Book City: Developer Liz Dunn's reading for excellent cities

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Developer Liz Dunn. Credit: Tara Gimmer

Liz Dunn is the woman behind many successful real estate rehab projects on Capitol Hill, including Melrose Market and the Piston & Ring building. She’s the founder and managing partner of Dunn & Hobbes LLC, an award-winning firm known for furthering urban sustainability. Chophouse Row, Dunn’s latest project on Capitol Hill, is due to open on March 1st.

What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?

The Relationship Cure by John Gottman. I bought a copy for a (now ex-) boyfriend and decided that it was only fair that I read it myself too. I’m pretty sure he’s NOT reading it, but I’m actually getting a lot out of it.

The Back of The Turtle by Thomas King. Every year my brother picks a couple of books from the Canadian best-seller list, so he’s doing a great job of keeping me up to date on my Canadian literature.

I’m also working my way through Ian McEwan’s backlist. Technically speaking, they’re sitting in my Kindle list, not on my nightstand.

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

I just finished Us by David Nicholls. It was pretty great. And last summer, while I was in Nova Scotia, I read Island, which is a collection of amazing short stories by Alistair MacLeod.

Any hands-down favorite authors?

Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood – that’s the Canadian coming out – I’ve read pretty much everything they’re written. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Antione St. Exupery. Albert Camus – although a little bleak …

Do you read more fiction or non-fiction? Any favorite genres?

Fiction, when I have time, to counterbalance the spreadsheets and emails that I stare at all day. I was a voracious reader as a kid, and it sometimes makes me sad that reading for pleasure is a luxury I’ve barely had time for since college. But I’ve been doing much better the last few years.

When I’m getting ready to go on a trip, I read historical fiction that takes place in my destination. So, for example, in Barcelona last year I read The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. On the other hand, I tried to read Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru and just found it too dense.

My mom is kind of an anglophile and both my parents read a lot of history and biographies and historical fiction, so as a kid I read a ton of Henry the 8th and Elizabethan stuff, and more recently Hillary Mantel. Tolstoy when I was a kid; not sure I could persevere now.

There’s a series that is very famous in the French-speaking world called Les Rois Maudits that is epic and amazing, but impossible to find an English translation – takes place in the 13th – 15th centuries – complete with Medicis and Knights Templar, and all kinds of torture, corruption, adultery, etc. A boyfriend’s mom introduced me to it when I was living in Paris.

I try to still read books in French when I can, but I’m gradually losing it….

I look at A LOT of design publications (eye candy) when I’m working on project.

Favorite eye candy?

Dwell, Architect,,, Interior Design and Urban Land Magazine.

Which authors/books have influenced your interest in urban planning and design?

Jane Jacobs, hands down. William Whyte, Kevin Lynch, Richard Sennett, Roberta Gratz, Sharon Zukin, Seattle’s own Anne Vernez Moudon. People doing interesting research-y things now that I think will have continuing influence: Richard Florida (he’s come a long way since “The Creative Class”), Bruce Katz, Bill Hillier, Peter Bosselman, Nan Ellin. And The Endless City: The Urban Age Project, with amazing graphics/statistics on global megacities from the London School of Economics.

Is there a book or two about urban issues/architecture and/or city planning that you wish every Seattleite would read?

The High Cost of Free Parking, Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Geography of Nowhere, Great Streets. Each one of these books is a true classic, dealing with a fundamental aspect of 'city-making' in a way that has completely changed people's perspectives and has to some degree contributed to the ongoing renaissance of North American cities.

Everyone who cares about cities should read the online journal Atlantic Cities. I’ll also put in a shameless plug for the Preservation Green Lab’s “Older, Smaller, Better” report, which came about partly as the result of my masters’ thesis, “The Granular City.”

What projects are you working on right now?

We’re finishing up Chophouse Row on 11th Avenue, in the heart of the Pike-Pine neighborhood. It’s going to be great when it’s done — and we have some amazing tenants lined up for our retail marketplace — but construction has been a tough slog. We’re attaching a new steel and concrete loft office building to a historic auto row building, which is challenging….

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you?

Hmmm. Just about every page of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book would fit that bill. Alice Munro has that same kind of effect, but her style is a lot leaner. The first and last few pages of L’Etranger, by Albert Camus are pretty unbelievable.

What do you read to stay current on what’s happening in Seattle and the region?

I am devoted to Metropolis. Locally I think both ARCADE and Gray Magazine do a terrific job. Online: I try to read and Atlantic Cities every day. Crosscut, The Stranger, Geekwire, PSBJ, DJC.

Any well-reviewed or popular books lately that you felt didn’t live up to the hype?

I read Dave Eggers' A Hologram for The King because I have a friend who is literally working on the King Abdullah Economic City project in Saudi Arabia, where it takes place, and I thought it would be fun/funny to read the fictional account.

It definitely captured the incredible irony of the place, but it ended on a strange, flat note. I guess that’s kind of a Dave Eggers deal.

What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite or two that influenced you or that you particularly loved?

This is going to make me sound incredibly nerdy, but I was into a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I read everything by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Roald Dahl, Ursula Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Nevil Shute, etc.

I also read a whole bunch of stuff as a kid that was WAY over my head at the time, like John Updike, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Gore Vidal, Saul Bellow and Ernest Hemingway, because it was on my parents’ bookshelves. I’m not sure they even know that I read all that stuff. I can’t pretend that I got through it all, some of it was pretty dense stuff.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt turn to again?

I find anything by Alice Munro very re-readable because it’s so timeless. I just reread Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. I am absolutely going to go back and read Gabriel Garcia Marquez in honor of his passing – Hundred Years of Solitude and Life in the Time of Cholera. I probably reread “The Lord of the Rings” every summer from the time I was 11 until I was 18.

What do you plan to read next?

I just booked a trip to Tulum, Mexico, so I think I need to dig up some stories that take place in the Mayan ruins….   Maybe your readers have some recommendations?

What Val’s Reading This Week: Watch Me, the second half of Anjelica Huston’s autobiography. It’s name-dropping at its best as Huston comes into her own as an actress, continues to work with her director/father John Huston, and begins and ends her wild ride of a 17-year relationship with Jack Nicholson.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.