Kennedy Plaza reopens

Kennedy Plaza earlier today, after reopening ceremony. (Photo by David Brussat)

Kennedy Plaza earlier today, after reopening ceremony. (Photo by David Brussat)

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New Kennedy Plaza waiting kiosk.

Old Kennedy Plaza kiosks.

Old Kennedy Plaza kiosks.

Future plan for Kennedy Plaza ... discarded? (Union Studio)

Future plan for Kennedy Plaza … discarded? (Union Studio)

Kennedy Plaza reopened this morning. Bus passengers are waiting in the newly sanitized bus hub. The view above shows the blank sterility achieved by its redesign. Wind-swept vastnesses of unused space greet us now, no longer the elegant Art Nouveau waiting kiosks that used to march gently up the center of the plaza from the bus terminal installed in 2002. The photo at top left shows the utilitarian quality of the new waiting kiosks. Also, at this end of the plaza the ice-melt system under the pavement was removed to facilitate the introduction of more trees – a trade-off that might not be widely appreciated, especially in winter, however much one loves trees.

Several questions remain. Why was demolition begun before voters were given the chance to approve the referendum that will finance new bus hubs, and whose existence will affect the requirements of the Kennedy Plaza bus hub? Why build a new bus hub at the Amtrak station when a bus loop between it and the plaza would accomplish the same purpose at a fraction of a fraction of the cost? Why change the aesthethics of the plaza to a utilitarian cast even as a more traditional plan, shown at left, in keeping with the existing plaza features, was used to sell the public on the need for a civic square? Why was a new civic square needed with Burnside Park across the street already functioning as a civic plaza?

Tara Granahan, filling in for Buddy Cianci on WPRO, wondered at Mayor Elorza declaring, at the opening ceremony, that Kennedy Plaza was now the new “gathering spot” for downtown. She said that this was a stretch, that “putting lipstick on a pig” would not turn the plaza into a happenin’ place. But, if anything, they scraped much of the old makeup off what had been among the nicest bus hubs on the East Coast, if not the world. She clearly has no idea, and pretty much admitted it, what Kennedy Plaza is like. She planned to try it out with her friends, but speculated that she’d be the only one at that party. Callers debated whether the plaza was safe. It always was, it seemed to me as a frequent user. I sure can’t see the middle class meeting there to play chess though. People who are turned off by people with a scruffy coat will find that scruffy coats still abound. All the city and state have done is to squander $2.4 million. But the plaza’s not yet complete, officials insist. No doubt they have plans to make it even worse.

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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7 Responses to Kennedy Plaza reopens

  1. David, you know I agree with you on most issues architectural, but I think you’re analysis is unfairly absolute in its dismissal of what’s happened here. As much as I would like to have seen it immediately realized, our plan (Union Studio / Project for Public Spaces) was only one of many possible visions, and it was based on our (imperfect) understanding of the technical and financial realities at the time. We always felt that the primary goal to retrieving this as a public place was to get rid of the buses from the center and disperse them over the whole of Kennedy Plaza, Burnside Park area. We felt this would not only allow other activities and functions to inhabit the plaza, but would make for a more pleasant experience for riders. What has happened so far is just the first step and does nothing to prevent the full (if not identical) vision that we had proposed. I think of it like a canvas that’s been prepped with gesso for a painting that will be coming soon. In fact, RIPTA (led by Amy Petine) and the designers planned for this and provided conduit and (currently hidden) foundations to allow for future installation of art work, statuary, planters, and small pavilions that might activate the space in the way we had portrayed. As the “program” for the plaza organically (and by “organically” I mean through the blood sweat and tears of the Downtown Parks Conservancy and allied arts organizations) establishes itself, the plaza can fill in to support it. One of the big messages that PPS (and “tactical urbanists” everywhere) have shown us in the last 10 years is that the program needs to come first to show everyone the possibilities, and validate the vision before bricks an mortar are (perhaps wrongly) committed. In many ways this whole project was the outgrowth of the Firstworks festival that showed many people what Kennedy Plaza could be if it was used as a programmed as a gathering space and not just a bus hub.
    I’d feel better about your criticism of some of the details if I felt you balanced that with acknowledgement of the successes. One absolutely astounding success is that this was completed in 18 months from the time it was proposed using excess funds that already earmarked for the downtown circulator project. Great credit shoudl be given to all who helped make this happen, particularly RIPTA and the City. The result is currently, perhaps, a little “thin” in some of its detail and articulation, but its such an immediate improvement to what was there that it should be acknowledged. Also, as another point of disagreement, – and this coming from a committed traditionalist with a portfolio to back me up – the previous pavilions weren’t lovely” by any means. Their design was ham-fisted and …lazy, being standard issue for their (immediately recognizable) decade. Same for the pavilion. Their only redeeming feature was that they weren’t actually offensive.
    I read your blog regularly and have great respect for your opinion – many times you voice what I’m too lazy or timid to say. But here – if you’ll forgive the criticism coming from a friend – you are sounding about as “fair and balanced” as ,,,,, Well you get the drift.

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    • Don, in all friendship and respect, I cannot agree. The old bus pavilions were attractive, even if they were not exquisite. The new pavilions are horrid. Beyond horrid, they suggest that either no thinking has gone into the overall plaza design or that the thinking is to surreptitiously shift the design away from the plaza’s traditional feel.
      If the need for a civic-square aspect to the plaza is valid, then the money expended to change the plaza’s configuration by filling in the bus lanes is unobjectionable. But Burnside Park and the skating rink, together with the west end of the plaza, already serve perfectly well as a civic square. So the money is entirely wasted. Argue, as the city does, for a larger waiting kiosk – that does not require the city to go out and get the ugliest one they can find. I have praised other aspects of the circulator project, but I see no reason to praise efficiency in taking money from a valuable project and wasting it on one that has demonstrated no validity.
      Given the financing difficulties that have been mentioned numerous times in my blog, the entire KP project is highly dubious – a perfect example of politicians doing something for the sake of being seen as doing something rather than nothing. In this case, nothing would have been better. In city planning leadership means waiting until you can do it right.
      It pains me to disagree with you, Don, but in this case I must. Because I wish the city and its endeavors well, I hope that your and PPS’s design goes forward, but to do so, the aesthetic mistakes recently made will have to be both acknowledged and reversed so that your excellent design will not be yet another switchback on the road to beauty. No other plan but yours was publicized. If there were other “visions” besides yours, why were they kept under wraps? Might it be because yours was believed to be the only one that would have gained public (and the mayor’s) support? Might it be fair to conclude that your plan was used only to get the okay to move forward on a project that did not envision using your plan? I don’t know, but this whole project smells fishier and fisher as time goes on.

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  2. barry says:

    As a frequent passenger, I have a more mixed view. It does look sterile and windswept now, perhaps in the spring with the trees leafed out it will look better.

    But the shelters are more functional for actually waiting for a bus. Indeed my #57 line now boards at a location with a shelter, useful for today’s cold and wind, better than the old stop’s narrow island with no shelter. But I agree the design could have been more in keeping with its historical setting and surrounding buildings, and I doubt the money will ever be seen to have been well spent or that the bus plaza will ever be much of a civic plaza. I think the idea is to make it look better for Burnside Park events and to people thinking of leasing space in nearby buildings, though with the same number of buses and same number of passengers, albeit more spread out, it may matter little. But now that its here, best attitide is to learn from experience and make it work as well as possible. We were encouraged to report problems to help ensure proper maintenance, always an issue. And David’s questions that should have been answered and comment about snow removal are spot on, we have a history of mostly ignoring sidewalk snow removal for passengers and walkers generally throughtout the state.

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  3. Lewis Dana says:

    Only vague improvement I can see after a saunter around the place this afternoon: improved parking for RIPTA workers and other “insiders” on the sidewalk around the monument at the city hall end of the plaza. Adds the same distinctive decorative note that the AMTRAK police provide up at the RR station.

    And I agree that the razing of those elegant bus shelters is deplorable. Amazing what output government can generate when it doesn’t bother to get public input.

    How anyone can claim that barren sweep of pavers will become a gathering place for anyone except waiting bus passengers escapes me.

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  4. Doctor I think this calls for a walkabout wouldn’t you say?

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