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.
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!