar earnest money on the table, and we seriously talked about walking away, but we didn’t. The bank that lent us the money did go under but got the loan got picked up by another bank. We kind of toiled through that 2008 to 2010 timeframe and by the time the project opened in 2011, actually, things were sort of looking up. But what was interesting, and this goes, I know you wanted to ask me about tenant curation…
0:11:16 – Eve
It’s okay, it’s good.
0:11:18 – Liz
Yeah, well, I’ll hit on that tenant curation piece of it with Melrose, because we had two buildings that were pretty big for us, like, this, including this odd shaped one, that Trapezoid shaped one.
0:11:37 – Eve
And they were all auto body shops, right?
0:11:40 – Liz
Auto body shops.
0:11:41 – Eve
They’re very beautiful auto body shops, but it’s…
0:11:44 – Liz
It’s funny because they were pretty ugly on the outside, because they’ve been all sort of boarded up. They’re pretty on the outside now but they were ugly ducklings on the outside. But when you walked inside, you know, you couldn’t believe… the one building that’s now the market hall was clear span, but it was this weird trapezoid with a hanging mezzanine. It had this weird mezzanine hanging from steel rods, but it was stunningly beautiful with exposed brick, and we didn’t know what to do with it. And this is the only project I’ve ever really had a partner on, which was, you know, had its upsides and downsides. I don’t want to say anything. It’s I just do better, I do better rowing my own boat. I think it’s I just have a different outlook about how to deal with tenants than a lot of developers do.
So, I don’t mean to make that personal, but we did quite well together during the design and development phase and he, it was his idea to, well, it was originally my idea. I had had this micro-Retail idea for the next phase of Chophouse, which at that point wasn’t built and I’d put on hold. And he said what about that micro-Retail thing that you wanted to do along the alley up on your 11th Avenue project? He said I think that would be a great way to divide up this 6500 square foot weird trapezoidal space. And so that’s what we did, and so we put in these tiny tenants who actually paid really quite healthy dollar per square foot rents because we weren’t asking each of them to take very much space. And this is going to seem obvious now, but don’t forget, in 2008, when we started designing this, it was before this whole market hall renaissance had happened across the US, and so we were kind of out on a limb. But so, we put in the bathrooms, and we put in the heating systems and I do that a lot in my projects for all the same reasons, which is that you just want these small tenants to come in and be able to do their little thing, but make the rest of it turn.
0:13:45 – Eve
How small is small?
0:13:47 – Liz
Well, some of these spaces are 300 to 400 square feet, some of them are bigger.
0:13:53 – Eve
Could you do this in a 1750 square foot space?
0:13:57 – Liz
I think it just depends on if you can carve out a common area that feels generous and spacious. And we charge for the common area, like, like that’s part of what each tenant is paying for. So, someone in a 300 square foot stall, 300 square foot usable net square foot stall, is probably paying for 500 square feet. Like it’s quite, the common area plays quite a role, but then the common area is where the customers are standing and sitting and milling around and oohing and aahing over the building. So, the common area is part of the deal, you know, and if those tenants were in their own building, they’d have to build their own bathrooms and they didn’t have to do that. So, we provide all that.
0:14:48 – Eve
They have to get their own heating and cooling and everything else, yeah.
0:14:50 – Liz
Yeah. So, most of my experience over the years is with these smaller tenants who, you know, they’re often, and this goes back to how we were able to pull Melrose together during like what was, to that point, the biggest economic downturn we’d had in decades. The regular banks stopped lending money, especially to small tenants like that, like they couldn’t go to regular credit sources, but friends and family still had money, and so that’s how these small tenants were able to do their buildouts is, they raised their startup money from friends and family. SBA was still lending money, if I remember correctly, and so there was that as well. And so, in the end, we cobbled together I want to say three, four, six, ten, twelve tenants in the two buildings. And they cobbled together, just to repeat, you know, their money from friends and family and SBA loans, and a couple of them had other locations that had cash flow. But they’re all local. That’s just another defining thing about what I do. I don’t deal with national chains. They’re just not interesting. I mean, I’d hate to sound like a snob, but they’re not interesting and they don’t need my help getting established.
0:16:13 – Eve
And they may not have a soul, right?
0:16:16 – Liz
Yeah, and also, you know, there’s been some good research done on the fact that local business has way much more powerful knock-on effect in the local economy than a national business does, because national business is sending all their profit back to a headquarters somewhere else. In a local business, by definition, that money is getting spent in the local economy. And also just who they hire in terms of lawyers, and accountants, and so it’s all a local economy thing. So, it’s good for the city.
0:16:48 – Eve
So, I was gonna ask you what gets you juices flowing, but I think it’s this huge, challenging jigsaw puzzle, right?
0:16:54 – Liz
Yeah definitely, definitely. I use the word, the term jigsaw puzzle, a lot. And it’s actually interesting, and you probably know this, but when you’re trying to put together a collection of six tenants, at Chophouse Row it’s actually, I want to say, 12 or 13 or 14 at ground level, you’re constantly, during those couple of years that you’re trying to get the tenant roster filled out, constantly running around in a circle saying, well, I think so-and-so is really gonna do it. You know and they’re really cool, so you should really be in here.
0:17:30 – Eve
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Who’s going to be the first to bit, you know.
0:17:33 – Liz
Yeah, yeah. And so you run around in a circle for a long time, sort of getting them gradually closer to commitment and telling them who else is gonna be in with them, so they feel like they’re in good company when they all hold hands. But of course one question I get asked a lot is oh, isn’t the failure rate of these tiny local startups higher than national? And it’s actually not, because if you look at what happened, say, during the Great Recession or during COVID, I’m willing to bet I know this based on data from the Great Recession and I speculate that it’s true during COVID, the nationals will just shut down a hundred stores overnight and think nothing of it. They’ll just go poof. My little tenants work their asses off. Like you see them, they’re trying to preserve their livelihood and if it’s not working, they’re still working to the bitter end, they’re trying to save the business.
0:18:29 – Eve
I have a lot of small tenants too. They’re different, but I don’t think any of them shut down because of COVID. I mean, certainly some of them needed help with rent and free rent and all of those things to get through it, but they didn’t disappear because of COVID. Interesting.
0:18:46 – Liz
Yeah, it’s really interesting. I didn’t lose a single tenant during COVID, but I did give them quite a bit of help. And that was an interesting discussion because there were a lot of bigger players in Seattle who were quite harsh with their tenants.
0:19:03 – Eve
0:19:03 – Liz
Yeah, and people would say to me, well, how can you afford to give them a break on their rent? And it’s because right at the beginning I went straight to my banks and said would you rather have an empty building, when all is said and done, or would you rather have tenants who are ready to pay rent again when the time comes? So, I did, definitely had to do it with the cooperation of my banks.
0:19:29 – Eve
I was pretty much the same. I mean, for me it was look, I’ll have the space empty when COVID’s over, or I will have helped these tenants survive, and I know which I prefer. So, it really varied from building to building how much I had to talk to my banks, but some buildings had tenants that, sort of, made it easier for the building to survive on a whole and others not. So, you know. But I heard the same thing from large landlords, like why would I give them a break if they owe me the rent? But maybe when you have millions of square feet of space it doesn’t matter so much. I don’t know.
0:20:04 – Liz
Maybe, maybe. But you see all these lawsuits going on in big markets, like, you know, New York and Chicago, where the landlords are insisting that the tenants pay all this back rent. The tenants don’t have that additional income to pay it. So you know what the end of the story is going to be, the tenants going to go bankrupt and get sued, or move out and get sued.
0:20:26 – Eve
And what can you get from a bankrupt tenant? Nothing.
0:20:29 – Liz
0:20:30 – Eve
0:20:32 – Liz
Yeah, it is quite pointless, it doesn’t make any business sense, so anyway. So, but that’s the world of small tenants, and I think what goes hand in hand with working with local small tenants is working with local banks, because, even though, and this is kind of become a more maybe controversial or less certain statement than it might have been a few years ago because local, regional banks are looking shaky in certain ways, but I still would prefer to work with local and regional lenders because they actually give a shit and I know where they office and I can walk in if I have to and make eye contact with them.
0:21:23 – Eve
0:21:25 – Liz
And they’re not going to. They’re not, you know, Unlike the CMBS loans.
0:21:29 – Eve
They know your market.
0:21:31 – Liz
And they know your market.
0:21:32 – Eve
They get what you’re doing so it’s not somewhere out there in the nether nether, yeah.
0:21:38 – Liz
Yeah, so that’s why I think that’s why I was able to have conversations during COVID with my lenders that others who bank with nationals might not have been able to have. It really worked out for me, and that was a lesson that I learned.
Going back to the Great Recession, I had one property financed, well not name names, but a big national bank based in Charlotte, anyway, who, almost who, basically turned out the lights for two years and didn’t pick up the phone at a time when they were supposed to be extending my mini perm into a perm loan on a project that was working beautifully, completely full, cash-flowing like crazy. But they wouldn’t pick up the phone and so I was just literally going to fall into default, and it was a terrible time to go find a new lender. Just because nobody wanted to lend. Nobody wanted to lend, right? But these guys were going to make my loan a perfectly good loan go bad and I thought never again. They came through at the 11th and a half hour just as I had found another bank and was about to move the loan. But well, never again.
0:22:57 – Eve
So, you’re a resilient woman, Liz.
0:23:01 – Liz
Aren’t we both, Eve?
0:23:04 – Eve
Don’t we have to be, right? Well, what is, out of all of this, what would you say is the biggest challenge you’ve ever had to face?
0:23:11 – Liz
Well, I mean, that’s a really good question. So, what I, when I talk to young real estate students, because I occasionally lecture on stuff like this and get that question, I’ve been through three massive financial crises, and you could call work from home a fourth if you’re in the office space.
0:23:32 – Eve
That’s my problem building, absolutely. I wish they were all tiny little offices.
0:23:40 – Liz
So, it’s interesting because each one of those crises felt literally existential, like each one could have easily wiped me out. So, I have to realize sometimes that I’ve been quite lucky and be grateful, because I could have gotten wiped out completely by that condo project and I hung on with my fingernails. I could have gotten wiped out in the Great Recession because there was a project that I was literally ready to well, Chophouse, I was literally ready to break ground on and wisely put on the shelf just the year prior, like, not knowing that there was going to be a meltdown. I just wasn’t quite ready to go raise the money and do the things I needed to do. And then, of course, COVID felt pretty existential. And then, you know, I remember the first months of COVID where we all thought this was like a three-month thing, you know, not a three-year thing. And so that really wore me down, I mean personally, physically, mentally, because it felt like a race that didn’t have a finish line.
0:24:51 – Eve
It did not have a finish line. Still doesn’t, actually, I think.
0:24:53 – Liz
0:24:55 – Eve
Still really dealing, those of us in the physical world, are really dealing with the consequences of that little fuzzy virus.
0:25:05 – Liz
Yes, I’m still swimming around in a big black hole, not knowing what’s actually going to happen. Things have stabilized. I’ve just rented my office spaces for appallingly low rents, but I’ve decided that it’s going to take a couple of years to even get any visibility into the office market long term. And I just decided to take these horrible leases because some cash is better than no cash.
0:25:30 – Eve
So, what percentage of market rate are you talking about?
0:25:34 – Liz
Like two thirds, no, but that’s a good question. I’d say like I’m, I’ve just done a lease at a rate that is probably less than two thirds of what I where I thought we were headed in 2020.
0:25:48 – Eve
Yeah, I’m in pretty much the same space, yeah.
0:25:53 – Liz
Yeah, and so, you know, first of all you’ve got to cover your expenses, your triple nets, and second of all you’ve got to pay your, so I’m covering my bank debt and all my properties are covering their bank debt. I’m still sort of in what you might call special servicing, but just in the local, more personal sense, with one bank that is giving me two more years to kind of pull up my s and get back to sort of normal for them to agree to extend the loan.
But that’s one where if, even if at these horrible office leases, as long as these tenants do well and decide in two years they want to extend, I’ll actually cover the debt service coverage on it. So that’s one where I just need these tenants, or tenants like them, to keep leasing space, even at these horrible rates, I would be okay. And then there’s another one that switches from non-amortizing to amortizing in two years. That one’s actually trickier because, even though it’s a great property in a full building, I did a cash out refi I shouldn’t have done so I’ve leveraged myself too much on that one. So, when it starts to amortize, I’m not actually sure I will meet the debt service coverage ratio.
0:27:15 – Eve
So, anyone who’s listening might be wondering why we wouldn’t call this ‘If you do, you want to be a real estate developer, don’t’.
0:27:24 – Liz
Yeah, don’t. Well, and then, I don’t know, tell me, Eve, if I’m getting too arcane if that’s(unknown)
0:27:31 – Eve
No, I love listening to this, but what I would say to people listening is you know these have been real problems during these economically disastrous times, but the job of being a real estate developer is so immensely rewarding. It just surpasses these incredibly awful, challenging moments, don’t you think Liz?
0:27:55 – Liz
Well, it must, but I think there’s a certain personality, addictive personality type, that does it. I’m not sure it’s a completely rational trade off, but yes, I get, I obviously must get enormous joy from my completed properties, or I wouldn’t do it. And also, let’s talk about design, because I love the design process.
0:28:18 – Eve
Oh yes, I call myself a design slut.
0:28:21 – Liz
Yes, so I am, absolutely. I’m hovering over the architect’s shoulder trying to grab the pencil and they don’t seem to mind, so it’s OK. But I do think design matters and I really think I fundamentally got into this business and love it, because every building should not stand alone but can contribute enormously to its block. I’m profoundly passionate about blocks made up of buildings. I wrote my Master’s thesis about blocks made up of buildings, about the granularity of blocks and the composition of blocks and how older cities are so much more beautiful and functional and active because of the composition of multiple buildings on a block, which is unfortunately not what we tend to do anymore. I’d still do it, so I still will buy up properties on blocks where there are missing teeth and just fill in the missing teeth, and the result is stunningly more beautiful and interesting than tearing it down.
0:29:29 – Eve
Yes, I agree.
0:29:31 – Liz
And, as I like to point out to my, when I’m lecturing my MBA students who are all about the dollar signs, I get higher rent. I get higher rent because these are more interesting blocks and more interesting neighborhoods, because of these decisions, because it’s special. Because it’s special. And I get calls every day from brokers saying, Liz, do you have any character spaces? I’ve got a restaurant. They want an old building. Because in Seattle we’ve torn a lot of that down. So, I know this isn’t true in other cities and especially East Coast cities, where there’s much, much more original building stock, but in Seattle we have stupidly torn most of it down. Now it’s in really high demand.
But it’s funny, you still get these developers who don’t want to deal with it. They just want to assemble a bigger site to get economies of scale. And I think the economies of scale argument in construction is not complete bullshit. But I think the other end of it is you can afford to do things in a more granular way if you’re going to get more rent on the other end. And the other piece of it is, my buildings look good 10 years later. I mean they had character to begin with. Like, that doesn’t go away. Old buildings just get more beautiful and interesting as each year ticks by, by definition. And even the new skinny infill stuff I do I try to make really architecturally interesting in a way that I think will age gracefully, like my eight-unit condo building still has Instagrammers who take photos of it.
0:31:23 – Eve
Yeah, I live in a four-unit building. That was maybe even more foolish. It’s on a lot that’s maybe 16 feet wide and 100 feet deep and I had to purchase it from the city, get through historic review to build a new building with a sculpture at the front. 5,000 square feet took me 5,000… 5 years to build.
0:31:44 – Liz
But it felt like 5,000 years.
0:31:45 – Eve
But we have an Instagram site because every day, flash, flash, flash, there are like thousands of photos being taken. And once I got into a cab and I gave the address to the cab driver and he’s puzzling over where it is and he says, oh, you mean the building with the sculptures downtown and off he went, yeah.
0:32:05 – Liz
No, I mean, that’s why we do it too, right? That’s the reward, is to feel like you made a little piece of city that contributed. And so, I talk to the students about don’t build something that doesn’t add to its content. You’re making a piece of city, you’re building a building, sure, and I also say don’t let your architects go on an ego trip and do something that doesn’t, it have to match, that’s not what I’m saying.
0:32:37 – Eve
It isn’t the contextual, it’s got to feel right.
0:32:41 – Liz
It’s got to feel right, even if it actually is a huge contrast. I mean, just use your judgment, but you’re making a piece of city, to figure out if it works as a piece of city.
0:32:50 – Eve
You’re not making a money-making machine, you’re making a piece of city, right?
0:32:55 – Liz
Yeah, so that’s one of my favorite taglines.
0:32:58 – Eve
So, tell me, like, after doing all of this, what possessed you to also start a co-working space? You have the cloud room, and it’s not a chain.
And you also have something really tantalizing called Cloud Studios and the Overcast Room. I need to know what those are.
0:33:29 – Liz
Well, the Overcast Room is our podcast recording studio, which is booked this morning by another podcaster, which is why I’m not sitting in it. So, the overcast room is a podcast recording studio. The larger answer of how I got into the… oh, so Cloud Studios is a band practice rehearsal facility. So, it’s got 10 rooms. And the larger story of how I got into any of those businesses is sometimes, as a developer, you have to start a business to fill one of your spaces, to get your bank loan. I mean, it really is a practical thing that small developers often do. In Melrose we started a event catering wedding venue in one large sort of downstairs space that we couldn’t get at lease so suddenly we were in the wedding business. So that’s, it happens.
But I do enjoy the co-working business. I will say it’s not for the faint of heart. Our mutual friend Jim Hyde had me participate on a panel about it a couple years ago at the Small-Scale Developers Forum and we had three co-working owners up there, all of whom told the audience not to get sucked in, because you don’t do the math correctly unless you really know the business. You think, oh, there’s this great space and I can just throw some desks in there and if I charge this much for the desks, wow, that’s more than I have to pay the base rent on this space and what you’re missing is enormous costs around actually properly fitting it out and furnishing it and, on an ongoing operating basis, staffing it and marketing it and maintaining it and cleaning it and paying for your high-speed internet, and that often is far more than the rent. So, it is not a get rich scheme, but…
0:35:35 – Eve
But it can get your building full, and at the moment.
0:35:35 – Liz
It can get your building full and what it can do is spin out other tenants into other spaces as they grow.
0:35:44 – Eve
And also, at the moment, it is definitely more desirable space than larger, you know, floor plates, even if those larger floor plates are not that large, I mean. I have a building that’s an accidental co-working space. It’s a little bit like a schoolhouse and it’s got 13 small rooms, studio spaces, that, it’s very historic building. We didn’t set it up as a co-working space. But you know, electricity and heat and cooling are included, so someone can just move in and put a desk in there and start their business, right? I wish I had five of those things right now, you know, and I have other buildings which have two thousand, three thousand square foot floor plates. There are just no tenants for them, so that you know it’s four hundred square feet is an amazing place to have in your arsenal right now, I think.
0:36:44 – Liz
In Seattle the market is similar, but we can rent the two thousand square foot spaces. What we can’t rent are the four thousand and up square foot spaces. So, the co-working space, which is open plan, so it’s not private offices, is full, coming out of COVID. There’s so many freelancers and people working partly remote and people working remote to another city but who don’t want to be in their bedroom or their kitchen. So, we’re full of individual co-workers and all our small private offices scattered around our various buildings are full up to about Two thousand square feet and that’s where it falls off for us. So, you know, again, we’re very lucky to have filled our last Large office spaces, but at quite depressed rents. But we’ll see, we’ll see.
I think the pendulum on work from home for large, well, medium to large companies is yet to swing back and forth a couple more times before it settles, I think. I Think demand for office space will come back but before that happens, a lot more may leases may get terminated and not renewed, so a lot more space may get shed. I think the next couple years are going to be quite painful.
0:38:03 – Eve
I agree, I agree. So, and what about the bands? How often do they practice?
0:38:14 – Liz
They practice mostly at night. So, thank God, they are in a building, the basement of a building, that is below a restaurant and a furniture store and a bunch of office space. So, when they’re down there banging away at night, right? Because they all, they all have day jobs, these local bands they all have day jobs, so they’re practicing late into the night. I’ve been in that business for a long time, and I’ll tell you why. Not in this building that I that they’re in now, because I bought a building in 2000 that had a thriving band practice business in it, 35 rooms with 50 bands because sometimes they share, sometimes they share. And so the operator, the couple that was operating the business, decided to just up and leave to LA in about 2010 and I took it over. So, then I was a band practice space operator, having never done that.
0:39:12 – Eve
What haven’t you done?
0:39:13 – Liz
But it’s always out of necessity, right, Eve? It’s always out of necessity.
0:39:19 – Eve
It is. Yes, it is. So, tell me, what role does Seattle play in your work and the projects you undertake?
0:39:25 – Liz
Well, you know that’s such a such a tough question to answer because I’ve never done anything not in Seattle, you know and so I don’t really know. I don’t have a basis for comparison.
I will say, if I roll all the way back to the beginning, really, I started the company 25 years ago and there weren’t very many women in development. Even in staff roles at bigger development companies, there weren’t that many women doing developer type work. And I feel like Seattle was a place where I could do that, because it’s, one, it’s very squeaky clean. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have an old boy’s network. People were quite generous with their advice. I mean, Seattle is a nice town, let’s be honest, and the people are helpful, and the city is squeaky clean.
I will also say the woman that ran the entire department at the City of Seattle for buildings planning construction was in her job for decades and she was a gem. So that was helpful, right? Because when I started in the business 25 years ago, I could literally call her up or send her an email and say, Diane, I think the code, there’s a mistake in the code in this, in this particular way that affects my property. Like, if you read through it, it doesn’t… and she would look at, read it, you know, while we were on the phone and say, oh no, you’re right, we got to fix that. That’s not meant to do that. And you know, a week later one of her staff would have written a director’s rule fixing it because it just needed to be fixed, right. Now in Seattle that would be a year’s long process of red tape because you know she’s gone and it’s a much more bureaucratic,
I don’t know that the, the kludge is the informal, I don’t know if you’ve heard that term. The kludge of city regulations around development, just the layers and layers and layers of zoning and building code that have…
0:41:23 – Eve
It’s become impossible.
0:41:35 – Liz
Yeah, and it’s like, it gets layered on without anyone sort of going back to the, and so it’s actually this sludgey mess that needs to be cleaned up. You know, someone needs to start over. It doesn’t serve us in any way and it, Seattle’s particularly prone to Nimbyism and process and that kludge, that kloodge,kludge, I don’t even know, but I just read an article about it and it was very funny. All that layers and layers of gunk just serves people who don’t really want us to become a more dense, city and it doesn’t serve those of us who see an incredible affordable housing crisis that could quite easily be solved.
0:42:28 – Eve
Without the sludge. I think of Seattle as a creative talent magnet and so the projects that you do kind of fit perfectly there because it’s very vibrant and young and creative in feel. So, I think you got really lucky.
0:42:50 – Liz
I think so too, and that’s not something I could have foreseen 25 years ago. Seattle did have an energy, don’t get me wrong, and I had spent 10 years as a young kid at Microsoft and that was really early in that feeling like Seattle was gonna be a tech place. But we had a great indie art scene back then that we’re actually trying to figure out how to bring back because it kind of got lost in the sort of Amazons and others sort of washing over our city. The indie art scene and the indie music scene kind of got washed away along the way. But there’s a big effort now. We’re bringing back our music festival, which is called Bumbershoot, and I’m very involved in that. Yeah, it’s Labor Day weekend and it’s gonna be local and fantastically weird. There’s a huge visual and performance art component to it this time around and a great but obviously a great music festival line-up and we’re gonna see if we can turn it into a year-round brand and have parades downtown at different times of year and performance artists doing weird things on street corners. Yeah.
0:44:02 – Eve
That sounds like fun. So, what are you working on next? You and I have talked about what that means right now, post COVID, but what is the next project?
0:44:13 – Liz
Well, I’ve got to be honest, like, I’m not doing as much next as I’d like because I’m a bit capital constrained because of everything we’ve talked about. What I would love to do more of, and I don’t think this will happen until I actually can figure out how to exit from some of my larger properties, but what I would love to do more of is these tiny neighborhood interventions. So, I just did one that was very satisfying with my own money. Like, so I do have a lender, but I didn’t need to bring in investors.
It’s a tap room for a brewer that I’ve been very good friends with for 20 years. He was the only African American brewer in Washington state, but there’s now a couple more, which is fantastic. But he and I always wanted to do something together and he left Starbucks. He was an executive at Starbucks, and he left to start this brewery. And then we were like, let’s do a tap room in the central district, which is traditionally our African American neighborhood. It’s been horribly sort of gentrified and lots of people have been pushed out, but there’s a really great energetic cadre of young black professionals that are trying to reclaim it.
It’s easier to do in the commercial corridors than it is, obviously, in the residential streets that have been sort of bought up by wealthier people, tech people. I mean that’s a little bit the yin and the yang of all this tech money, right? But we’re trying to reclaim the commercial corridors. I feel like I have learned a lot over the years and continue to believe I have a lot more to learn about what it truly means to be anti-racist and try and get property ownership back in the hands of the African American community. Like, this is a neighborhood that was redlined until the 1980s, like just before I moved to Seattle. Like it’s as a Canadian, this has just been also just such a, my trajectory in Seattle, like it’s just been an eye-opener and I’ve just learned so much along the way and it’s a little bit shocking that this neighborhood was redlined literally until just a handful of years before I landed in Seattle.
So my approach to these little projects is not to tell people what I’m gonna do, but for them to tell me what they want me to do. And to set them up so that eventually they can be owned by the people who are gonna occupy them. So, it’s a two-step process in a lot of cases, because I have the privilege of having bank relationships and investor relationships, so I can bring the money and be the platform and I can get people set up in their spaces and then over time they can buy those spaces from me, and so I wanna do more little projects like that.
0:46:48 – Eve
Oh, that sounds fabulous. You’re going to have to give me your formula. It really sounds like a fabulous…
0:47:03 – Liz
Well, I don’t know if I have one yet, Eve. I’ve done one, but…
0:47:06 – Eve
When you do, I would love you to share it with me.
0:47:08 – Liz
When I figure it out.
0:47:10 – Eve
Okay, well, this has been delightful. As delightful as your projects. I’ve really enjoyed every moment of it. Thank you so much for joining me.
0:47:17 – Liz
Welcome. I love talking to you always, and so it was a pleasure and I’m flattered, and I hope I get to see you in person soon.
0:47:24 – Eve
I hope we go to Savannah, is that? Are you going to, Savannah? Small Scale Developer Forum, everyone. If you’re a Small Scale developer, you really must go, so it’s really the only conference I like. What’s there to say? Thank you so much.
0:47:39 – Liz
Absolutely, so I will see you in Savannah in November. Okay bye, Eve.
0:47:45 – Eve
0:48:06 – Eve
I hope you enjoyed today’s guest and our deep dive. You can find out more about this episode or others you might have missed on the show notes page at RethinkRealEstateforGood.co. There’s lots to listen to there. Please support this podcast and all the great work my guests do by sharing it with others, posting about it on social media, or leaving a rating and a review. To catch all the latest from me, you can follow me on LinkedIn. Even better, if you’re ready to dabble in some impact investing, head on over to smallchange.co where I spend most of my time. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music. And a big thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change
Image courtesy of Liz Dunn