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The Old McCracken Warehouse

In 1998, Ecotrust found a home by repurposing a 100-year-old warehouse designed to distribute the goods of an industrial economy into a marketplace for the ideas, goods, and services of a conservation economy.

Editor’s Note: On March 31, 2015, Ecotrust founder and chairman Spencer B. Beebe will receive The National Audubon Society’s Dan W. Lufkin Prize for Environmental Leadership at the annual Audubon Gala Dinner in New York. In celebration of Spencer’s 40 years of work to redefine the environmental movement, we are running weekly excerpts from his 2010 memoir Cache: Creating Natural Economies. These posts represent pivotal points in Spencer’s journey to build economies that restore nature and invest in people. And they are five moments that made Ecotrust.

By Spencer B. Beebe

Ecotrust’s offices in Albers Mill were directly across from the Union Pacific Railroad station. The railroad had controlled some 35 blocks of northwest Portland. The waterfront shipyards, docks, and railroad yards had been the center of shipping and distribution of the goods of a developing industrial frontier. But by the early 1980s, trucks were hauling much that had earlier been shipped and railroaded. The 35 blocks of railroad freight yards were largely abandoned. Downtown redevelopment had not yet crossed north of Burnside Avenue into what is now known as the Pearl District. Old multistory warehouses, empty railroad yards, and raised street overpasses diverted traffic around or over most of the area.

An architect-contractor friend named Lindley Morton and I had talked about doing something together. One day Lindley called. “Spencer, I think you’d better come look at something with me,” he said. He took me but 10 blocks from Albers Mill to a two-story 1890 warehouse on a full 200-by-200-foot city block between Northwest Ninth and Tenth Avenues and Irving and Johnson Streets. It was still used as a warehouse, although small second-story offices were leased to a few starving artists. It was 70,000 square feet, including a full basement. The original half block had fine architectural features largely obscured by layers of peeling gray paint. Blackberries were growing from the roof, and the brick cornice was crumbling. It was a pile of leaky, unreinforced masonry sitting atop an active seismic zone in abandoned railroad yards where few even dared to walk.

Lindley went on: “Two-and-a-half million dollars for the whole block. Some developers bought it from the aging owner but they are divided and in trouble, so I made an offer. It’s too big for me alone. What do you think?”

“Let’s do it,” I said. “But I’d better go talk with Jean Vollum. She may be the only other person I know who just might think this could be good idea.”

black and white close up of older woman speaking at a podium, Jean Vollum of Portland OR

Over tea, I described our idea to Jean. Since our first raft trip down the Sandy River in 1975, the Vollums had been good supporters. Jean had helped with important projects like Sycan Marsh, the Snake River Birds of Prey, the development of The Nature Conservancy International, then Conservation International, the creation of Ecotrust and some of our early projects.

The Vollums had made very substantial and generally anonymous gifts to Portland schools and universities for arts and crafts, music, scientific research, and a magnificent Alvar Aalto library at a Benedictine abbey in the Willamette Valley. But they had not made a seven-figure gift for the environment.

Jean was persuaded that Ecotrust needed an endowment to endure, that the Northwest environment deserved major support, and that a building bearing her name just might be a lasting expression of her interest in an experimental approach to figuring things out. I suggested we aim to “repurpose a warehouse designed to distribute the goods of an industrial economy into a marketplace for the ideas, goods, and services of a conservation economy.” She may have been the only person on earth who would buy such a pretentious idea. Jean committed $2.5 million for the purchase of the whole block contingent on our ability to raise another $10 million for redevelopment.

“Repurpose a warehouse designed to distribute the goods of an industrial economy into a marketplace for the ideas, goods and services of a conservation economy.” That was the most succinct, single sentence we could invent to describe our purpose for the “Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center.” The only problem was that virtually no one had the vaguest idea what that meant.

My colleague on the project was Bettina von Hagen, our vice-president for the Natural Capital Fund, the same inspired recovering banker who helped us develop ShoreBank Pacific. Bettina shared the basic Ecotrust ingredients for success in spades: a high tolerance for ambiguity and a low coefficient of boredom.

A break came when we pulled together a group of people who knew a lot more about development than we did. We invited an old friend, Stewart Brand, who had just published a book called How Buildings Learn, to a design charette. Stewart said we had a choice between two alternatives, both good and commendable but completely different and mutually exclusive: “demonstration project or laboratory.”

By “demonstration project,” Stewart Brand meant showcasing all the latest green technology: gray water systems (using rain water to flush toilets), solar photovoltaics on the roof, the latest insulation and energy-saving HVAC systems, low-toxicity paints, and recycled carpeting, etc. It was a good thing to do but would be expensive and outdated in a few short years. It was the hardware solution, more goods than services.

But I was looking for a social system, software designed on a natural model. “Laboratory” meant a place that was constantly experimenting, an evolving mix of tenants, where people would interact spontaneously and test new ideas. It sounded much more like the dynamic “marketplace” idea we said we were trying to create. Stewart’s example was the MIT Media Lab, an old metal military barracks with wood floors and moveable walls in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was such a dump no one cared if you nailed things to the wall, dragged old furniture across the hall for a makeshift conference room, or played mumbly peg with jack knives on the floor. “Old buildings produce new ideas, new buildings produce old ideas,” said Stewart. And the MIT Media Lab lived true, producing some of the most creative initiatives of the information age.

So laboratory — or, more precisely, evolution — was design-with-nature principle number one for the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center. The other two were diversity and connectedness, principles also derived from healthy ecosystems.

Most people assumed that our intention was to build a center for environmental nonprofits. I couldn’t imagine anything less interesting. We knew our friends the environmentalists and would learn little new from each other from proximity that we hadn’t already from familiarity. We wanted a diversity of tenants, both retail and office, for profit and nonprofit, public and private. We wanted the giant sucking sound of retail to bring a wide range of people to the marketplace and mix it up with workplace in the offices on the two floors above. Diversity, but with limits. We didn’t want just one of everything, but clusters of tenants around particular themes of interest: social finance, forestry, fisheries, green building, food and farms, and the outdoors. Around a social finance “cluster,” for example, we had ShoreBank Pacific, with FDIC insured Eco-Deposits, low-risk, low-return investments that would be turned into loans to local businesses trying to improve the triple bottom line; plus the Lemelson Foundation making grants for innovation worldwide; plus Progressive investments, a socially responsible investment firm managing equity for high-net-worth and social and environmentally motivated investors. And, of course, Ecotrust with experienced staff able to help other organizations gain access to charitable grants and social capital.

Diversity, difference, differentiation: in Jane Jacobs’s words, “differentiation emerging from generality” is the core process underlying both ecological and economic development.

babies and moms hanging out in a wood-floored building, shot from above, looking down, Ecotrust

But every big downtown office building has diversity, in most cases more than we could create in just 50,000 square feet of restored above-grade space. The critical ingredient was connectedness.

Nature has no impermeable surfaces; resources flow through ecosystems and are shared, stored, restored, and recycled constantly. The interesting places in nature are eco-centers where large amounts of food or water or other scarce resources are relatively abundant, such as grizzly bears, gulls, and ravens feeding on spawning salmon. And ecotones, the interface of distinct habitat types or landscapes where species mix: the forest edge of a meadow, stream banks, an estuary or watering hole in dry country. That is where the action and interaction is: where individuals meet, mate, reproduce, eat and are eaten, where populations evolve, where both positive and negative feedback loops occur — and some are tossed from the gene pool.

So we set about designing open space: large hallways; an atrium; an open rooftop around, naturally, a fireplace; a wide loading dock where people could sit outside; conference rooms of every possible size and configuration; mezzanines for hiding; and a public trail connecting them all, winding from the first and second floors up outside stairs to the roof-top terrace.

Open and permeable design conflicted with two important things. One was cost. The Natural Capital Center was designed to make money. It was an investment of our Natural Capital Fund and was supposed to generate earnings to support Ecotrust operations. It was a commercial enterprise, and the expense of repurpose and restoration was so high there was little budget for extras. Every common space was potentially rentable space and would be subject to a load charge to tenants that had to stay within reasonable standards.

The other challenge was creating sufficient private space for security, brand identity of the distinct tenants, and quiet offices where people could talk on the phone and fuss with computers.

Ecotrust parking lot during a Sundown Concert. Aerial view from the terrace. People galore and lots of colorful tents.

Ironically, the developer we hired was the landlord that kicked us out of Albers Mill, Bob Naito. He was the best, along with imaginative architects from Holst — John Holmes and Jeff Stuhr — who were just young enough to want to do the job but do it for nickels, and Bob Walsh, an experienced contractor whom I had known all my life and whose competence and integrity I trusted more than a competitive bidding process. Walsh and Naito saved our naive rear ends, but we drove them all crazy with our design-with-nature criteria, our insistence on saving all the original materials, including the old-growth Douglas fir floors on the first floor that the city tried to make us cover with plywood, and the fireplace on the roof nobody believed was legal. Walsh put a young supervisor, Carrington E.Barrs, “CEB,” on the job right out of the University of Washington’s green building masters program.

We bought the block in 1998, began redevelopment early in 2000, and had a big party to open for business on Friday, September 6, 2001, just five days before 9/11. One way or another, Bettina and I raised $12 million from grants, foundation program related loans, historic tax credits, and $3.7 million in commercial debt. Bettina personally recruited virtually every tenant, screening them for true shared values, diversity, and authentic experience in one of our targeted economic clusters.

I once told my fishing companion Yvon Chouinard that I was considering buying an old building and fixing it up. He said “Good. If you do that I’ll put a Patagonia store in it.” And he did, the largest Patagonia store in the world, half of the first floor, an anchor retail tenant without which I am not sure we could have made it. At the opening party Chouinard told a large crowd that the environmentally most responsible thing was to buy used clothes at Goodwill, not new clothes at Patagonia. The same with buildings: reuse the old ones.