Towne, David Lawrence (b. 1931)

  • By Kathrine Beck
  • Posted 3/17/2017
  • Essay 20314
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Dave Towne's natural optimism and gregariousness played a big part in his long, successful career in land management and parks and recreation that made lasting changes to the city of Seattle from the 1960s through the 1990s, culminating in the transformation of the Woodland Park Zoo. Under his leadership, the city's zoo became a leader in its field, "long recognized as a world leader in innovative design" (Worland, 56).

Setting a Lifelong Pattern

David Lawrence Towne, the youngest of three boys, was born at home on Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle, to Myra and Arthur Towne, the island's school administrator, on December 1, 1931. The family later moved to the Skagit County town of Burlington where Arthur Towne became the head administrator for local schools. Dave Towne's memories of his Northwest childhood were happy ones, including summers spent on Bainbridge and Samish islands, where he learned to love the outdoors, swimming, fishing, crabbing, and picking blackberries for his mother's pies.

Just before America entered World War II, the family moved to the town of Auburn, in King County south of Seattle, where once again Arthur Towne headed the local school system. Auburn was then a rural, working-class community and included many Japanese Americans who operated truck farms and dairies that provided nearby Seattle with fresh food. Towne was in fifth grade when his classmates of Japanese ancestry were sent to relocation camps in 1942. Seventy-five years later Towne recalled, "It was a big shock. They were an important part of the community." (All quotations in this essay, except where another source is identified, come from Kathrine Beck's interviews with Dave Towne in December 2016 and January 2017.)

Later, at Auburn High School, the sociable Towne was on the football team, played clarinet in the orchestra, and sang in the choir. He was still in high school when his father's career took the family to Renton, a little closer to Seattle. Dave Towne was enthusiastic about the move. "Renton seemed like the big city. There were more girls, and a football team that had won a state championship." He went on to the University of Washington in Seattle, where he pledged the same fraternity his father and older brothers had joined, but he only lasted one quarter. "I didn't want to do what my parents wanted me to do and I knew if I took their money, I would have to."

Energetic and adventurous, he was called up by the Navy Reserve during the Korean conflict, but flunked the physical because of allergies. Undaunted, he joined the Merchant Marine where he served aboard a troopship that ferried military personnel across the Pacific to Korea. As the only non-African American working as a waiter in the officers' mess, he got the nickname Whitey. He thoroughly enjoyed shipboard life and "saved a bunch of money."

Now able to go to college on his own dime, Towne enrolled at San Diego State College as a business major. Later he remembered those years fondly, especially "great beaches" and excursions to the desert in Mexico with his friends: "I loved my youth. I really enjoyed myself. And it set a lifelong pattern of having fun and developing friendships that led to career opportunities."

Starting a Career

Two years later, the money ran out and he shipped out again. "I went back to the Merchant Marine as an engine-room fireman and water tender, hauling supplies to Alaska, Japan, and Korea." Returning to San Diego State, he began working his way through school selling rototillers and picking avocados, but when the Korean War ended, a post-war recession made jobs harder to find, and he came home to Renton.

Back at the University of Washington, Towne took business classes, living and working as a busboy at a sorority house. He also found a job in the Renton Parks and Recreation Department, coaching athletics for young people and chaperoning teen dances. In 1957 he married Sally Stevens, who had been a classmate at Renton High School, and soon they had a daughter, Susie. By the time he graduated in 1958:

"I was sick of school and I was also sick of working in the sorority. I had two jobs and a wife and a baby girl. I went to school in the mornings and worked from noon until eight at night. It was challenging."

After graduation, Towne began his career in Olympia in a job with the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. Towne traveled around the state to advise cities and counties on park issues, and hired lifeguards and staff for state park beaches. He liked the work, and he also learned a lot about politics. Towne recalled that Governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011) "was after the director, Charles Odegaard," noting that the governor didn't like the fact that Odegaard, who went on to serve as the much-admired president of the University of Washington, had the authority to help name members of the commission, something Rosellini wanted to be able to do himself. It was a difficult time, and Towne looked for a change.

Seattle Urban Renewal

In 1960 he became budget director for the City of Seattle Urban Renewal Department in the administration of Mayor Gordon Clinton (1920-2011). "There was lots of federal money for urban renewal, and there were potential projects at the University of Washington, around Seattle University, in Georgetown, and around the Pike Place Market, as well as a general program to encourage redevelopment in the Central Area," he recalled.

The projects were complex. One example Towne described was redeveloping an area in Georgetown that flooded every year:

"We bought probably 80 percent of the property -- dilapidated single-family housing -- raised the level about five or six feet, put in new utilities. And sold parcels for industrial development. United Parcel was a major new owner, which set the direction for a major future industrial park."

Towne was establishing himself as a deft political operative and a bridge builder. He was also setting the tone for his long career to come, bringing a natural optimism, cheerfulness, and amiability to the job. "Sometimes I didn't know what I was doing, but I had a great time ... I really enjoyed it because it was challenging, controversial, and exciting. We were changing the city and taking care of all kinds of blight."

Towne's job included both promoting and managing the projects, dealing with the legal challenges from citizens that faced every project, and ensuring compliance with complex federal regulatory requirements. In addition a big part of his job was to support the city's first open-housing commission, which had been formed to address the results of decades of racial discrimination in housing.

Looking back, Towne said that a reluctant public killed some programs that ended up happening years later, but without federal help:

"The Pike Place Market area was an urban renewal project and our market redevelopment plans got shut down by public vote, but the market has turned out now to be almost like what had been then proposed, surrounded by high rises. The market was in bad shape, and the plan was to tear it down and rebuild it. Architect Victor Steinbrueck [1911-1985] and other folks fought and won. It's ironic that it ended up being almost what the urban renewal planners had talked about then, except they didn't tear it down, and if we had done it then, 90 percent would have been paid by the feds."

Interlude at Boeing

After five years, Towne decided to take a new job at Boeing. David Junior had now joined daughter Susie in the Towne family and:

"I was spending a lot of time going to San Francisco to meet with federal officials and attending night meetings with citizens. I noticed that our neighbor who worked at Boeing seemed to be home every night. ... Again, I found a major challenge because I was coming in [to the job] brand new."

A short stint on the factory floor as a Boeing riveter during his high school years hadn't prepared Towne for his job working with airlines as a contract administrator. But he liked the new job, which included meeting a tight deadline to help deliver one of the first 747 commercial jetliners to customer TWA: "TWA was so anxious to have the airplane, and I spent three months negotiating hundreds and hundreds of changes and conditions to meet the specs."

But by 1971, after losing federal support for its supersonic transport, Boeing was laying off a lot of people. "They kept assuring me I wouldn't be laid off, but I was low man on the totem pole, so when I had the opportunity to take a [Seattle] city job in Parks and Recreation, I took it."

Superintendent of Parks

He became assistant superintendent of parks at a time of change, and two years later he was promoted to superintendent. There was a lot on his plate. In 1968, voters had passed a bond issue, Forward Thrust, which had given the department lots of new responsibility and lots of money. But, Towne said, "The problem was ... they weren't really geared up to handle it. ... We had all these obligations to build new swimming pools and parks, [renovate] community centers and so forth." The department also took on two former military properties to be transformed into parks -- the U.S. Army's Fort Lawton and Sand Point Naval Air Station -- which had not been expected, and was also buying up greenbelts around the city.

The changes came with community pressures. There was controversy over where to build an aquarium. Private plane owners wanted to retain the air strip at Sand Point that became Magnuson Park, and golfers wanted a course at Discovery Park, the former Fort Lawton. The pilots and golfers didn't get what they wanted.

However, after Native Americans and their supporters occupied Fort Lawton in 1970 to claim a base for urban Indians living in and around Seattle, Towne negotiated with Bernie Whitebear (1937-2000), founder of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation. Eventually, 20 acres was set aside for this purpose. Towne said, "Bernie and I got to be good friends and we negotiated a settlement that resulted in the Daybreak Star Cultural Center."

There was also funding for development of a master plan for Woodland Park Zoo, the first since the Olmstead plan of 1910. The result was the Bartholick Plan, named for its principal designer, architect George Bartholick. It would have placed a lid over Aurora Avenue -- State Route 99 -- reconnecting two parts of Woodland Park that had been separated by the highway in the 1930s, and expanded the zoo downhill into Lower Woodland Park, something that many park users strongly opposed. When Bartholick's plan was put to a public vote in late 1974, it was soundly defeated.

Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) formed a citizens' task force to help formulate a new plan for the zoo. British architect David Hancocks, who had a background in zoo architecture and had worked with Bartholick on the rejected plan, was named design coordinator. Towne told Jones & Jones, the Seattle design firm hired to do the work, to "feel free to dream" (Bierlein, 90) and they did.

The term "landscape immersion" was coined to describe a new approach in which zoo visitors were seen not as members of an audience to be entertained by animals as in a circus, but as visitors to an ecosystem. Large, naturalistic areas representing bioclimatic zones housing multiple plant and animal species would replace old-style cages and concrete pits. By 1976, the plan was approved by the City Council, work began, and Towne later appointed David Hancocks as zoo director.

In the midst of all of this activity, Towne wasn't happy. "I got really irritated, because here we were acquiring all this new responsibility and we weren't getting adequate money to maintain or operate, so I fought the mayor and his budget at the City Council." He noted that he also ran afoul of tension between Mayor Uhlman and civic activist Jim Ellis (b. 1921). "Uhlman saw him as a political threat and I think my downfall was working so closely with Ellis on the Freeway Park." Towne was concerned that this innovative downtown park, built on a lid over Interstate 5 and opened in 1976, had become viewed as crime-ridden and needed to be properly maintained and patrolled. Surrounding property owners helped the parks department with both maintenance and security.

Towne also worked with neighborhood recreation councils and the City Council to create a nonprofit group to use revenue the parks department was generating from fees and programs for park operations and improvements. This money had previously been deposited in the city's general fund. Towne was annoyed that millions in parks revenue "went straight to the city and I would have to go beg to get it back." His successful effort, said Towne, was viewed by the mayor's office as "somewhat treasonous, and they fought it, and tried to get the state auditor involved and when that didn't work they finally gave up, and the City Council approved the agreement with what became the Associated Recreation Council."

Working Around the Country

In 1977, when his term expired, Towne resigned, and soon joined design firm Jones & Jones, with which he had worked so closely on the transformation of the Woodland Park Zoo. Leaving the creative work to the landscape architects, he began to drum up business for the firm and provide his management and planning expertise to zoo and exhibit design projects around the country.

By 1981, he had successfully spun this role off into his own planning firm, doing private consulting with other clients as well, conducting a variety of zoo, aquarium, park, and recreation development studies and planning projects throughout the United States. He also worked on land management issues with Alaska Native corporations during a period where there was a lot of economic activity by Native corporations and communities because of land settlement claims related to the Alaska oil pipeline.

Towne, now divorced, was based in Seattle, but also had an apartment in Anchorage.

"But all that winter got old," he recalled. After his former employee, Zoo Director David Hancocks, left Seattle, Towne decided to go after the Woodland Park Zoo director job. He doubted he'd get it because of his rocky history with the mayor's office, but now there was a new mayor, Charles Royer (b. 1939), with whom Towne got along well. He was both surprised and pleased when he, the only local candidate, got the job.

Director of the Woodland Park Zoo

The zoo had made a lot of the changes begun during Towne's tenure as parks superintendent, but funding from prior bond issues had run out. "I told the mayor I would do it for a year or two until I got the zoo back on an even keel." Towne soon formed an alliance with what he called "the dynamic trio" -- Bob Davidson, a former congressional aide, and two lawyers, Dick Swanson and Gerry Johnson, the latter of whom who had also been an aide to U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson (1905-1989).

As leaders of the Seattle Zoological Society the three were, along with Seattle Post-Intelligencer publisher Virgil Fassio, strong advocates for building a proper home for the zoo's elephants and for establishing stable zoo governance. Towne also inherited a 50-member zoo commission chaired by Walter B. Williams (1921-2006), a former state senator who would also play a crucial role in some of the big changes to come.

In 1987, while serving as zoo director, Dave Towne married Chris Smith (b. 1934) in the zoo's historic Rose Garden. The couple had known each other professionally for years, but got to know each other better when they worked together on a state outdoor recreation committee. Chris shared Dave's energy and enthusiasm for public service, and her impressive resume in government and as an environmental advocate included serving on the Bellevue City Council, where she had become an expert in getting park bonds passed and acquiring major parks and open spaces on the Eastside of Lake Washington. She had also worked with the Washington Office of Community Development and the Association of Washington Cities. And, in 1974, she had been appointed to the Pollution Control Hearings Board, a job she left in 1980 to manage the successful gubernatorial campaign of John Spellman (b. 1926).

Towne said that at the outset of his time as zoo director it was clear to him that the City Council had too many other priorities and wasn't particularly interested in supporting the zoo, so he and his allies laid the groundwork for a countywide bond issue to provide zoo funding. The zoo had always been a city responsibility, but residents throughout King County enjoyed the zoo and took pride in it. The 1985 bond issue made it onto the ballot with support from both city and county leadership. It was the first time ever that voters throughout King County had been asked to support a city institution. "Everyone predicted it wouldn't work," Towne recalled. It passed, however, with more than 70 percent of the vote.

"Be careful what you wish for ... We had a bunch of money, and then the problems really began." Towne was now responsible for a major redevelopment of the 100-year-old institution with a $60 million public and private funding package. Oversight increased dramatically, as now the county and a bond oversight committee were asking for a new long-range plan and detailed schedules of the many changes that would take place.

"But everything turned out great," said Towne. The zoo received international recognition and five top exhibit awards for its innovative redevelopment during this period. An Asian Elephant Forest exhibit, Tropical Rain Forest exhibit, Education Center, ZooStore, Animal Health Complex, Northern Trail exhibit and Trail of Vines exhibit -- including a first-of-its-kind tree-top habitat for orangutans -- were built between 1987 and 1996. In 1994 alone, more than 16 acres of new facilities and exhibits were opened. The zoo also took on ambitious new roles in education, global conservation, and scientific research, and established partnerships with academic and research institutions and environmental groups.

Getting the Zoo Out of City Government

Towne's successes didn't go unnoticed. In 1997 he was named "Public Employee of the Year" by the King County Municipal League and was elected president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an organization representing more than 230 institutions in the United States and around the world that sets animal care standards and supports scientific research, conservation, and education programs.

Meanwhile, a newly established zoo commission was making recommendations about the future of the Woodland Park Zoo. The commission's advice was to move management of the zoo from government to a non-profit entity. Towne agreed, and believed this approach would stabilize funding as well as encourage more private gifts.

Towne said that one of his intentions when he had signed on as zoo director in the first place was to get the zoo out of city government: "The parks department was the wrong place, because it was too vulnerable." He noted that during his tenure as director:

"We were trying to develop a strong-enough Zoo Society and we kept giving them more important roles in management -- docents, food services, gifts, and so forth. In 1998 or 1999 the stars lined up and we had a progressive mayor, Paul Schell [1937-2014], and a supportive city council. What we did was I stepped down as director and became the executive director of the zoo society, to help negotiate the agreement to change governance of the zoo."

A Second Career and an Active Retirement

In 2000, after a long career in public service, Dave Towne officially retired as director of the zoo and immediately began serving as executive director of the Zoo Society. After two years in that role, he retired again at the age of 70, but he remained involved in zoo affairs and also found himself embarked on a second career.

He was asked to serve as an interim director of the Los Angeles Zoo for two years, and subsequently served as a consultant to the San Francisco and Honolulu zoos. After that, he commuted between Seattle and Tucson, supporting the Reid Park Zoo Society. "It was a great transition from being a big shot and evolving out of the business."

Towne didn't fully retire until he was 79. Since then, he and his wife Chris have remained very active in civic life, supporting various non-profit entities, serving on boards, and participating in fundraising campaigns, while finding time for travel and family, sharing five children, eight grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.


Kathrine Beck interviews with Dave Towne, December 8, 2016 (in person) and December 16, 2016, and January 5, 2017 (by telephone), Seattle, notes in possession of Kathrine Beck, Seattle, Washington; John Bierlein and the Staff of Historylink, Woodland: The Story of the People and Animals of Woodland Park Zoo (Seattle: University of Washington Press, forthcoming 2017), pp. 83-162; Justin Worland, "The Future of Zoos," Time, February 27, 2017, pp. 56-61.

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