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Sunday, December 7, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Kitsap kicks it up: The peninsula's 'downtown' aims to pull itself out of the doldrums

Special to The Times

Bremerton is central to a contest our region can't afford to lose: maintaining our esteemed quality of life while encouraging high-density "smart growth" and economic development in appropriate urban settings.

For Puget Sound to thrive, the city centers of Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, Everett and Bremerton — each a work in progress — must also thrive.

Downtown Bremerton has been declared officially blighted since 1977 — its life sucked away by suburban Kitsap malls, and bad fortunes prolonged by poor land-use planning, defeatism and wearisome political squabbling.

Now, the determined new mayor, Cary Bozeman, is spearheading the current transformation. Over the next four years, more than $200 million in public and private investment is expected to fuel completion of 10 major construction projects, and could jumpstart a new city economy in what had been a dank, dying zone. Cranes and work crews are already in motion.

Meanwhile, another $100 million investment in low-income and market-rate housing, as well as retail development, is planned adjacent to downtown. More downtown projects are in the works.

Some numbers help explain Bremerton's predicament. The city's 2003 population of 38,604 barely exceeds the 1962 total of 37,000. Few residential property owners are invested in the community. While 63 percent of dwelling units in Kitsap County are owner-occupied, only 37 percent are in Bremerton.

Yet, from the sixth floor of the Bremerton Government Center now under construction, downtown's picturesque setting and commercial viability are both evident. The snowy peaks of The Brothers glisten in the Olympic range to the west. Back the other way, the scenic Port Washington Narrows snakes in from Sinclair Inlet, past the emerging Bremerton Harborside project, a $48 million conference center and mixed-use complex that is the cornerstone of the city's hoped-for rebirth.

Bremerton's skyline could eventually look like that of today's gleaming and modern downtown Bellevue, which wouldn't be entirely coincidental. Bozeman, 62, began public service as a brash young City Council member in then-stodgy Bellevue, circa 1977. He ultimately served three terms as mayor there, providing strong leadership on downtown development, transportation, recreation and social services.

Now, as in Bellevue, he hopes to ease height caps on downtown Bremerton buildings to attract more investment in multistory, water- and mountain-view office buildings. Bremerton's current height limit is 100 feet, or 10 stories; Bozeman would like to double that. He may take some knocks, as a result.

But Puget Sound must continue growing up, literally and figuratively. Unfortunately, too often it seems we'd rather bask in the warm, progressive aura of encouraging high-density development, transit and environmental efficiency, without actually making the hard choices necessary to achieve the vision.

Just as a radical re-imagining may be necessary for downtown Seattle (possibly including eased height limits), so too must the West Sound's designated urban center — Bremerton — dream big.

What might that mean? For starters, as downtown Bremerton rebuilds itself now, vexing land-use problems that prolonged its lifelessness can be solved.

Bremerton's waterfront has long been dominated by the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and parking for Bremerton-Seattle car ferry commuters. Much of downtown's interior has been taken by sprawling surface parking lots, for shipyard workers.

That's changing, though. With a federal appropriation brought home by U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, the shipyard will build a six-story, 1,000-space garage, available free to downtown visitors on evenings and weekends.

And just north of Harborside, waterfront parcels now mostly used for ferry-rider parking will house 210 condominium units developed by the Kitsap Consolidated Housing Authority. There will be 315 below-street-grade parking stalls for residents and guests. Ferry riders will be able to use two-thirds of Harborside's 525 below-street spaces.

The Navy will also bring more life to the water's edge. A slice of the shipyard bordering the downtown ferry terminal and now off limits will become part of a maritime park, providing close-up water views, pedestrian connections into downtown's heart, and a new naval history museum in a relocated 1896 Navy building.

Though not yet fully funded, a 3.5-mile loop trail along the Narrows would further integrate downtown with surrounding waterways.

Partnering with the county and city on Harborside is Opus Northwest, a major office and industrial developer. The project includes a conference center; a high-end waterfront restaurant (perhaps an Anthony's Homeport); a 110-room Hampton Inn with several upscale waterfront suites; and a spectacular waterfall symbolizing the fight of salmon returning to native rivers for spawning. There will be a floor of offices, and five storefronts (a Starbucks is likely).

A stone's throw from Harborside lies what could become the West Sound's Pike Place Market. Working with the property owner, the Bremer Trust, Bozeman hopes to convert the 80,000-square-foot ground floor of the old J.C. Penney department store into a farmers' market, with artists' stalls and food service.

Real estate sources also say a downtown movie multiplex is a distinct possibility. Already draws are the established downtown arts district; the classy, restored art deco Admiral Theatre; and, across a nearby bridge, the hip Manette neighborhood and a new ice arena. Other attractions include nearby golf courses, the Olympic Peninsula, and the scenic, 60-minute car-ferry ride to downtown Seattle.

Bremerton is also casting a net for recreational boaters, who quietly pack a large economic wallop in Western Washington. The Port of Bremerton marina, now badly underutilized, will be improved with a wider, longer breakwater to buffer guests' vessels from the heavy waves of arriving and departing car ferries. Slips will be expanded to 200 from 50.

Rounding out the 10 initial downtown projects are a Kitsap Credit Union headquarters office building; an ambitious and controversial underground tunnel to funnel vehicles on and off car ferries; a new police and courts headquarters; and a new fire station and department headquarters. Major streetscape improvements are planned, too.

Funding sources for the whole mix include private capital, public bonds, real estate excise taxes, federal appropriations, and state and county grants.

Remaking Bremerton will require social, as well as financial, capital. Bozeman plans to convene a community diversity commission to develop strategies ensuring racial and sexual minorities are welcome as workers, residents and community leaders. "White old fogies" can't run the show alone, Bozeman says.

All told, it's a vigorous effort to pull a city out of the doldrums. Bozeman says his inspiration comes from Theodore Roosevelt's words: "At the best, know the triumph of high achievement, and at worst, if failing, fail while daring greatly so your place will never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

If he pulls off this turnaround in blue-collar Bremerton, Bozeman — who lost a close 1993 race for King County Council — ought to be considered for higher office one of these days.

Bozeman's personal story is compelling. He and his two siblings were left in a New Orleans orphanage by their father and raised in a series of foster homes. Bozeman landed in Seattle in the mid-'50s with an aunt and uncle, and later graduated from the University of Washington, working as a farm laborer, grocery delivery boy and truck dispatcher along the way.

He built strong community bonds over 25 years as executive director of the Bellevue and King County chapters of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. He moved to Bremerton in 1996 to become executive director of the Olympic College Foundation; in 2001, he bested opponents, including embattled two-term incumbent Lynn Horton, to become mayor.

Yet, while Bremerton may bounce back with Bozeman at the helm, success isn't assured. Bremerton is almost an island, and needs far better water transit. Unfortunately, Kitsap County voters recently stiff-armed a tax package backed by Bozeman and others that would have complemented state car ferry service with three passenger-only ferry routes serving Kitsap ports, including Bremerton. A scaled-down proposal will have to be formulated, likely involving a private operator.

Another problem facing Bremerton is outdated housing stock: A lot of today's bargain properties require major modifications.

But investment in community is a measurable, crucial index of hope, and a pathway for navigating uncertain times.

So, watch Bremerton closely. This small city at the precipice embodies the hard challenge of spreading opportunity and wealth more equitably across the region.

In the long run, as goes Bremerton, so goes Puget Sound.

E-mail Matt Rosenberg at oudist@nwlink.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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