Phyllis Lamphere Oral History, Part 4: Open Government, Seattle Commons, and Lake Union Park

  • Posted 10/18/2013
  • Essay 10635

Phyllis Lamphere (1922-2018), a native Seattleite, was deeply involved in the city's civic life for more than 50 years. She served on the city council from 1967 to 1978, where she was instrumental in pushing through multiple reforms and worked on many of the most contentious issues of a contentious era. After an unsuccessful run for mayor in 1977, Lamphere went on to work for the federal government, and she later formed her own public-affairs consulting firm. Among many other achievements, she was a driving force behind the creation of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center and served on its board for more than 20 years. In July and August 2013, Lamphere was interviewed at her apartment in Seattle's Horizon House by intern Callan Carow. In these People's Histories, organized by topic, Lamphere recounts some of the important events of her career in politics and public service and provides an inside look at the workings of government and the life of an extraordinary woman. In this next-to-last segment of her oral history, she talks about her life after leaving government service -- running her own public-relations firm, working with the Municipal League, fighting a losing battle to build Seattle Commons, serving on the Seattle Parks Foundation, and the successful effort to develop Lake Union Park and the South Lake Union streetcar line.

Private and Public

Following extensive work on the Convention Center, and after Scandinavia Today, I formed my own public affairs consulting firm, and I worked on various public and private projects. I became reacquainted with Tom Gibbs of CH2M Hill, whom I had worked with on Metro when he was executive director and I was finance chair. And he said, "Well why don't you come over, I think we could do some work together." They had their headquarters in Bellevue. So I started working for CH2M Hill in 1984 and I worked with them for 10 years. I had several other clients as well, and I did a considerable amount of pro bono work with the Municipal League and to some extent, Virginia Mason, where I was on the board, but mainly the Muni League because I continued my interest in the organization of local governments, how they could be more effective and efficient.

I chaired a committee of the Muni League called the Open and Accountable Government (OAG) Committee. And we looked particularly at the relationship between the county and the central city and the other cities within the county, because things were changing, the population was growing, how do you provide local services to everybody, and how do you work into regional services -- that is, countywide services. So we spent a good deal of time on that, and finally came up with a recommendation that the Muni League adopted, which was that everyone in the county should have both a local and a regional, countywide provider of services. And the countywide provider of services should be the combined form of Metro and King County.

That went to various local jurisdictions, the Muni League adopted that position, it went to a forum of elected officials representing all of those entities, and they adopted a proposal that went on the ballot and was battled by the cities because it did not give them adequate representation, and, I believe, because the arrangement was to remain partisan. So that was defeated, and though the county council majority had pledged their support, they turned around -- one person -- and defeated that. Then it was revamped and passed on the second time, and so Metro and King County formed a regional entity. So that's been worked through, and that part is fairly clear.

There still is a problem of how you get services to the unincorporated areas. The cities were encouraged to annex whenever they could to take in residents around them, to provide local services. And there were some of the areas that incorporated to form their own cities. We still don't have a recognized local government for all of the local unincorporated areas, and those that do not have a local government have to be served by the county as they were before. And so that's just a continuation of my interest in how we get along and how we keep up with the best way to deliver services in whatever jurisdiction they have.

During the time when I had my own consulting firm, I was also on the board of Virginia Mason Medical Center and very active in that, and I have played various roles with Virginia Mason every since. I'm still on the board of governors, which is sort of like the community outreach board for Virginia Mason, and I live now right across the street so I can keep good tabs on how the institution is doing. And my interest in that now is how Virginia Mason and all the other health providers are going to adapt to the Affordable Care Act. That's going to be a very interesting transition.

Seattle Commons

I was asked to be on the board of Seattle Commons, and it had the grand vision of creating a huge park, like a Central Park, that would be two blocks wide and would extend from Denny Way to Lake Union. A huge swathe of greenery in an area that was pretty much undeveloped or underdeveloped. We worked with a community organization to draw up a plan for the park, including the financing, gaining the support of people in the field. It went to the ballot in '95 in September, to ask the public to support a bond issue to develop this park. Unfortunately, the Mariners put their bond issue for a new stadium on the same ballot, and it was not a good fit. There were the sports fans versus the green, parks people and neither one of the issues passed. But that was a great effort that had been put into that.

One of our serious backers was Paul Allen, who had allowed us to tie up a lot of the property in that area, to put it on hold for the passage of this. When the measure failed, we tried it once again about six months later and that failed again, so Seattle lost its opportunity to get something like New York's Central Park. Paul Allen went on to develop his Lake Union complex, which contained many of those properties that had been set aside. And so now we have instead an urban village.

The Seattle Parks Foundation and Lake Union Park

But shortly after that, the mayor appointed a committee called the Seattle Parks Foundation, and I became a member of that. It was new, and its purpose is to support parks and to develop resources that were compatible with the parks mission and their plan, which included filling in some of the gaps -- you know, you can never have enough parks. Some of the gaps had been there from the time of the Olmsted brothers' grand plan for parks.

So we set up a committee called the Major Projects Committee. The foundation board decided it should have two objectives: one, to create as many neighborhood parks as was feasible, with the idea that everyone should be able to walk to their neighborhood park, as an ambitious goal. But we worked with community organizations and began to develop these small parks in neighborhoods

But we also determined we should have one major park, one major project, so that the foundation would be an institution that would be followed, because of its charter. I chaired the major-projects committee for that, and we started out by searching for the right major project to be our first endeavor. And after considering a number of opportunities, we recommended South Lake Union Park as our first project, and the board approved that. So I then chaired the implementation of that, going all the way from interviewing the contractors and consultants we would hire and developing the budget and doing all the steps in developing the plan and talking to the neighborhood about it, because it's a very popular but sensitive area because it's so pivotal to so many communities.

We had a community advisory group that met every week and commented at every turn on the development of the plan. And obviously this went on for several years, and was developed in two phases, and I did a lot of the lobbying for it because we had to have the support of the city and we had to have some contributions from the city as well. We had to do some initial fundraising in order to show that we were real, and I was involved in that.  

John Nesholm and I co-chaired the steering committee that got it ready for the ballot. It was voted on and it was developed in two phases because of the challenges of funding. So the first phase cleared the land and developed a portion of it and the second phase was completed in 2010. It comprises 12.5 acres. There are two waterways that are included in it. There's a bridge across Waterway Three -- it goes all the way across Westlake Avenue to the Center for Wooden Boats. And the Center for Wooden Boats is a partner in this project. United Indians of All Tribes is also a partner in this project, and their development will be along Westlake, probably a carving shed and some little community building. Then there's a bridge across the waterway to connect to the main part of the park.

There are all sorts of features, like model-boat ponds and planting sections and a diagonal series of fountains -- small spout fountains that the children come and run through and just have a marvelous time. So it's a magnificent park, and that was approved by the general public. The financial campaign was completed in about 2009. So that was a real exciting time for the city, because to have a major park, 12.5 acres, on an urban lake, is incredible.

I went on to help the streetcar line be approved [at South Lake Union], because Lake Union was the site of the first streetcar in Seattle's history, and it went from the shipping area, the industrial area, which was South Lake Union, to the financial area that was in what is now the downtown area, and this streetcar went between the two entities way back when, so there's a lot of history there.

To go to Part 5, click "Next Feature."


Callan Carow interviews with Phyllis Lamphere, July and August 2013.

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