Ecotrust’s Natural Capital Center celebrates five years – bursts at seams as green boom leader

Release Date: 09-05-2006

Oakley Brooks

Senior Media Manager
503.467.0779

The post-industrial conservation economy marketplace inspires other cities

PORTLAND, Ore. — Lead shot can still be carved out of the massive 19th century wooden posts of the ShoreBank Pacific offices in the Pearl District. Warehouse graffiti still covers crossbeams in the basement.  Upstairs, babies cry and giggle; dogs bark and tussle at times.  Buttoned down executives and flip flop clad creatives ply the halls and open spaces of the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center. The 1895 warehouse-turned-marketplace for the 21st century economy has become, since its renovation five years ago, a beacon for green builders, cultural creatives, and others who are scratching their heads to learn how to innovate for a better way of doing business.

Five years ago, a small Portland-area nonprofit finally decided they were tired of renting their office space. Like any smart family, they wanted to own their home. Not only did they embark on purchasing a home, they set out to renovate an old warehouse and create the country’s most tangible, post-industrial conservation economy marketplace. And they put everything on the table to do it.

Ecotrust’s business model of owning their own office building and renting space to sustainability-minded tenants has become an inspiration for building projects in Berkeley, Seattle and Denver. A large part of its success relates to the building’s design features, yet the key is the tenant mix: nonprofits, private businesses and government. The three pillars that create a community.

“The building generates positive cash flow,” said Adam Lane, chief financial and operations officer, Ecotrust. “We had no experience in real estate when we purchased the warehouse in 1998, only a vision that if we could invest capital into an asset that would financially strengthen us for the long road, we would be in a much healthier position to implement all our urban and rural program-related work. We’re proving that you can be a nonprofit with an environmental mission and yet be pro-business.”

“The Natural Capital Center is not only a building, it’s the belly button of a revolution,” said Paul Hawken, founder of Smith and Hawken and author of Natural Capitalism and The Ecology of Commerce. Hawken is also this year’s keynote speaker at the anniversary celebration that will take place Sept. 9, 2006 — the Salmon Nation Block Party.

The building has also inspired the arts community. “My first visit to the Ecotrust building was a revelation,” said Chris Coleman, artistic director, Portland Center Stage, excitedly anticipating the grand opening of their new home this fall in the 1891 Armory building. “I had no clue how to integrate green building goals with the needs of a big theatre company. Walking into the Natural Capital Center revealed to me how you could create a building that is both sustainable and beautiful, a great communicator of stories and most importantly, a building that expressed the ‘Portland ethos’ as well as any structure standing.”

Setting the Standard
In 2001, design and construction crews completed the conversion of an 1895 brick warehouse in Portland’s then-quiet Pearl District into Ecotrust’s Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center. During the design and planning process of the Natural Capital Center, the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) guidelines hadn’t even been released yet. Halfway through the design process, Ecotrust’s core team of engineers and designers decided to register as seeking LEED certification.

“One of our goals in redeveloping the Natural Capital Center was to inspire others to build green — to build on the transportation grid, to use reclaimed materials, conserve water and energy, and to use new materials with as little impact as possible, such as Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood,” said Bettina von Hagen, vice president of the natural capital fund and forestry program at Ecotrust. “By certifying the building to the US Green Building Council’s LEED rating system, our efforts to encourage broad adoption of green building locally, nationally, and globally were greatly enhanced, and the building has since influenced building practices from Ghana to Greenland.” The Natural Capital Center was the country’s first gold LEED historic renovation. Today, there are 403 LEED-certified buildings across the country, and 3,113 registered as seeking certification.

“We cut our teeth on that building,” said Ralph DiNola, principal, Green Building Services, Inc., “and now, in just five short years, we’re providing LEED consulting on everything from hospitals who want cleaner indoor air quality to a 10-million square foot project in Las Vegas.”

The Bet
In February of 2000, before breaking ground and acknowledging the financial risk of performing for donors and finding tenants for the nearly 70,000 square foot building, Ecotrust president Spencer Beebe remembers thinking, “This could eat us alive. We could lose it all.”

Today, with tenants’ businesses growing and a waiting list of people who want their offices in the Natural Capital Center, Mr. Beebe says with a smile, “We bet the organization and won.”

“Nobody thought this would be what it is today,” said Dave Williams, chief executive, Shorebank Pacific. The bank, which began as a partnership between Ecotrust and Chicago’s Shorebank Corporation ten years ago, shared a couple of desks in Ecotrust leased space before the Natural Capital Center opened.  “When the new building opened, we were one of the original tenants upstairs,” said Williams from his current ground floor office, where they moved when needing to expand in 2003. “If we were somewhere else in town, we wouldn’t have the same natural opportunity to do business with people who see their dollar spending as an act of conservation or activism.”

Mr. Beebe first visited the warehouse in early 1997 with Lindley Morton, a friend and the president of Green Gables Construction. Mr. Morton, a Portland-area commercial and residential developer, had the option to buy it. When he heard that Ecotrust was looking for a new home, he invited Mr. Beebe to visit the space as a potential co-developer. “As I walked the space with Spencer,” said Morton, “he began telling me about his vision for the place, the type of tenants, the green space atriums for spontaneous collaboration and I immediately knew it was a better fit for him, so handed over the option to buy. I’ve been a huge admirer of the building ever since.”

Shortly after the opening in 2001, Morton’s brother-in-law Peter Buckley was visiting from Berkeley, California and he brought him to the Natural Capital Center for a tour.  “It was tremendously inspiring to see that space,” said Buckley, founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy, chair and lead investor for the David Brower Center, a multi-tenant nonprofit center in Berkeley. “More importantly though is that it worked financially for the organization, that it attracted a community and created conditions for success.” A key aspect of the Natural Capital Center that Mr. Buckley is hoping to expand on is its Billy Frank Jr. Conference Center.

Visitors to the Natural Capital Center come for coffee, pizza, to attend a meeting, shop at Patagonia, visit the health clinic, negotiate commercial loans, and discuss investment opportunities or to enjoy the stunning views of the city from the spacious third-floor deck. With its prized vision for an environmentally sound space, its innovative architectural features and its ability to attract world renown leaders and families alike, the Natural Capital Center has become our neighborhood, city and nation’s tangible example of a 21st century conservation economy marketplace.

For more information on the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center, or the anniversary celebration at the 2006 Salmon Nation Block Party, please call 503-730-4767 or visit www.ecotrust.org.

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Ecotrust’s mission is to build Salmon Nation — a place where people and wild salmon thrive. Since 1991, Ecotrust has worked with native peoples and others in the fisheries, forestry and farming sectors to build a regional economy in the northwest based on social equity and ecological integrity. To do this, Ecotrust 1) defines and frames a vision of reliable prosperity, 2) supports regional market infrastructures, and 3) catalyzes a broadly inclusive movement dedicated to ecological integrity, community health, and economic security.  With an operating budget of $6.5 million, Ecotrust has a staff of 40 led by Spencer B. Beebe with a seven-person senior management team overseeing work in fisheries, forestry, food and farms, native programs, knowledge systems, finance, and development and communications. Ecotrust also manages the Natural Capital Fund, a $20 million endowment making investments in key sectors, businesses and projects that enhance the capacity for appropriate development and conservation in Salmon Nation.

During its fifteen-year history, Ecotrust has been at the forefront of salmon ecosystem conservation efforts and building an infrastructure to spur investment in the natural and social capital of Salmon Nation. Ecotrust Canada was established in 1994 and Ecotrust’s joint venture with Chicago’s ShoreBank Corporation led to the foundation of ShoreBank Enterprise Pacific in 1995 — a community development financial institution headquartered at the mouth of the Columbia River. One year later, ShoreBank Pacific, the world’s first environmental investment bank was founded. Ecotrust’s historic landmark building, the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center, was restored in 2001 and was the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold restored building in the United States. It serves as an incubator of companies who are building a conservation economy and hosts a vibrant conference center and gathering space.