Let’s ruin Kennedy Plaza

Kennedy Plaza renovation as pictured in a rendering provided by the Department of Planning & Development.

Kennedy Plaza renovation as pictured in a rendering provided by the Department of Planning & Development.

[This is not my weekly column in The Providence Journal. It is a post on my blog Architecture Here and There. I am on a week’s vacation.]

* * *

Rendering of latest Kennedy Plaza design. (City of Providence)

Rendering of latest Kennedy Plaza design. (City of Providence)

Rendering of latest Kennedy Plaza design. (City of Providence)

Rendering of latest Kennedy Plaza design. (City of Providence)

Plan of latest Kennedy Plaza design. (City of Providence)

Plan of latest Kennedy Plaza design. (City of Providence)

Rendering of Union Studios design of Kennedy Plaza.

Rendering of Union Studios design of Kennedy Plaza.

Bird's eye view of Union Studio's design of Kennedy Plaza.

Bird’s eye view of Union Studio Architects’ design of Kennedy Plaza.


Bird’s eye view of Union Studio’s design of Kennedy Plaza.

Plan of Union Studio's design of Kennedy Plaza.

Plan of Union Studio’s design of Kennedy Plaza.

View of Kennedy Plaza as it exists today. (meetingsquest.com)

View of Kennedy Plaza as it exists today. (brendaleetroiaphotography.com)

View of Kennedy Plaza as it exists today. (brendaleetroiaphotography.com)

View of Kennedy Plaza as it exists today. (brendaleetroiaphotography.com)

For an urban city bus hub, Kennedy Plaza’s intermodal station, its five waiting shelters and its fancy pavement lined with black railings, bollards, period lampposts and delicate street trees beat the pants off most civic squares around the world for beauty, even those that do not serve double duty as bus hubs – and ours serves single duty as a bus hub. Providence has hosted its transit patrons, including me, in high style for just a dozen years.

Now it seems we can say good-bye to all that – and hello to the ugly urban duckling, pictured above, whose groundbreaking is to be sprung on us this week.

Outdated versions of this plan are still available on the website of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. The earlier versions at least retained the five lovely shelters. Their design brought a bit of Paris and its Art Nouveau, suitably understated, to downtown Providence.

In the latest plan, pushed by city officials, the shelters are jettisoned, though the lampposts survive, joined by new “minimalist” shelters that seem out of sync with the lampposts. A bosk of trees will be added. The two outside bus lanes will be filled in and the bus island will expand to make room for a central space that could become Providence’s version of Boston’s bleak and windswept piazza adjoining its Brutalist-style City Hall.

Observers pulling their chins in disbelief must be wondering what ever happened to the nice plan for a civic square designed by Union Studio Architects. Either that traditional plan is going to be shoehorned into a plaza purged of its charms by modernist design, or it has been frog-marched quietly out of the picture.

The visual allure of a civic plaza is of vital importance, but its purpose trumps even that consideration. Mayor Taveras, who is said to have been impressed by Union Studio’s vision, wants to turn Kennedy Plaza from a bus hub into a civic square. Swell. But city officials seem to think people will use the civic square without being turned off by its sterile new look, even as they are still quite literally surrounded by a bus hub.

An unspoken thought running through the long discussion of the plaza’s future is that the two groups of citizens – bus riders and users of the planned civic square – don’t mix very well. So, in obedience to an unacknowledged social agenda, the plan would move as many bus riders as far from Kennedy Plaza as possible, but leave enough behind to plausibly deny a motive that would understandably make planners, city officials and the mayor uneasy.

For four years I’ve stepped off the bus at Kennedy Plaza at least once or twice a week in the morning and waited for it almost as often in the evening. For 11 years before that I lived a block away from Kennedy Plaza. Maybe I’m an unusually unobservant journalist, but I’ve never seen the criminal activity so many seem to attribute to denizens of the plaza. They do not lack for scruffiness, but their usual good behavior entitles them to occupy the plaza no less than anyone else. They have as much right to benefit from changes in its operation.

City Hall posted a time-lapse video of Kennedy Plaza between 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012. The intent was apparently to suggest that the plaza is outmoded as a bus hub, since ridership on RIPTA has increased 11 percent. But in fact, condensed into about three minutes, the video shows the bus hub at peak efficiency, handling hundreds of riders with a minimum of fuss.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Kennedy Plaza ain’t broke. A successful civic square already exists directly across Washington Street. It is called Burnside Park. Still, if the plaza must be changed for the civic good, the city should not adopt half measures. Here’s what to do:

Scrap the current Kennedy Plaza plan. End the plaza’s status as a bus nexus. Redraw bus lines through downtown so that riders get on and off the bus at bus stops up and down the streets of downtown, as in the past here and as in most other cities. Extend Burnside Park to Kennedy Plaza, creating a New York-style Central Park for Providence, one that looks like it belongs in the capital of Rhode Island.

I proposed this in a 1992 column (“Postcard from Providence, 1997”) published more than two decades ago. Nobody listened then, and with groundbreaking on Tuesday it may be too late now. This Kennedy Plaza project has changed its character very quickly, very quietly, and is now being rammed down the public’s throat well in advance of a public referendum on two new downtown bus hubs whose existence, if approved, would deeply affect its rationale. Why?


About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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10 Responses to Let’s ruin Kennedy Plaza

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  6. Michael J. Tyrrell says:

    David, The new proposal is absolutely horrendous -a cop out! I concede that the very real, however occasional nuisance my wife and I experience among the steadfast -and too often annoying hordes who loiter at KP are the lesser of two lousy choices. If the City can’t remake KP right (using an approach such as you recommended long ago) then don’t remake it until adequate funding has been secured.


  7. barry says:

    Good post David, making a lot of good points including questioning the need for the project, the bad design, the bad timing in getting started now, the lack of interlining bus routes (where buses run thru the center and out the other side) – I hope it gets attention from the authorities!
    I’ll add the with Exchange Terrace going two-way, if the city really wanted a pedestrian oriented plaza why are they insiting that there be 3 eastbound auto routes thru the Plaza, including Washington St right in the middle??


  8. Randall Rose says:

    Why is there no mention of the fact that Kennedy Plaza’s heated snow-melting system will be removed as part of this boondoggle? After this construction is done riders will have to run long distances to change buses, no matter what the weather.
    Most Rhode Islanders I talk to don’t believe that any of the much-hyped plans for the Kennedy Plaza area will live up to their billing. There is only a limited amount of funding so far — enough to make a new walkway in Burnside Park and to carry out this year’s construction projects in the plaza itself (as you mention, this year’s construction will make matters worse on the whole). But there’s not enough funding identified for the grander plans, which is why most of us believe that nothing on that scale will get built. Too many people in the media hype the hypotheticals of these unfunded plans, fail to ask the obvious questions about whether they’re realistic, and ignore the damage that the Kennedy Plaza construction is doing to our economy and our quality of life. These media cheerleaders need to face serious questions. The fact that so many people are eager to worsen service on RIPTA, one of our state’s most cost-effective ways to lower unemployment and to help people get to education, exemplifies why our state is in the mess it’s in.


  9. Mark Moreno says:

    The atrocious final design might have to do with Union studios plan being too expensive, but that’s no excuse to create a absolutely terrible public space. I guess atrociously bad modernism is now the new hip thing in urban design and architecture.


  10. Sam says:

    Wow, the second proposal is leaps and bounds above the one provided by the city. It’s human scaled and well defined public space vs. abstract windswept plaza.


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