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Bremerton's Harborside District


On Architecture: Bremerton could teach Seattle a lesson about its waterfront

By LAWRENCE CHEEK
SPECIAL TO THE P-I

It's great exercise, physical and mental, to walk Seattle's downtown waterfront, then hop the ferry to Bremerton and check out its rapidly recovering Harborside District. More planners, architects and voters should do it.

It might seem unfair to compare Seattle's 34-year-old Waterfront Park and Bremerton's year-old Harborside Fountain Park, but it's no more unbalanced than comparing the small city's resources with Seattle's.

"We had no money," says Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman, the hammer behind the park and other recent downtown renovations. "Everything's been done through partnerships with state and federal government. No tax increases. We've had to be pretty creative."

When Bozeman arrived in Bremerton in 1993 -- he had been a city councilman and the mayor of Bellevue -- he found a decaying downtown and a waterfront mainly being used for naval shipyard parking. When he canvassed the town in his first run for office in 2002, he heard from a lot of proud people who were deeply angry that downtown had been left to rot. Once elected, he says, "We knew we had a mandate."

Bozeman hired Gary Sexton, a lawyer and avocational landscape designer, as the city's director of economic development. Sexton assembled the deals and stood out in the winter rain orchestrating placement of trees and boulders. He dodged committees and commissions. When the parks director told him he couldn't place two climbable stone sculptures close together in the children's play area -- kids might fall off one and bash heads on the other -- he renamed it an "interactive art area" and situated the rocks where he wanted.

Mark another reason comparisons may be unfair: no Seattle Process in Bremerton.

But Bozeman and Sexton started with a baseline philosophy that ought to operate everywhere: The waterfront belongs to the people. Although much of Bremerton's harbor was long ago gobbled by the naval shipyard, Bozeman's administration has worked furiously to return as much as possible to public use while creating tangible connections to the city's Navy history.

In place so far are the 1.7-acre Harborside Fountain Park, the Heritage Naval Museum, the Kitsap Conference Center and adjacent Hampton Hotel, a pair of midrise condos and a new 360-slip marina. Coming next spring will be a 960-foot tunnel to extract ferry traffic and a 1.3-acre memorial plaza on its lid, tying into the fountain park. In a novel attempt to extend public water access, Bozeman and Sexton are hoping to build a 3,000-foot floating boardwalk north from the marina into the Port Washington Narrows.
center
Zoom Kristine Paulsen / P-I
The Kitsap Conference Center is a typical small-scale convention facility rendered slightly less dreary than most with a curtain wall offering views of the harbor. Doors to the big meeting rooms can be opened to invite some daylight and views inside.

So far, Harborside Fountain Park is the most successful piece. It's no stretch to call it spectacular.

A serpentine path of silvery Chinese granite pavers, vastly more attractive than the budget-friendly concrete alternative, weaves between colorfully landscaped hillocks, and a flotilla of copper-clad fountains periodically explodes with sculpted bursts of water. There's a perfect mix of open and secluded spaces and a generous scattering of granite rocks with slots, chutes and keyholes sculpted by Bremerton native Will Robinson.

The park's only defect is its shape. Squeezed between the shipyard and ferry terminal, it had to be perpendicular instead of parallel to the waterfront. Approaching Bremerton aboard the ferry, it's a sliver of foliage, with no sense of what a jewel it is.

The Conference Center by Seattle's LMN Architects is a typical small-scale convention facility rendered marginally less dreary than most with a curtain wall offering views of the harbor. Doors to the big meeting rooms can be flung open to invite at least some daylight and views inside. It's tantalizing enough to make you wish that, just once, a city and its architects would have the nerve to throw away all the conventions in designing a convention center and create something drenched with texture, color, spatial drama and daylight -- to hell with the PowerPoint presentations, which everyone hates, anyway.

The new marina is beautiful and spacious -- there's breathing room when backing yachts out of their slips -- and it features an unusual amenity in its 1,440-foot-long floating breakwater that serves as a public promenade.

Even the ferry access tunnel, currently under construction, goes out of its way to offer some underground scenery. Bremerton discovered some concrete molds for etched treescapes that were available after a highway project in Everett and bought them on the cheap.

Tying all the elements together is a comprehensive design branding for the whole downtown area, with street signs, lights and even trash cans all painted the same hue of "Long Beach Blue." North-south streets are landscaped with green Pacific Sunset maples; east-west with Crimson Century maples. The city even built greenhouses to keep fresh flowers pipelining into downtown. The intent, Bozeman says, is to establish a Bremerton brand on the order of Victoria or Sausalito.

Which suggests that sometime soon might be the best time for a Bremerton visit -- before the twee boutiquery arrives in the wake of all the municipal primping.

Bremerton's lesson for Seattle isn't about shopping or conventions, but in creative determination to make the waterfront a user-friendly, attractive public space. Seattle's downtown waterfront has most of its views choked off by pier buildings, much of its park space is worn and morose, and the relentless roar of the viaduct cancels out whatever sensory serenity the Elliott Bay view could provide. It's asking a lot for mighty but cumbersome Seattle to do what Bremerton has.

We're asking.

Article courtesy of Seattle Post Intelligencer. Image by Kristine Paulsen/P-I. Lawrence W. Cheek is a freelance writer on architecture and author of "Frank Lloyd Wright in Arizona." Contact him at escrito48@comcast.net.