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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

June 2008 Issue

Sound Investment
Shoehorned into a leftover site, this tiny waterfront park has helped revive a withered downtown on Puget Sound.

By Mark Hinshaw

Sound Investment

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 place—fast.

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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