Is Seattle's best mayor in Bremerton?

Cary Bozeman may have insulted Seattle's leadership, vision, and downtown icons with his blunt critique of the city, but he's mostly right.
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Cary Bozeman, former mayor of Bremerton and Bellevue.

Cary Bozeman may have insulted Seattle's leadership, vision, and downtown icons with his blunt critique of the city, but he's mostly right.

The Seattle mayoral race is slow to shape up with good candidates skipping it and others jumping in who are largely unknown or inexperienced. One interesting twist: possibly the best candidate to challenge Dear Leader Greg Nickels for the job is currently mayor of another city.

Some noses wrinkled with offense when Bremerton mayor Cary Bozeman recently made a few criticisms of Seattle during a meeting with state mayors. Bozeman described the Seattle downtown waterfront as an "insult to American ingenuity," complained about Aurora's "visual garbage" and called Pioneer Square a "less-than-mediocre public space."

Worse, his insults are largely true.

Snarky critics point out that Bremerton is no gem. Bloggers at the came to Seattle's defense hurling insults at the little guy across Puget Sound. Bremerton's hometown Kitsap Sun fired back.

But what's Bozeman's credibility? He has managed to spruce up the blue-collar shipyard town with parks, new businesses, a waterfront fix-up in what the Seattle Times described as "the biggest renovation of its downtown since World War II." And he's been helped by the fact that Bremerton has attracted Seattle refugees looking for cheaper by-the-Sound housing, a pretty ferry commute, and a sense that they've landed in the New Brooklyn.

Bozeman comes with another interesting credential: He's also been mayor of King County's second largest city, Bellevue. Bozeman has long been a dynamic, energetic player in civic transformation, a moderate, pro-business Democrat. He's on his second mayoral term in Bremerton and served On the Bellevue city council between 1976 and 1993 where he did three stints as mayor — pushing, among other things, for the downtown central park. Name another mayor who's played a key role in transforming two area cities. Name another guy with experience on both the east and west sides of Puget Sound. Name another guy as restless and civically ambitious as he is.

All of which suggests that Seattle might be foolish not to consider tempting an outside candidate like Bozeman with solid experience to actually tackle the job of running the city. We'd do that for police chief, for schools supe, for city librarian. Why not fish from a bigger pond?

Bozeman elaborated on his critique in a Seattle Times op/ed this week. First, he put his criticism in the context of many American cities that have failed to take full advantage of their waterfronts which are often caught in transition between working ports, tourist traps, and residential development. Seattle, in other words, is not alone. Bozeman writes:

I have a vision of a waterfront with an unobscured view of the water and the majestic Olympic Mountains. I see well-maintained grassy areas with pools of water where the kids can wade on hot days, great picnic areas, and memorable public art set in a forest of fir, alder and cedar. It would be a quiet waterfront where one can hear children's voices and the sound of the water slapping rocks against the shore.

This kind of urban space ultimately drives economic value by drawing investors and development that values such a place. But this can be accomplished only by leaders who have vision, a plan and the passion to make something terrific happen.

It sounds like Bozeman is at least partly inspired by projects like the beach at the Olympic Sculpture Park, which attempts to restore a piece of the shoreline to a pre-urban Seattle. Tough to do on the central waterfront with its piers (many historic landmarks), ferry and cruise ship terminals, etc. etc. But at least he's got an idea that's better than wide boulevards, too much surface traffic, and yuppified retailers.

One advantage of putting a major, forested park right on the water (maybe we could resurface and create a salmon stream too) is that it would serve as a reminder, and perhaps even a metric, of how we're doing with the clean-up of Puget Sound, the kind of metric you won't in old wharves or new condos. His biggest challenge would likely be finding any kids. By the time the project is remade, the last one might have left Seattle and turned out her nightlight.

Seattle is going to need someone with strong vision to reshape the waterfront now that the bored tunnel option is the accepted plan. The Alaskan Way Viaduct is going underground so focus needs to shift to what comes next. Recent history suggests that in addition to worrying about a Big Dig boondoggle underground we should also be worrying about the mess we can make aboveground. The city's track record managing big makeovers is not encouraging: Westlake, for one, was a complete dud, and the recent Seattle Center revisioning is more or less moribund and misconceived. So Bozeman, if nothing else, is putting his finger on a sore point that's bound to get a lot sorer.

His point about Pioneer Square hurts too because it's become downtown's stepchild where once it was a national showcase. Pioneer Square's preservation was, well, pioneering, but it's neglected. It lost its trollies while South Lake Union gained streetcars. Instead of urban vibrancy it has the feel of used goods. Danny Westneat says it's a poster-child of the recession:

No part of this city shows the economic doldrums as visibly as Pioneer Square. Empty storefronts mar most blocks. In the core 12-block area from Yesler to South King Street, I counted 21 shuttered businesses — with more rumored to be on the way.

The Smith Tower is arguably Seattle's most famous address. Yet today, 13 floors in the tower sit completely vacant (about half the square footage.) The street level is empty except for a Starbucks.

Down along Occidental Avenue South, the First Thursday art walk marches on. But "for lease" signs dot the bricked path. Fisher Fine Arts is gone. Last month the Susan Woltz Gallery folded.

"I think most of them are barely hanging on," said Robert Sargent, who runs The Press, an art and design specialty printer. On both sides of his little office/gallery on Occidental are empty storefronts.

But you don't need to be told this; you can see it yourself. Pioneer Square is a mishmash of loft dwellers, the homeless, skeezy bars, funky shops, gawking underground tourists, and spillover amenities for sports fans. Which would be cool except that skeezy, funky, and homeless are three of the least popular seven dwarves. Pioneer Square feels like a second-class neighborhood, a place the city doesn't quite know what to do with. Historic it is, but it's not what it used to be: a source of civic pride, a culturally rich, edgy neighborhood redeemed by its artists and eccentrics.

Bozeman's mini-critique of Aurora isn't particularly useful: sure it's ugly, but every city needs an Aurora or a Totem Lake or a Tukwila. I wouldn't be so quick to call what's there "garbage." Some agree with Bozeman, however. Seattle Times sketch artist Gabriel Campanario picked up on his comments and went out to put it on paper.

Sure, there are cars, wires, and dives, but no big city is without them. Even architect Victor Steinbrueck found a kind of charm in the city's wires, telephone poles, sign clutter, and dumpy districts, which he documented in his own published sketchbooks. But Bozeman's right to the extent that if Pioneer Square feels neglected, Aurora is essentially abandoned to the ultra-libertarianism of commercial design. It's a major highway largely defined by auto shops, scary motels, and exhaust fumes. It exists so the rest of us won't have to live next to what it provides, but it's fair to wonder if we can do better.

Seattle does not like outside criticism. Remember it was thin-skinned Nickels who pouted that he wanted to secede from the region, possibly the state, when Seattle didn't get its due. We're a city convinced of our rightness in all things and full of contempt to the Lilliputians around us. Undoubtedly, if Bozeman moved to Seattle and ran for mayor, he'd wind up being gobbled up by the Seattle Way. But for now we can imagine that the mayors are greener on the other side of Puget Sound's fence. And sometimes, they make good points.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.