Here is a column I wrote last year about the nice proposal being frog-marched out of the picture:
A greater Kennedy Plaza, yet again
April 25, 2013
On Monday morning, my bus was at least 20 minutes late. Tired of waiting, I returned home, got in the car and drove to work. Notwithstanding the ambitious new plan for Providence’s Kennedy Plaza, job one for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, which is listed as a “participating stakeholder” in the plan, remains running an effective bus system.
The plan was announced last Thursday afternoon to about 400 local movers and shakers jammed into the ballroom on the 17th floor of the Biltmore Hotel. Attendees squeezed near its tall, arched windows could see the plaza below. Mayor Angel Taveras quipped that he was glad that the fire marshal was not present.
The other three participating stakeholders, aside from RIPTA, are the Providence Foundation, the Biltmore Hotel and Cornish Associates, which is involved in redeveloping the Industrial Trust tower, the plaza’s “super” neighbor, of which nothing was said. The City of Providence and the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy are the clients for what is being called Greater Kennedy Plaza. And it seems that if the plan is carried out, Kennedy Plaza will indeed be greater.
The plan would maintain the plaza’s primary role as a public-transit terminal and keep the intermodal station built in 2002, but it would push the bus kiosks out to the plaza’s edges to make more space for a wider range of public and private activities. The bus lanes would be eliminated, iron rails around Burnside Park removed, and the skating rink would be devoted to a wider range of things to do and given four new two-story buildings. More tables and chairs would be scattered around the plaza, which would also get a graceful new building for a café. It would be open to the air.
The plan owes an intellectual debt to the New Urbanist movement (that is, the old urbanism) and the pedestrian-friendly ideas of the Project for Public Spaces, a pathbreaking nonprofit in New York City.
The dream of improving Kennedy Plaza goes back a long, long way. It has been a center of traffic and transit, and a public square, since the 1840s. Back then, the entrance to the old Union Passenger Depot jutted well into what was called Exchange Place, all the way to the midpoint of today’s bus nexus. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln spoke near where the federal courthouse is today. By 1960, when John F. Kennedy spoke, the old Cove Basin (where Waterplace Park is today) had long since been filled in and the new Union Station, finished in 1898, was situated so as to make room for City Hall Park, Burnside Park and the space that, in 1964, was renamed Kennedy Plaza.
Back then, today’s bus nexus was a garden bounded by slant parking, around which teenagers used to circle in their parents’ cars. Back then, Francis Street carried vehicles from the State House through a sea of parking, over the Woonasquatucket River, under Union Station, emerging beneath its drab gray parking deck between Burnside and City Hall parks (where the skating rink is today). In those days, buses stopped at bus stops along the streets of downtown. No central bus terminal was needed, at least not then, and maybe not now.
Notwithstanding a comment at last week’s shindig by former mayor (now U.S. Rep.) David Cicilline, today’s Kennedy Plaza is among its loveliest versions. Please, Congressman, do not call it “ugly.” The intermodal station is attractive, extraordinarily so for a bus station developed in the late 20th Century. Its kiosks are as pleasing as any built in America in recent decades. The plaza has been kept clean, and is not the hotbed of crime that its detractors imagine, even though few of its denizens attended the plan’s announcement last week.
The plan’s lead designer is Union Studio Architecture & Community Design, based downtown. Its hire seems to represent the city’s recognition, at last, that traditional design is not out of place in the Creative Capital. Far from it. It builds upon the city’s architectural heritage rather than eroding it, hence strengthens the state’s economy rather than weakening it.
Indeed, the effort to revive Kennedy Plaza as the city’s main public square tacitly recognizes — even though few in the design community will admit it — that modern architecture has undermined the ability of Waterplace Park to serve that role, except on WaterFire nights.
Union Studio’s design is elegant, but the plan is not complete nor (to say the least) fully funded. And it is not without flaws, which I hope to consider soon. Still, it is a serious plan based on important new ideas about urban design. It carries forward the spirit of recent projects that have helped return life to the city.
So, very nice. But Greater Kennedy Plaza’s greatness is likely to remain elusive if, among other things, the buses that serve the city and the state are allowed to fail in their mission.
David Brussat is on The Journal’s editorial board (firstname.lastname@example.org). This column, with more illustrations, is also on his blog Architecture Here and There at providencejournal.com.