Skip to main content

Originally published November 8, 2014 at 8:02 PM | Page modified November 10, 2014 at 11:50 AM

  • Share:
  • Comments
  • Print

3 female developers reshaping parts of Seattle

Liz Dunn, Lisa Picard and Ada Healey are transforming historic neighborhoods or creating new ones close to Seattle’s urban core during the city’s biggest building surge in three decades.

Bloomberg News

Liz Dunn

Title: Founder of Dunn & Hobbes real-estate development company

Age: 50

Education: Bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Waterloo (Canada), MBA from INSEAD (France), and master’s degree in city design from the London School of Economics

Career: Software-engineering and product-development roles at Microsoft, Microsoft Europe and DreamWorks Interactive; independent consultant to several software and media clients

Professional affiliations: Founding director of the Preservation Green Lab for the National Trust for Historic Preservation; visiting fellow to the University of Washington’s Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies, 2011-2012; director of Capitol Hill Housing, the Pike-Pine Urban Neighborhood Coalition and various Seattle stakeholder committees including its Buildings and Climate Technical Advisory Group and Waterfront Design Oversight Committee; past president of the board of ARCADE Magazine; has served on the boards of Powerful Voices, the Seattle Architectural Foundation and On The Boards

Honors: In 2007, she was made an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects

Source: Dunn & Hobbes

Lisa Picard

Title: Executive vice president, Skanska USA

Age: 46

Education: Master’s degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in real-estate development and finance, and in urban planning; bachelor’s degree in urban planning from California Polytechnic University.

Career: Founded Muse Development; developed nearly 1 million square feet of commercial office projects with Hines in Seattle

Professional affiliations: On the board of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California

Source: Skanska USA

Ada Healey

Title: Vice president, real estate, Vulcan

Age: 52

Education: Bachelor’s degree from Duke University; MBA from New York University.

Career: 10 years at ING Clarion, holding positions in asset management, acquisitions and portfolio management; several years at NYNEX Properties (now Verizon Communications); and time in the insurance industry with the Sedgwick Group, London, and Metropolitan Reinsurance in New York

Professional affiliations:

Source: Vulcan


It’s a sign of Seattle’s urban real-estate boom that the only car 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 Skanska USA and Ada Healey of Vulcan, who are transforming historic neighborhoods or creating new ones close to the urban core amid Seattle’s biggest building surge in three decades.

Construction is raging to keep up with employers such as 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 nation. Residential rents climbed 13 percent in two years, and the median home price rose 12 percent in one year 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 exacerbate 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 Fremont after 20 years in Bothell when Picard sold Brooks CEO Jim Weber on a location across the street from the Burke-Gilman 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 Seattle site in 2010 after Brooks outgrew its space in Bothell. Brooks has almost 600 employees, about 260 at its headquarters, and will have sales of about $540 million this year.

This past week, Picard also announced plans for a downtown skyscraper at Second Avenue and University Street, on land Skanska is leasing from the Samis Foundation.

Melrose Market

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 of evolution Projects, a Seattle development firm whose work includes the Fremont Collective restaurant, retail and skatepark 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, valued at about $2 billion. She runs property investments for billionaire Paul Allen, owner of the Seattle Seahawks 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, reshaping the South Lake Union neighborhood.

“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 chairman 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 at Green Lake.

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.

Growth concerns

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

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

Picard put the new five-story, energy-efficient Brooks office at the foot of Stone Way North, a street long known 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.

Different paths

Picard exudes energy. She spent the last Thursday in July pedaling 150 miles around Mount Rainier, climbing 10,000 feet, for the annual Ramrod ride. Before joining Skanska in 2011, she worked for Hines, the Houston 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.

At a recent dinner hosted by the University of Washington’s Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies, Picard brought the house down with her advice to those pursuing careers in the industry.

“A lot of my colleagues went into the business because they wanted to make money,” she said. “You’re going to create the largest form of art that people are going to interact with and influence the culture, so what I’d say is — give a shit.”

Dunn took a nontraditional route to real-estate development. A native of Canada, she grew up in a century-old southern Ontario farmhouse 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 earn 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 condos 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 real-estate financing company.

Georgia native Healey 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 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 after his support for building a public park to be called Seattle Commons, an idea voters rejected in the 1990s.

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.

Amazon complex

Vulcan’s developments include the Amazon complex, research laboratories, apartments and condominiums. The firm is starting eight projects totaling more than 1.5 million square feet and finishing an overhaul of the Cinerama movie theater downtown.

The company in October set a Seattle record, of $606,383 per unit, when it sold the Martin apartments, and has pending sales of five other apartment buildings in its largest property exit since it sold Amazon’s headquarters to the online retail giant for about $1.2 billion in 2012.

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 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.”

Seattle Times reporter Sanjay Bhatt contributed to this story.

Four weeks for 99 cents of unlimited digital access to The Seattle Times. Try it now!

Also in Business & Technology

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon

 Subscribe today!

Subscribe today!

99¢ for four weeks of unlimited digital access.



The Seattle Times photographs

Seattle space needle and mountains

Purchase The Seattle Times images

The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►
The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription upgrade.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. For unlimited access, please upgrade your digital subscription.

Call customer service at 1.800.542.0820 for assistance with your upgrade or questions about your subscriber status.

The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access!

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Activate Subscriber Account ►