The baby-boomer generation of leaders has dropped the ball on developing great urban spaces, writes Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman. He explains controversial comments he made critical of lost opportunities for Seattle's waterfront.

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RECENTLY, I was both criticized and congratulated for making some blunt comments about Seattle’s failure to improve its downtown waterfront during the past 50 years. Before a gathering of 25 mayors from around Washington state, I stated this great opportunity had gone unfulfilled because of a lack of visionary leadership — public and private. My speech was on the subject of the redevelopment of urban waterfronts and the lost art of creating great urban spaces in America.

I stand by my comments. I believe they apply to most cities in the United States. The fact is the baby-boomer generation has done very little to increase the inventory of great urban public spaces available to our citizens. Most of us are taking advantage of the projects built by our ancestors before we were born.

The boomers are great at building tall buildings but just try to find some real grass in the middle of most cities. When was the last Central Park built in an American city? Most urban waterfronts are an affront to American ingenuity. In my opinion — with few exceptions — they have been mostly neglected and unappreciated.

In Seattle’s case, it appears that an earthquake and a $2 billion tunnel belatedly will move the civic leaders to bring real change to its waterfront. So be it. Very few cities in the world have a waterfront potential to rival Seattle. I can only hope that the next generation of Northwesterners will be given the opportunity to enjoy a revitalized urban waterfront that puts people before cars, buses, trolleys and small shops selling hot dogs and beer.

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.

As a mayor, I think it is my obligation to leave things better than I found them and improve the quality of life for future generations. I have had the privilege of being mayor of two cities in the state of Washington, first Bellevue and now Bremerton. In both cases I had the opportunity to work on the creation of two great urban spaces. In Bellevue I was a member of a group of public and private leaders who had a dream of a major downtown park. It took 12 years from the dream, to the vision, to the funding, and finally to building one of the greatest downtown urban spaces in America.

Today, I still take my grandchildren to the Bellevue Downtown Park and watch as people enjoy an extraordinary urban space.

In Bremerton today we are working on the redevelopment of our downtown waterfront. We have taken a three-block area that was used mostly to park cars and created a public space that includes a plaza with fountains, a new marina that is open to the public and our new crown jewel, called Harborside Fountain Park. It is an urban waterfront space that has been acknowledged nationwide and it has been featured on the front covers of many regional and national magazines.

I understand the uproar that can come when someone who is a mayor of one community appears to criticize the leadership of another. That was not my intent.

But as citizens of Puget Sound, we are affected by the success or failure of Seattle’s ability to address this paramount long-term, quality-of-life issue. There are enthusiastic people in Seattle’s government and community groups who I know want to harness the potential of the Emerald City’s waterfront. If my words help to generate more spirited conversation about the elephant in the room, I’ll put up with the criticism that comes with it.

At the end of the day, our children and their children won’t remember any of this squabbling — they’ll be too busy enjoying another generation of great public spaces.

Cary Bozeman is mayor of Bremerton and previously served as mayor of Bellevue.