Perspectives on Portland: Gerding Edlen, The Developer's Perspective

Kyle Curtis Facebook

"The only thing that holds us back is our own narrow vision. Our fear to imagine. Or our fear to try the big stupid idea."

Perspectives on Portland: Gerding Edlen, The Developer's Perspective

Mark Edlen, the CEO of Gerding Edlen

Over the last number of months, I have had the opportunity to speak with former, current, and prospective office holders about their vision of Portland's future. Each of them had insightful offerings regarding the city they love and have devoted a professional life of public service for. Now, although Blue Oregon may be a political blog, the following may be slightly heretical: There are more thoughts, opinions, voices, and actions that help shape this city then the duly elected office holders. For all of the accomplishments and the respect- or, in some instances, scorn- heaped on elected officials, they would not have a job without constituents pushing and pulling them towards a certain direction. And these various voices add to the rich tapestry of life that comprises Portland- indeed, every city. While Blue Oregon provides the ideal avenue for profiles of the politicos who seemingly have no other purpose than to make decisions that annoy the heck out of us- what, I have to dump my food waste in a different container now?- I thought it would be interesting to expand the Perspectives on Portland series to incorporate a more varied selection of voices, beyond the electoral sphere. And the first profile in this expanded series is developer Mark Edlen, the CEO of the internationally renowned design firm Gerding Edlen.

Founded and based in Portland, Gerding Edlen was formed by Mark and his partner, the late Bob Gerding. With an initial focus on developing affordable housing and medical buildings, Gerding Edlen has since established itself as one of the world's premiere experts in green building design and construction. Indeed, their expertise and attention to sustainability in design, construction, and operation of buildings in the Portland region has mirrored the rise of the city as a leader in regards to sustainable development. At the same time, their projects have so seemingly blended into Portland's urban landscape that although many of the city's residents may not be familiar with the company's name, they certainly have benefited from its work. If you have enjoyed a plate of steak fries at Blue Hour, for example, you are enjoying the outcome of Gerding Edlen's work, as perhaps their initial large project was turning an old cold storage warehouse into the Wieden Kennedy ad agency building which also houses one of the Pearl District's top restaurants. You've also benefited from their work if you'd enjoyed a beer at Henry's 12th Street Tavern, or taken a show at the aptly named Gerding Armory Theater. Or if you perhaps can't remember that ramshackle apartment building next to Jeld-Wen Field because The Civic- Gerding Edlen's project for entry level and first-time buyers in the stadium district- has banished that woebegone eyesore all but completely from the collective memory of Portland residents.

Clearly, the past decade and so has been very good for Gerding Edlen. But will this success continue? How intertwined are the fortunes with such a company- who shares a town with a handful of similar companies doing just as great and innovative work- and the Portland metro region as a whole? I had an opportunity to sit down with Mark Edlen to discuss not only Portland's future, but the role he sees Gerding Edlen playing in it.

Kind of where I’m starting from is that I’m a father of two small children, and I’m thinking of Portland’s future and the projected estimates is that we are going to have a metropolitan area the size of Dallas-Fort Worth by mid-century. The question that I have is what are all these new people coming into the area going to do? They’re going to have to do something. And they may have moved out here for different reasons, they may have moved out here for Portland’s reputation for livability, they may be climate change refugees. But the fact is we will have millions of more people living in this area, and I’m struggling to think of an economic anchor for these people, a large scale industry that other cities may have but that we do not have. In the past we had “stumptown” we had timber, we had the ship-building ports. Now I’m drawing a blank.

Have you read Tom Friedman’s new book?


You really ought to read it, it’s good. I think it provides a pretty good analysis about where we currently are in the world today. I think as a country we face a lot of challenges but also we face a lot of opportunities. Very, very clearly- in my opinion- we have to go higher up the food chain. We’ve gone from an agrarian-based society from 1800s, early 1900s to a manufacturing based economy post World War I, World War II to a knowledge-based, financial-based economy. And I think more and more so we are going to need to transition into a creative-based economy. And that is, in my view [laughs], at my age, that is people who have the ability to envision products, ideas, concepts and turn them into reality. And we might be designing those here in the U.S., and we might be manufacturing key components of them in the U.S. , and we might be manufacturing vast components of them elsewhere.

To me, some of the key factors around that are education, obviously, for number one. I think that’s a huge challenge we face. I think we’ve had a huge disinvestment in education. I think we’re changing that. I think we’ve bottomed out- at least in this state- in disinvesting a few years ago. I quite frankly admire the higher education and the investments we’ve made over the last several years, especially in this recession that has been so devastating. I think in K-12 we have significant challenges, I think people were very disappointed to see the bond measure go down. Maybe it wasn’t designed the best, maybe it wasn’t marketed the best, but I think that investment is really critical. I think that we’ve done enough, here in Portland, and I don’t have enough familiarity outside the metropolitan area to comment, but what I think Portland Community College has done and what I perceive we’re doing at community college level and making that connection- an affordable connection- from high school to four-year to people who are not going to go to a four-year school, that a two-year education is going to get them what they need, I think has been excellent. I think what Preston [Pulliams] has done over at PCC has been great. So the educational basis I tend to be pretty optimistic. There was a statistic out today, that it was here in Portland that we had 10,000 young people pass the literacy exams, the highest level that I think we’ve had in a long time. So I think there are some positive signs out there for education.

I think the second piece of it is embracing diversity. Embracing people who are going to take outsized risks, celebrate success- I don’t think we do a good enough job of that here. And I don’t think we do a good enough job of marketing successes here. The other comment I would make is that in the early 90s when we had the aerospace bust in Southern Cal, we had an awful lot of graduate level engineers with experience moving to Oregon and Intel gobbled them up. I think today we have perhaps a limited number of young people, college graduates for the most part, coming here because of the reputation- whether it be “Keep Portland Weird,” whether it be the bike culture, whether it be the sustainability, whether it be the perception of an open, embracing community of diversity. And we don’t- from a people of color, you know, we aren’t that diverse frankly. We probably have more diversity around Hispanics than we do African-Americans. But I think that perception of embracing different lifestyles and different cultures is what’s drawing a lot of young people here. My personal hope is that while some are working at Stumptown or Starbucks to make ends meet, you got the next Dan Wieden or Tim Boyle or Phil Knight or whoever it is out there in that community and it doesn’t really matter if its designing bikes or designing shoes or creating great and incredible branding and marketing and advertising campaigns – that they are out there in a living room or wherever they’re at or sitting in Stumptown designing their stuff and that they have the ability to take it from mark-to-market and be successful and if they are successful they will stay here in Oregon. And you know, organic home-grown companies are our greatest opportunity.

You bring up an interesting point about the young people and the hope that will lead the next industries, though it’s hard to guess what these industries might be ten or fifteen years down the line, hopefully that person to lead that industry is here in town. At the same time, there is a concern about the fact that, as some pointed out in a prior discussion, that there is a “brain drain” going on for young people. Like if the next Tim Boyle is working in Stumptown, how long is he going to be okay serving lattes before moving on? And I’m sure you heard the cliché about where Portland is where young people come to retire. But other people say that’s not true. Portland is where young people come, stick around for a while, get frustrated, and then move on. You raise a good picture, but what could be doing to keep this young, prospective leaders of the future economy to not leave and go to Seattle or Vancouver, B.C.?

You’re certainly going to have people who get frustrated. You’re going to have people who burn out. It’s human nature, it happens, right? The successful ones are going to be the resilient ones. And they’re going to be the ones who won’t take “no” for an answer. They’re going to be the ones that when they’re told they can’t do it they’re going to say, “Screw you and the horse you rode in on, I can do it. And I’m going to show you I can do it.” They’re going to be the ones that look way beyond Portland’s boundaries for opportunities and take advantage of the collaborative opportunities that are here and take advantage of the talent that’s here and come up with those outsized opportunities. We don’t need one hundred Tim Boyles or Dan Wiedens. We only need a few of them. Wieden-Kennedy is a great example. I believe they are the largest private ad agency in the world. With offices in Amsterdam, Tokyo, and lord knows where else. And then you have Nike where you have some guy who I’m sure was told “You sure have a stupid idea.” To import shoes from Asia and sell them out of the back of his station wagon. And I bet you he said “Screw you and the horse you rode in on” to the people who said he couldn’t do it. So, yeah, there’s going to be people who are going to give up. There’s going to be people who say it’s too hard. And there’s going to be those rare people that say “Screw you and the horse you rode in on” and that are resilient and creative and hard-working and ethical. They’re going to make a real difference. Obviously, that’s my opinion.

You bring up an interesting term, which is resiliency. And I have written another piece about whether Portland is a resilient community, or not. I don’t know what that term means to you, and perhaps you would like to offer what you consider to be a resilient community. But I’d like to tie this in to the work of Gerding Edlen, and the projects- whether it be buildings, but also community-level work as well. So, I don’t want to offer my definition of what a resilient community is. Maybe you can do that, but also how that works in with Gerding Edlen’s principles when they consider a project, whether it be a building or district-project.

So, to me I think a resilient community, or a resilient person, or a resilient company, or a resilient government is one that can look at challenges and, number one, looks with the attitude that the glass is half full instead of half empty. And is the individual or the company that in an era in which we are bombarded with instantaneous messaging and press that you can spend your entire day reading nothing but negative articles, that have the ability to set those aside and see the opportunities. And have the ability to set those aside and not just see the opportunities but see a way to capture those opportunities and harness them in a fashion that creates a truly sustainable economy. And I’ve mentioned collaboration earlier and that’s a great example. You know, I think we’ve got the younger generation- my generation you kind of want to, you know, from an organization perspective you were taught, you were managed to want to run everything from the top to the bottom. Today its much more of people reaching across the hall or across the street or across the city to somebody else that’s got a specific talent that’s going to add more to the puzzle, if you will, then if they tried to do it on their own. And by creating sustainable communities and economies, I think it’s all about how do we keep those people who are here- utilizing those talents and grow those talents, as opposed to looking elsewhere. And resilience is about when that storm comes- whether it’s an economic storm or a weather storm, or whatever the case may be- or that unexpected event that, instead of rolling over and saying “I quit. I’m going back home”- wherever that may be- or “I’m going to Vancouver” they’re the ones who are saying “Okay, let’s figure this out. And let’s look around us at others who have the skills, the talents that maybe we don’t and figure out how to still continue to take advantage of that opportunity.”

And so how does that sense of resiliency work with Gerding Edlen?

Well, the last couple of years have been pretty testy, in terms of resilience. So, you know, we- I guess from our perspective is- we think of three things: and that is people, place, and planet. And we try to tie those together with what we’re doing with our work, sometimes more successfully than others. It’s kind of like the balance of live/work. It’s a balance- you’re much younger than I am- but it’s a balance that you’re going to struggle with all your life. And trying to find that balance in our work is a struggle. It’s not an easy thing. And, you know, being early in the sustainability movement around the built environment, there are many, many aspects of it that I think a lot of people around this state are doing many cool things, whether it’s agriculture, transportation, planning, buildings, renewable energy- whatever the case may be I think we’ve got some truly world leadership here. And, I used to joke- maybe not as much as I do now- that I think most of the industry we’ve been the butt of their jokes. You know, I like to think that maybe they’re not laughing quite as loudly, and maybe they are- I don’t know.

You mean specifically Gerding Edlen, or Portland in general?

No, I think specifically Gerding Edlen. You know, I think we got started because I think we thought it was the right thing to do. You know, I had the great opportunity to grow up here and go to school here and my partner Bob did the exact same thing. And the love of the environment we live in- I mean, it’s just really special. And for us, it was more of an ethic than it was a business plan. Over the years, perhaps recently, it has turned into more of a business plan and has more people recognized what’s been going on. You know, I read an article yesterday in China Daily News that in Beijing they shut down the airport and 200 flights were canceled because of smog. My understanding is that in Beijing the aquifer is gone. There is no water. They have to build pipes from the Yangtze. You know, I think the challenges we face and that cities are the answer. I really believe that. I think that deeply sustainable cities are the answer. You know, a good example here in Portland is the bike culture. I mean, I think that’s way cool. First of all, I think it’s on fire. I love to see that. And you know, we got a building that, you know, we screwed up our nerve and we cut back on parking dramatically and- you know what?- we can’t sell all the parking. And our biggest problem in the building? Bicycle tire marks going down the corridors. I think it’s a great thing.

So, kind of reflecting on it, everybody kind of likes to hear the history of what we’ve done and so on and so forth and that’s interesting, but as I said its history. And I think it’s more about going forward and I think for the doubters or the nay-sayers or who are the ones that are curious but not quite there, I think there’s two factors out there that make the case for doing deeply sustainable construction and what-not. And that is, you look at the environment and you look at the challenges that we face. We all focus on energy but I truly believe water is not far behind. And buildings suck down, depending on what you read, 40 to 50 percent of the energy out there and produce a like amount of the emissions that are out there and I think you can truly make a difference. And I think today, from a business perspective, we’re seeing customers whether it be apartment tenants or office tenants that are embracing it as part of who they feel they are and their communications to their customers and to their employees. And so I think that the business case that we have proven maybe for the first time with our building The Indigo down here where we out did the competitor dramatically, both in terms of time and also in terms of rents. And I think it demonstrates-and you could say its design, you could say its location, you could say it’s great marketing, great leasing people, it’s all- and sustainability is a piece of it.

I think the second business case that’s out there is what we see happening in developing countries, whether it be China or India or wherever. And they’re doing in 30 years maybe what we did in 100 years. Going from an agrarian society to a knowledge-based society and going through that whole production thing. And the business opportunity there, I think, is the ability to export the expertise that we have here.

On the issue of sustainability, a few years back I helped plan and guide a Sustainability in the Built Environment tour and seminar series and we led a group to the Metro building and they met with Mayor-Elect Adams at the time who had won the primary but wasn’t sworn in yet, and he spoke with this group of international people who were visiting from all over the world, and he said that his goal as mayor was to make Portland the most sustainable city in the world. So, you know, it’s been a few years down the line, you’re heavily involved with sustainable design and development, I’d like to get your perspective as to whether Portland has achieved that goal and taken the steps to achieve that goal or maybe it has come up a little short. And at the same time, by making such a bold statement we have put a target on ourselves. And so folks like Chicago and Rahm Emmanuel…

Which is a great thing.

They want to be the first carbon-neutral city and Vancouver wants to be the “greenest” city. Have we lost our mojo, and if so how could we regain it? Or do you feel that we are still at the top?

Great question. We currently do business in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Portland, and most recent we’ve been over in China. I think during the recession- industry-wide, it doesn’t matter what city you’re in, industry-wide- I think whereas, let’s think, in 2006-07 we were doing a lot of what I think very innovative things as a company and here in the city. We were doing some things that were very, very cool. That were, as far as I’m concerned, cutting edge. And again in many areas, not just the built environment. Through the recession, that innovation went by the wayside. I mean, everybody focused on survival. If you don’t survive, it doesn’t matter, right?

It seems like the only way to survive would be to be innovative, though.

For us, what has allowed us to survive, there are two things that have allowed us to survive. Our deep expertise in sustainability was one of them. And I think, hope to God, we’re coming out of the recession and I think we’re going to see more and more discussions about innovation coming back. And the fact that has come back as quickly as it has in as severe a depression as it has and, I think, is a harbinger of good things. It gives me reason to be optimistic. I still believe that even to this day that, you know, I often say that in other cities it’s “five miles wide and two inches deep.” And here it might be a half-mile wide and two miles deep. And so, I welcome the competition. It’s one of those things that’s a great thing. It raises the bar for everybody. And I think sustainability is kind of like [laughs] you know, it’s kind of like raising kids. You know, it’s never perfected. And I think the day that we stop innovating- let’s say we get to net-zero buildings. I mean, that’s our objective, right? Okay? So let’s say we get to net-zero buildings- what’s next? Regenerative. Okay? What’s beyond that? Helping other people do it. What’s beyond that? Retrofits. Take it elsewhere. I don’t think there’s ever going to be an end. I think it’s a continuum. And I think the day we quit becoming curious as a community or as a company or as individuals and quit looking for new answers and what I like to call “what’s the big stupid idea” I think is the day we start going backwards.

You know, we used to think it was cool to do a LEED certified building, then a LEED silver, and gold, then platinum. Then you think today doing a LEED gold building is unfortunately- or fortunately- is a yawner here in the office. And I think more and more we would like to move to where LEED platinum is kind of our standard, and beyond. But, LEED is just about the building, and we always thought about community and we always thought about- you know, one thing I like to think about a sign of success is jaywalking. And meaning that if a pedestrian can feel like he or she can own the streets, own the sidewalk and own the street, you know, that’s a great thing. Because then the auto doesn’t. And so, probably ten years ago we started to think more and more about community building and how what we do- and in essence, what we build is not like your phone there that has a year to four year life. We’re talking one hundred to two hundred year assets. They’re going to be here a long time. And so the footprint that we leave behind, both from a design perspective and a community-building perspective and the environmental perspective is going to long outlive us. And so I think you have a different level of responsibility in terms of how you approach it. But we started to observe how the design, construction, and operation of our buildings impacted how people lived and worked in those buildings. And for example, eight years ago we started getting stories back from an apartment building we built here in town that, you know, two tenants would be in the elevator and it would be the time of the month that they got their bill from PGE and one tenant would look at the other and say “Well, how big is your bill? Well, mine was less.” We started seeing tenants get into impromptu contests to see who would get the lowest utility bill. It’s kind of like the Prius meter. You know, it changes your driving habits. If I can get 42 today why can’t I get 43 tomorrow, you know, miles per gallon. And we at our own practice started to think more and more about how the design, construction, and operation of these buildings can enable people to live and think differently.

And for example, sustainability is, I like to say it, much like having a 1976 Volvo. And you get a valve job done. And it runs great. And it still got rust on the outside and where your son stuck his soccer cleats in the driver’s seat, it still has the hole in the front seat. Sustainability is that way- the Volvo runs great. You’ve just got a valve job done. Sustainability is that way- buried in the guts of the building. So one of the challenges we think we have today is how do we make it more tangible. How do we make it more visible to the occupant to politely remind them that something different is happening in that building or that community and maybe cause them to think, “What if I took the stairs.” You know. “What if instead of driving over to the Rocket what if I took light rail down to the Burnside Bridge and then walked to the Rocket. Or rode my bike. Or what if I, instead of, you know, having trash cans every day what if I got rid of them? And if you have trash, you haul it home. And, you know, thought about how my employees could recycle more. Or what about….?”

So, you know, I don’t think there’s ever an end. We used to think that getting to a LEED platinum building was like the Holy Grail. But it’s not. And, you know, getting to net zero is not the Holy Grail. Thinking about how to create a sense of community around a place, a neighborhood that people want to own- maybe not in a legal sense but in a psychological sense- and how they can live and work and play in a fashion that’s softer on the community and softer on the environment and healthier. Because, good lord, think about diabetes. If we could get people out to walk, you know, opposed to drive ten blocks. That’s a big deal.

So, let me ask you a question about the relationship you have as a developer and as a designer with Portland City Hall. In some cities, developers are viewed as kind of like, you know, you need a villain or whatever. You know, they control everything, the politicians are in the pockets of the developers, whatever. Maybe you can address that. What kind of partner has City Hall been?

I think one of the neat things about working here in Portland- and I hear this again and again and again from people who come- I mean, we get… before the crash we could’ve had one person here full-time who did nothing but tours. And I think the comment I hear more often is “How do you get everyone to cooperate?” And it might be a competing developer. It might be us and architects and engineers. It might be the city, it might be the state. A good example about one of the great things about being here in Portland is that it is a “can do” type of place. And I tell ya, people complain about getting permits here and this and that and the other thing, it’s the most predictable of any city we’re in. Getting permits here, in my opinion, is the lowest risk in any city we operate.

Number two, a story I like to tell, and that is about twelve, thirteen years ago we started the Brewery Blocks, you know, the Brewhouse, first of all we had a couple Wall Street people here and we were looking for capital and- I’ll never forget, we had a young MBA- I have an MBA, so nothing against MBAs- I had a young guy from Wall Street come in and Bob and I were meeting with him. He was from a major financial institution and plopped his loafer shoes on our couch and table and suggested we just level all the historic buildings and take one block and build a ten-story garage and plop office buildings on the rest of it. I turned to Bob after he left and said “I don’t think he’s our guy.” [Laughs.] But, you know, when we bought the Brewhouse it had those tanks up there and, I don’t know who it was, one of our engineers came up with the great idea of storing storm-water in those thanks and we kept two of the four to do that and reusing them. And that was pretty innovative back then. And we went to the city with our engineers in tow, described it, and they said “You want to use it for irrigation, great. You want to use it for, you know, other things and that’s a great idea.” And finally we wanted to flush our toilets with it and they said, “God, you can’t do that. That’s against plumbing codes.” So, we couldn’t do it. But, we worked over the next I don’t know how many years with the city and the state, and guess what happened?

Changed the codes?

The plumbing codes got changed. And today we can flush toilets with rainwater. Sometimes you gotta laugh at yourself because before you flush it there’s a little sign that says “Don’t drink the toilet water.” And we even went so far as- the city, at one point in time, before the crash, on Indigo, we put the cistern in the garage and wanted more than a 80 year payback and we thought nobody in their right mind would do it, and we had a conversation with the city about how we weren’t tapping the fresh water systems as much nor were we tapping the storm water systems as much and they agreed and said “Yeah, you’re right” and rebated some of our system development charges that turned a 80 year payback into something much more powerful. Well, with the recession that kind of went by the wayside. But, I think that’s a great example of where, you know, public-private partnership got something done that we couldn’t have gotten done on the private side and maybe it couldn’t have gotten done on the city side as well.

Perhaps the final question is- ten years from now. Portland. The best case scenario. What do you see?

Wow. Good question. Um, I think our- I know our central business district is exceedingly healthy. It’s exceedingly healthy. You look at it and the vacancies in the offices and the apartments are a fraction of what they are outside. I think Gen Y excites me a lot. I think that their embracing of a more active, engaged, more interesting, intriguing, enriching, culturally full lifestyle is what cities are all about- I think bodes extremely well for our central city. I think our close-in east side- I think you can go from Division all the way around to Mississippi and it’s absolutely on fire, whether it’s the vegan or organic restaurants out there or the creative people starting those or whether its small businesses that are starting, I think that, that bodes extremely well. I think ten years from now our transportation system is probably even more refined. I love the article in The Oregonian about a $16 million shortfall in the Bureau of Transportation’s budget and there was a quote that one of the biggest reasons is because more people are driving more fuel efficient cars, or they’re getting out of their cars. That’s a great problem to have. So I see fewer cars.

I see a more diverse population. And I see an extremely strong group of industries around, for a lack of a better term, what I always call creative services. It might be graphic arts, it might be roof racks or people like Keen or spin-offs from that and I think, you know, look at- go back to Tektronix fifty years ago and look at what happened because of Tektronix. You look at all the software and all the tech stuff we have today and look at the solar stuff, though the solar stuff is a bit of a scare because it’s a tax credit business, but the solar stuff is a direct spin-off of the chip technology and the state getting after it in a big way. I think you look at Nike, and you look at Columbia, and you look at Keen, and you got Adidas- I think we’re seeing these strategic clusters working. And I think they’re going to be the future.

So you’re optimistic?

I’m exceedingly optimistic. The only thing that holds us back is our own narrow vision. Our fear to imagine. Or our fear to try the big stupid idea.

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