Shoehorned into a leftover site, this tiny waterfront park
has helped revive a withered downtown on Puget Sound.
By Mark Hinshaw
Only a few years ago, the future of Bremerton, Washington,
seemed pretty bleak. Like many American towns in the 1970s, it saw the start of
a long, slow decline in its downtown, with department stores and shops
decamping for suburban malls. Even the decades-long presence of a U.S. naval
shipyard right next door to the downtown could not staunch the rapid emptying
out of the center. At the beginning of the 21st century, Bremerton
distinguished itself within the rapidly growing metropolitan region of Puget
Sound as the only city to actually lose population. Those were tragic times for
this waterfront community of more than 35,000. Despite being linked to Seattle
by huge car-carrying ferries and sporting a waterfront offering spectacular
views of snow-capped mountain ranges, Bremerton was a poster child for urban
disinvestment. Several attempts to revive it fell flat.
Part of the problem was that the community was mired in the
past, with no clear vision of the future. Many downtown properties were owned
by the Bremer family, heirs to the city’s founder, and those buildings and
sites languished. There were no strong voices, and the city government was
burdened by a “good ol’ boy” culture combined with complacency and
confusion—hardly a recipe for success.
Then leadership emerged from new sources: The ebullient head
of the local housing authority saw his agency as more than merely a provider of
below-market housing—he saw it as a tool for jump-starting reinvestment. The
chief executive of the local transit authority was successful in helping build
a new bus transit center serving both ferries and buses. And a dynamic new
mayor, Cary Bozeman, was elected. A big-picture politician, he surrounded
himself with aggressive people and gave them the charge of changing the
Bozeman’s prior jobs as mayor of another city that turned
itself around and as head of a well-regarded regional social service agency
showed him that strategic public actions could make a huge difference. He was
particularly attuned to how the building of well-designed, dramatic public
spaces can transform a community’s self-image and attract private investment as
well. Through a public/private development partnership, he provided the city
with its first-ever town square, leading from the city center to the waterfront
and a previously built esplanade.
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