Developer Ron Sher, who resurrected Bellevue's Crossroads Mall and Lake Forest Park Town Centre, plans to turn the lifeless J.C. Penney building in downtown Bremerton into a commercial and community hub.

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Ron Sher has found another ugly duckling to transform.

Sher is the Bellevue developer and visionary who brought two failing suburban shopping centers back to life — not just as temples of commerce but as gathering places where people come to spend time as well as money.

One visitor labeled his first project, Bellevue’s Crossroads Mall, “a mall with soul.” When he repeated Crossroads’ success at Lake Forest Park Town Centre, fans said it had become the city’s living room, its heart.

Now Sher wants to resurrect the former J.C. Penney store in downtown Bremerton, a neighborhood that is just beginning to emerge from decades of neglect.

He bought the virtually windowless 1960s hulk in November for $8 million and plans to transform it into a retail-residential-community center that will become Bremerton’s town square.

Sher calls it Harborside Commons.

“This kind of stuff is what I’m passionate about,” he said during a recent tour of the property, which sprawls over most of a city block near the ferry terminal. “I love place-making. My whole thing is to be able to create these places that catalyze a community.”

Downtown Bremerton already was undergoing a revival before Sher came to town, thanks in part to new civic leadership and an infusion of government capital.

A conference center with a hotel, restaurant, offices and shops opened next door to the ferry terminal in 2004. Since then a new waterfront park, government center, marina, two office buildings and two mid-rise waterfront condominium complexes have been completed.

Another hotel and a short tunnel to funnel ferry traffic under part of downtown are under construction.

But the big J.C. Penney building, which covers nearly 2 acres, sits squarely in the center of all this new development, a silent reminder of past bad times.

The building, abandoned in the 1980s when the retailer moved to the Kitsap Mall in Silverdale, is now a parking garage.

“It’s the hole in the doughnut,” says P.J. Santos, of Opus Northwest, which developed the conference center complex.

Mayor Cary Bozeman says Harborside Commons is the key to bringing shops and shoppers back to downtown.

“This is going to be the centerpiece of the city,” he predicts. “And we couldn’t have a better developer because this is a developer with a social conscience.”

Sher comes from a family of developers. He’s a principal in a company that controls shopping centers, hotels and office buildings in Washington, California and New Jersey. He once co-owned the largest retail-leasing brokerage in the country.

But Sher doesn’t fit the developer stereotype. He’s been intrigued for decades by the notion that shopping centers could be places for social interaction as well as commercial transaction.

He got the idea from sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who has written that Americans lack but desperately need “third places” — informal, socially inclusive settings away from home and work where they can relax, connect, build community and foster democracy.

Sher has used Crossroads Mall and Lake Forest Park Town Centre as laboratories for Oldenburg’s theories.

In Lake Forest Park, for instance, there’s a “commons” with a stage where musicians perform on weekend nights. Couples and toddlers dance. Families fill big tables, eating food from one of the eateries on the periphery.

Knitting clubs, book groups and gamers hold regular meetings at the shopping center. The county library system and Shoreline Community College have branches there. Most days, an author reads at Sher’s Third Place Books, an anchor tenant.

There’s a giant chess board painted on the commons floor, with king-sized pieces. Sher says he plans to put one in Harborside Commons as well.

“I love the message it sends to people,” he says. “It says, ‘You can come here, you’re welcome here — and you don’t have to buy anything.’ “

Sher came to Bremerton at the mayor’s invitation. The two knew each other from Bozeman’s days on the Bellevue City Council in the 1980s, when Sher was beginning to redevelop Crossroads.

Bremerton had a $50,000 grant from the state to figure out what to do with the J.C. Penney property. It retained Metrovation, one of Sher’s companies, to conduct a feasibility study. The recommendation that emerged in January 2007 is much the same as what Sher proposes to do now.

During the study, the developer says, he began to appreciate Bremerton’s potential, and the commitment of Bozeman and other civic leaders toward realizing it.

“This compelled me,” says Sher, 66. “I didn’t know I was going to do another big project.”

The gutted building would be renovated, not replaced. Harborside Commons would include a grocery — downtown Bremerton doesn’t have one — a Third Place Books, fitness center, restaurants and more shops.

They would surround an indoor commons similar to the one at Lake Forest Park.

On top of the old building, Sher wants to do something he hasn’t done elsewhere: add four stories of apartments, targeted not just at Bremerton’s sailors and shipyard workers, but at downtown Seattle workers looking for affordable housing and a carless commute.

Downtown Bremerton will need new residents to help support the new retail, he reasons. And if the Central Puget Sound region is to accommodate 1.7 million more people by 2040, as planners project, underused places such as downtown Bremerton will need to play a big part.

“With the ferry, it really is transit-oriented development,” Sher says.

Altogether, he figures, Harborside Commons will cost at least $70 million.

He says he hopes to break ground in early 2010, but obstacles remain.

Sher, who says, “I really am not a housing guy,” wants a joint-venture partner to develop the apartments.

He’s also banking on federal tax credits that would allow him to finance the project at below-market interest rates, with interest-only payments for the first seven years. He says he should know whether they’re available by early next year.

Then there’s the lousy economy, which has cooled development activity across the country.

Downtown Bremerton has felt the chill. Units in the two new condo complexes are selling slowly. A brand-new office building hasn’t signed a tenant.

But Sher says the downturn hasn’t altered his plans for Harborside Commons one bit: “I’m just plowing ahead, oblivious to all this stuff.”

Over the summer, he sponsored free outdoor movies on the roof of the old building — to get people to start thinking of it as a destination, he says.

Sher has become one of downtown Bremerton’s biggest cheerleaders. The neighborhood could provide lofts for artists displaced from increasingly expensive Seattle neighborhoods, such as Georgetown, he says.

And it could become more attractive to downtown Seattle workers if money and environmental approvals materialize for a faster, passenger-only ferry. Kitsap Transit has ordered a prototype boat it plans to start testing next year.

Sher has acquired a second property in downtown Bremerton, a 60-year-old office building a block from the J.C. Penney building that he plans to renovate into Class A space.

And he says he may not done buying.

“I want every building in downtown Bremerton to be a building people would want to visit at least once a month,” Sher says. “I want to make things happen here. If it takes ownership, I’ll do it.”

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or