Mark Edlen reflects on evolution of sustainable development, growing role of social equity.


Mark Edlen earned a bachelor's degree and MBA in finance from the University of Oregon, but he credits growing up in Oregon and the time he spent outdoors with providing the knowledge that gave root to his passion for sustainable design, construction and development.

After starting his professional life at Xerox, Edlen began working in commercial real estate and met Bob Gerding, who would become his partner in Gerding Edlen in 1996. (Edlen bought his first furniture set from the Meier & Frank warehouse that was refurbished and now houses the firm's Pearl District offices, according to a 2015 interview he did with the Portland Tribune.) Both Gerding and Edlen knew early on that they wanted to explore ways of doing things differently in their real estate investments and development.

Looking back more than two decades later, some of those early efforts seem laughable, Edlen said. He recalled the Pacific Gas Transmission building in RiverPlace, one of the firm's first projects, and searching through a metal shop to figure out the angles needed for exterior shells that would reduce sun glare at certain times of the day. The eight-story headquarters building ultimately was lauded for the efficiency of its building envelope, heating and cooling system, water and waste reduction, and low-toxicity building materials.

Gerding passed away in 2009, but not before seeing the firm that bore his name emerge as a national leader in sustainable mixed-use and mixed-income commercial, residential, educational and retail development. It has developed and owns more than 75 LEED-certified buildings throughout the western United States, Boston and Chicago.

Local projects include the Brewery Blocks, [email protected] West and the Portland Armory, the first LEED Platinum building on the National Register of Historic Places. The firm's work also helped transform two of Portland's industrial areas into the Pearl District, where Gerding Edlen developed Wieden + Kennedy, and the South Waterfront District, where it developed Oregon Health & Science University's Center for Health and Healing and the John Ross and Meriwether towers.

Edlen said it has been exciting to witness advances in sustainable development that lead to higher-performance buildings and a broader array of benefits for the environment. At the same time, there has been a slight shift in focus.

"Over the last 10 years we've really started to think about it differently. I look at sustainability now as a subset of social equity, and I think over the next couple of decades it's going to be all about social equity," he said, pointing to inclusionary and affordable housing. "The people who occupy those have the biggest challenge to pay their bills, so if we can design buildings that reduce energy, sewage and water, that will reduce their costs."

Three focus areas

Gerding Edlen, which has developed more than 750 affordable housing units and three drug and alcohol treatment centers, approaches projects from a trio of perspectives. The art and architecture perspective looks at whether a building is not only creatively designed but will stand the test of time and last 100 to 200 years. Environmental footprint is the second perspective. And the third is how to create communities that are livable for people in all income spectrums, Edlen said.

"We operate in multiple cities across the country and all of them have the same challenges Portland does, whether it's homelessness or a lack of affordable housing," he said.

Edlen, who serves on the Portland Development Commission and the University of Oregon School of Business Advisory Board, about a decade ago became a member of the Board of Directors for Ecotrust. He said he got involved in Ecotrust because of its focus on fostering sustainable communities in rural areas that historically relied on forestry, fishing, agriculture and other natural resources.

"Being an urban person, I have an acute appreciation for issues related to homelessness, people of color and the different economic conditions we have in our city. For me it's been a great learning experience to see how sustainability applies to rural communities and First Nations people. It's just been an incredible eye-opener for me," he said.

Edlen retired from Gerding Edlen last year but continues to serve as its chairman. Now that he's not managing the firm on a daily basis, he said appreciates the opportunity to watch its team create new projects and make progress toward their objectives.

He also enjoys serving as a trustee for The Bullitt Foundation which, under the leadership of Denis Hayes, works to protect and restore the environment in the Pacific Northwest.

"What really got me intrigued was what they did with their living building in Seattle, which is off-the-charts cool," he said, referring to the Bullitt Center. Among its many features that meet the Living Building Challenge, the Bullitt Center is fully powered by its solar array, rain provides all of its water, its grey water is used for wetlands, wastewater goes to on-site composters, and it's equipped with composting foam-flush toilets.

Honored citizens

"As a developer you may not do everything they did, but it's an opportunity to create something that operates very differently," he said.

In recognition of their commitment to sustainability and quality of life, Edlen and his wife, Ann, have been named this year's Honored Citizens by the Architecture Foundation of Oregon.

"The Edlens, both individually and collectively, have a deep commitment to education, healthcare, the arts, sustainability and the built environment – to the benefit of our city and state. We can't imagine a more forward-looking duo with a better understanding of how design plays a role in shaping our future," the organization said in its announcement.

"Mark and Ann embrace a fundamental philosophy of community, living a life committed to family and to their beliefs that as engaged citizens we must ask how we can add to our community, including what our responsibility is to the livability of the built environment and to a more sustainable future, and how we can help less fortunate Oregonians attain their dreams," AFO stated.

The Edlens will be celebrated during the AFO's Honored Citizens Dinner Oct. 9 at the Oregon Convention Center. In 2015, the Edlens received the prestigious Portland Metropolitan Board of Realtors Citizen of the Year award.

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