Creating Capitol Hill spaces for living — and business — a Q&A with Liz Dunn

(Image: Chophouse Row)

By Carolyn Bick

Much has been made of Capitol Hill developer Liz Dunn’s creation of not one but two preservation-friendly and small business-fostering developments in the neighborhood — the Melrose Market and Chophouse Row. But nearly as many businesses have also put another of Dunn’s creations to use in the neighborhood.

The Cloud Room above 11th Ave’s Chophouse Row restaurants and floors of office space isn’t founder Dunn’s first foray into coworking: she was part of the original Hub coworking space at King’s Cross in London, which inspired her to open Seattle’s Agnes Underground in 2012. But The Cloud Room isn’t meant to become one of many in a chain throughout the country. Dunn said The Cloud Room is more of a love letter to Capitol Hill and its specific energy.

Not every bit of love works out. City Arts Magazine, which sought refuge in The Cloud Room space as it settled in to the hard job of reinventing its business, announced last week it ceasing publication.

The privately owned coworking space is meant to knit together the area’s diverse community that ranges from writers and artists to software-minded techies and Microsoft employees seeking a break from the corporate feel of the office. Since opening in 2015, the nine-employee space currently serves roughly 220 members, not including some occasional drop-ins from corporate partners and businesses from Chophouse Row, which are considered affiliate members of The Cloud Room.

CHS talked with Dunn about her life as a developer on Capitol Hill and what she set out to make with The Cloud Room.

How did you get into development? I just love cities, and I always have. I had just spent 10 years in tech at the beginning of my career, and it was fun, and it was challenging, but it wasn’t really where my heart was, and I’d always wanted to be, I don’t know, an architect, or an urban planner. But the skills that I brought to it were more business skills with a kind of strong amateur skill set. I made it back to school to do different things, but architecture never ended up being one of them, and I think that’s because I accidentally got started on a couple projects, and then I was in it as a developer.


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Dunn, center, at the 2015 opening of Chophouse Row

Developers can play different roles, and I am a little bit different. I lectured at the [University of Washington] … and what I explained to the students there is that you can be the kind of developer that is just focused on transactions, buying and selling buildings, or just making deals to build buildings. That’s one kind of developer. The other kind of developer, which is what I’d like to think I am, is people who are interested in building a piece of city – something that knits the thing on one side of it to the thing on the other side of it, and responds to what the community might want, and is in it for the long haul. When I build stuff, I typically – I am not trying to say I never sell – I hold it for a long time, and operate it for a long time.

The coworking business I got into, because, as a member of the original Hub, in London, when I was living there – I loved the idea of a coworking space. At that time, Seattle had a couple little ones, but not really. And so, I opened the Agnes Underground in 2012, and that was our first effort, and we learned a lot from that, and then we opened The Cloud Room in 2015.

Why The Cloud Room? We built a new project called Chophouse Row, a new building, and there is significant office space in the building. And there is this one beautiful space near the top that has this outdoor deck, where you can have a view of the city … and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this would be a great place to do the next iteration of this coworking idea.’

My ideas about coworking had evolved a lot, and I think one of the things that you want to do, besides bringing people together, and making them productive, is that you want to inspire them a little bit, so that they are in a space that gives them energy, and the other members are doing really cool and interesting things, so there is a certain energy in the room. And that is what we have now. It’s just really great, because we have such an amazing variety of members. They are publishing magazines, or making films, or at a tech startup, or doing some entrepreneurial real estate thing.

You have to set the table. It’s like – I’ll use a dinner party analogy. Maybe it’s a bad one. You want to set a beautiful table, but then you have to invite really great guests. So, the beautiful space was sort of setting the table. I was telling myself this was a really beautiful space, and we could just pull the whole concept up to a more energized level up here, and attract that many more super-interesting members, and that’s what happened. And because we wanted a bar in the space, because we do cultural events in the evening. So, it’s a workspace for sure – super-productive, heavy-duty workspace during the day – and then more of a cultural venue at night, and our members can transition through that. There’s sort of the happy hour meeting time, where everybody is at the bar … it’s not a loud bar. It’s more of a mellow, lounge-y bar, and work meetings happen in that 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. time frame.

(Image: Chophouse Row)

How do you foster creativity? And business partnerships?  It’s not like we make people collaborate. We just set it up so that it can happen. Here’s an example: Makini Howell is a restaurateur. She owns Plum Bistro, and Sugar Plum, and she does food truck work, so she’s got a … growing set of businesses. Her management team is at The Cloud Room, because they need a place to come and focus and plan stuff out. She can’t be in the restaurants, because there would be no place for her to do that. And, so, her team is based at the cloud room, but as a result of that, she’s working with this graphic design team called Wildern, who have been with us for at least two, three years … and they are doing amazing work together on her brand identity through Plum. And that just happened, because they were sitting in proximity to each other.

Tell us about your work on Capitol Hill. Why do this here? I am biased, because I think Capitol Hill is and always will be the coolest neighborhood in Seattle. I think it’s where a lot of our cultural and artistic content comes from and will continue to come from. I’ve been in Seattle for over 30 years now, and I’ve lived in Capitol Hill for most of that time. … I feel like it’s the heart of the city, even more than Downtown, and if you are going to open a coworking space that is literally, purposely trying to live at the seam between tech and culture, we’ve become a really techie city. What we are doing at The Cloud Room is trying to fold that local, homegrown, deep-rooted talent that’s always been the musicians, the writers, the publishers the designers – create a space where they don’t feel outnumbered by software developers. Which doesn’t mean we don’t have software developers in the mix, don’t get me wrong. But we think it’s important to occupy that unique space, where the two intersect.

How much does it cost? There are a bunch of different membership levels, depending on if you are full-time, or if you just are using it for alternative touchdown space. … Across the board, we are giving 20 percent off in the 98122 area code, and that is on top of the discount you get if you sign up for a year. All of our membership levels are discounted, if you sign up for a year. You basically get two months free if you sign up for a year at whatever membership level you choose.

It’s just a way of showing our love for Capitol Hill, and the 98122 doesn’t capture everybody, but it’s our catchment area down here in the pipeline corridor.

Tell me about who works at The Cloud Room. We are certain – and we cannot say we have hard data on this – we are almost certain that if you measure diversity, in every way, we are the most age-diverse, the most racially diverse, the most gender-diverse. We have the most amazing mix, I will say. And that has been super-important to us, to make it feel like a welcoming place. We have had a couple people walk in, older professionals, who have said, ‘Oh, thank God, it feels grown-up.’ Not like something full of 28-year-old bros. I don’t want to sound dismissive, or get into a discussion of bro culture, but it is really great that no one who comes to tour the space feels like, ‘Oh, I don’t fit here.’

(Image: Chophouse Row)

Do you have scholarships or grants to help people afford The Cloud Room? When we opened our doors, we gave a scholarship to anyone who had ever won a Stranger Genius Award. The Stranger has been giving them out for years to leaders in arts and culture, and politics and civic issues. And, so, it’s this amazing program, and we love The Stranger, they are our neighbors right down the street. And they had already picked the people … we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just need to give them these memberships on scholarship. … And those Stranger Geniuses, a lot of them are still in the space in perpetuity.

More recently, a year ago, we gave out a set of what are called Social Innovation Scholarships to three nonprofits. We got a really great response. … The Social Innovation Scholarships are more geared toward nonprofits working in the space of social justice, in one way or another.

What have you learned since founding the space? You need to stir a little, but not too hard. You need to set the table, but don’t force those interactions, and know that they will just happen. Somebody said to me the other day that what they loved about The Cloud Room is that it is inspirational without being aspirational. … I don’t think that they meant being aspirational was a bad thing, but people don’t come to see or be seen, and they are not there for a sense of self-importance, they are there to get inspired and do good work.

The Cloud Room is located at 1424 11th Ave. You can learn more at cloudroomseattle.com.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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