[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.]
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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Outdated versions of this plan are still available on the website of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.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?