Column: Kennedy Plaza’s future spins its wheels

Latest rendering of the design of Kennedy Plaza, with market event in vacant space. (RIPTA)

Latest rendering of the design of Kennedy Plaza, with market event in vacant space. (RIPTA)

Kennedy Plaza before demolition. (providenceri.com)

Kennedy Plaza before demolition. (providenceri.com)

This half of Kennedy Plaza was demolished over the summer. (brendaleetroiaphotography.com)

This half of Kennedy Plaza was demolished over the summer. (brendaleetroiaphotography.com)

Participants gather at steps of City Hall. (Photo by David Brussat)

Participants gather at steps of City Hall. (Photo by David Brussat)

Cliff Wood, with box, leads tour. (Photo by David Brussat)

Cliff Wood, with box, leads tour. (Photo by David Brussat)

Panel, including Raymond Studley (RIPTA), Buff Chase (Cornish Assoc.), Don Rhodes (RIPTA riders), Chris Ise (City Planning), Cliff Wood (Parks Conservancy) and Anne Tate (RISD). (Photo by David Brussat)

Panel, including Raymond Studley (RIPTA), Buff Chase (Cornish Assoc.), Don Rhodes (RIPTA riders), Chris Ise (City Planning), Cliff Wood (Parks Conservancy) and Anne Tate (RISD). (Photo by David Brussat)

Rendering of Kennedy Plaza. (RIPTA)

Rendering of Kennedy Plaza. (RIPTA)

Rendering of Kennedy Plaza. (RIPTA)

Rendering of Kennedy Plaza. (RIPTA)

Rendering of Kennedy Plaza. (RIPTA)

Rendering of Kennedy Plaza. (RIPTA)

Bus waiting shelter planned for Kennedy Plaza. (RIPTA)

Bus waiting shelter planned for Kennedy Plaza. (RIPTA)

Union Studios design for Kennedy Plaza, 2013. (Union Studios)

Union Studios design for Kennedy Plaza, 2013. (Union Studios)

Standing on the steps in front of City Hall, several people waited for a tour of Kennedy Plaza to begin, followed by a public discussion of its future. We wondered why the front doors of so many important Providence public buildings are closed to the public. One of these is City Hall itself. You may climb the steps but the ornamental gateway is closed, blocking the main portal through which one used to enter to visit the mayor’s office. Closed also, at least to the public, is the original Washington Street entrance to the Providence Public Library. The public enters through what appears to be the basement on Empire Street.

More to the point, the front doors of the bus depot at Kennedy Plaza have been closed since 2002, when the building, originally a comfort station erected in 1914, was expanded and transformed into a depot for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. Behind these closed doors, a substation of the Providence Police Department exists to monitor activities around Rhode Island’s main transit hub.

Mary Shepard, an urbanist who advocates reform of public spaces, says the front doors of the bus depot should be reopened. She is correct. All should be opened. Until they are, these closed entrance portals serve as metaphors for the topsy-turvy civic and political leadership of Providence.

This may be most evident in the Kennedy Plaza renovation project. In July, with minimal public input, evidently in haste and with no clear plan for its future, the city demolished the eastern half of Kennedy Plaza. After the tour, last night’s public discussion at the Aurora Club, sponsored by the New England chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, did little to allay the impression, four months later, that any coherent plan exists to turn the plaza into a civic square shared by bus riders and the broader public.

My own impression, gathered over 30 years of experience with Kennedy Plaza and as a twice weekly bus rider for the past five years, is that the bus hub operates with relatively little stress. A time-lapse video taken from City Hall in November 2012 shows how smoothly things go. I have never felt threatened waiting for a bus or walking through the plaza. Its subculture of hangabouts and alleged drug dealers makes some people nervous, and so, along with sophisticated new bus schedule information, more surveillance cameras are to be installed as part of the current upgrade. Fine. But more visible patrols by police officers would enhance safety much more effectively.

As for the need for bus riders to give way in some degree to other user groups of a Kennedy Plaza transformed into a civic square, Burnside Park and the skating rink next door serve the functions of such a square today. Children’s events, concerts, food trucks and other programming managed by the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy have worked well to animate the park.

There is always room for improvement, but in an era of tight budgets it seems unwise to spend money you don’t have to renovate a facility that works (Kennedy Plaza) in order to replicate the activities of another facility right next door that also works (Burnside Park). Even granting the desirability of the plaza’s renovation, isn’t that putting the cart before the horse?

Why, for that matter, didn’t the city wait for citizens to vote next month on state bond referendum No. 6 for money to help build a new transit hub at Providence Station? Its passage would certainly influence what is needed at the plaza. And yet last night’s fervent pleas from the dais to approve No. 6 suggest that advocates of the Kennedy Plaza plan believe that extra money sloshing around in the state transit trough might somehow spill over to help relieve their project’s money woes.

This kind of planning does not inspire confidence.

Instead of a new bus hub at the train station, a shuttle bus between Amtrak and Kennedy Plaza would serve the purpose of intermodal linkage at a very tiny fraction of the cost. The money saved might help to revive the attractive plan for the plaza by Union Studio Architects, announced in 2013. Cliff Wood, director of the parks conservancy, which has built up its constituency for changing the plaza on the basis of the allure of this plan, assured the audience last night that it had not been “frog-marched out of the picture.” Good! But he also said the plan might be too ambitious to bring to fruition.

Huh?

Does that mean we will be stuck for years with the “blank slate” now under construction, with its utilitarian bus shelters and wind-swept empty spaces? That is unlikely to foster Kennedy Plaza’s broader use as a civic square. A costly, unnecessary 180-degree shift in the design of the plaza seems an unlikely way to promote the phased implementation of a project amid an environment of public skepticism. But that is the tactic that has been adopted. Good work, guys!

 

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, 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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5 Responses to Column: Kennedy Plaza’s future spins its wheels

  1. Kate says:

    Thanks for a really interesting post. I too have been taking the bus to or through Kennedy Plaza for decades and have always found it to work well. One more thought: the latest rendition of the new Kennedy Plaza is reminiscent of the old Westminster Street Pedestrian Mall. Will that too be coming back sometime soon?

    Like

  2. Ele says:

    Thank you for the post. I arrived early at City Hall and needed to sit down, so I sat on the steps of City Hall wondering where the event was supposed to be taking place. A Providence police officer driving by yelled out his window that I couldn’t sit there. I told him I was there for an event at City Hall, 25 Dorrance Street. He told me “That’s not 25 Dorrance Street!” I asked where it is and he said it was down the street at the T-Mobile store!
    As I was walking back to Exchange Terrace to catch my bus the Providence police were clearing people out of “Our Public Square” which is supposed to be the “front porch of City Hall”!
    When asked about the effort to clear the homeless out of Kennedy Plaza, Cliff Woods replied that they are welcome but need more to do so that Kennedy Plaza can become a “destination.”
    Upon returning to my temporary bus stop in front of the Commerce Building on Exchange Terrace I noted that the streetlamps on the temporary bus stops side of Exchange Terrace still aren’t working in spite of attempts to get them turned on so that bus passengers don’t have to wait in the dark for the bus.
    If this is what we get for sharing space on Kennedy Plaza, just wait until the snow has to be cleared away!

    Like

    • This project is imploding in so many ways, including those you enumerate. That problem is that rather than a debate over whether to demolish Kennedy Plaza, with have an accomplished fact, with no evidence that thought has been give to where to go from here.

      Like

  3. barry says:

    Interesting post David, thanks.

    Another grand public entrance closed to the public is the city side of the State House. I guess the assumption is nobody walks from the city to or from the State House, you park on or off Smith St (though no bus shelters or info there for anyone coming by bus)

    Similar car-centric thinking about KP: the city is insisting on three eastbound autoroutes through the Plaza, on Fulton St, on the newly 2-way to be Exchange Terrace, and on Washington St right thru the center. What great public square has auto traffic right thru the center? Even Times Square tamed the auto. But the city doesn’t want to inconvenience motorists by having them drive around the square (though no hesitation making bus passengers cross the “forest” in your top picture to get to bus stops on the other side of Burnside Park!.

    Like

  4. Michael J. Tyrrell says:

    Wow! That rendering on axis with City Hall is absolutely dreadful.
    David, I sense the hidden forces of re-development prefer to see the KP sanitized to encourage “big ticket” investment? Although the new design is banal, and indeterminate, its unclear whether its design goals could not have been met by (as you point out) simply adding more beat patrols. It will be interesting to watch and see whether renovation of Rhode Island’s iconic Industrial Trust (Superman) Building hinges on this Mussolini-type approach. Veni, vidi, vici?…. Hardly.

    Like

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