A new Kennedy Plaza plan

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A new plan for Kennedy Plaza is described in this morning’s Providence Journal. “Kennedy Plaza plan envisions ‘true civic heart’,” by Donita Naylor and Jacqueline Tempera, describes a proposal that makes a lot of sense. It does not seem to head in the sterile, modernist direction suggested by the featureless plasticky bus kiosks installed in 2015 to replace the Art Nouveau kiosks that pleased hundreds of thousands for at least a decade. A reduced use of the plaza as a bus hub should enable the removal of the cold, barren modules that turn their backs on the city’s history.

The plan is to move most of the buses over to a new bus hub at Providence Station. East Approach, a road next to the skating rink for buses, often used by bold private drivers, is eliminated, unifying Burnside Park. Washington Street becomes two ways but is limited to buses. The now vacant portions of the plaza east of the existing intermodal terminal would be devoted to public uses such as concerts, festivals, farmers markets, and civic gatherings.

However, some substantial changes would improve this idea further.

First, eliminate the absurdist idea of a new bus hub that encroaches on the State House lawn. That is unlikely to happen, and it would only delay implementing the Kennedy Plaza plan. Instead of making Washington Street two ways and restricting it to buses, eliminate that stretch of Washington so that Burnside Park can be extended into the plaza all the way to Fulton Street. Turn the intermodal terminal into a restaurant with outdoor seating reminiscent of the Plaza Café of many years past, or of Tavern on the Green in New York’s Central Park. This would create a much more verdant and robust version of what our planners have modeled after Bryant Park.

Dorrance, Fulton, Exchange and Exchange Terrace would carry regular traffic and buses around both the plaza and the park, either with two-way traffic or one-way traffic in a counter-clockwise direction. As in the current plan, buses would stop only to pick up and let off passengers. On streets beyond the plaza would be stops every block throughout downtown. People would not have to walk to Kennedy Plaza to take the bus or from it to get to where they want to go downtown. The pattern of bus service that prevailed before Kennedy Plaza became a bus hub would return to a system similar to what most cities still have. The State House lawn and its nearby green spaces would remain sacrosanct.

The map of the plan in the Journal was done by Union Studio, in downtown, whose plan for an earlier version of the Kennedy Plaza renovation was beautiful and excellent. That plan seemed to have been “frog-marched” out of the picture when the ugly new kiosks were installed on the plaza edges to make room for the public space envisioned east of the intermodal terminal. That space seems to have acquired a large sculpture. The way it is drawn on the map above suggests that another civic goofball is to be inflicted upon the public. It does not bode well for the broader mindset behind the plan for KP.

The original beautiful small buildings remain absent from the new plan. A set of new buildings around the skating rink in the park replaces the elegant arch of the towered pavilion designed by architect/planner Bill Warner for the rink’s entrance, which simply vanishes. That is a mistake. Any new pavilions should pick up the traditional architecture of the original Union Studio plan, and the rink area should fill the role of a new public space, which would enable the hillocks and trees of Burnside Park to expand into that space east of the intermodal terminal and up to its northern façade.

The money approved by the public in 2014 for goals that have changed radically without much public input should be refocused on a KP-centric plan far less expensive without a new bus hub at Providence Station. If allowed to do its traditional work, a modest police presence should be enough to check the problem of “bums,” which has been exaggerated, I think, to build public support for relocating the bus hub. A taverna system – suggested years ago for Waterplace Park by designer Morris Nathanson, of Pawtucket – could bring even more people into the expanded Burnside Park to eat meals brought by waiters from nearby restaurants. That would help civilize the unjustly low reputation of Kennedy Plaza’s safety and social environment.

Mayor Elorza is right that Providence’s civic center can be improved. But the latest plan still needs a lot of work.

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The original proposal for Kennedy Plaza renovations. (Union Studio)

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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 A new Kennedy Plaza plan

  1. Edgar Adams says:

    Don’t understand the objection to restoring the planned symmetry to the statehouse lawn. There are historic images that show plantings that reinforce this notion and the only reason for it not being symmetrical seems to be for the old steam heating plant for the building. Surely someone who is as familiar with the City Beautiful movement as yourself can see that this is an oddity owed to necessity and not design. Happy to supply the photo is you have not already seen it.


    • Edgar, I do not object to returning symmetry to the State House lawn. I do object to accomplishing this by adding a bus hub with retail to Providence Station, or whatever they are planning now. Still, I am used to the assymetrical lawn that exists today, and am willing to put up with it for another half century or more if that is necessary to avoid something new in some goofball style. If a traditional arrangement is proposed in a new plan that will regain us the lawn’s symmetry, then I expect I’d be all for that.


      • Edgar says:

        Thanks for the clarification! The question of what would make a deserving definer of the reconfigured space is an interesting one. Bus sheds would not be my first choice either.


  2. barry says:

    Mixed feelings about this post David. I agree a State House lawn bus hub is unlikely, but mostly because the private investment the state hoped for, leveraged by the $35 million approved for the bus hub, is apparently not going to materialize. Downtown interests supported that hub too, in order to get the buses, and a lot do the poor people, away from Kennedy Plaza. Otherwise there is no need for another bus hub, there is an “intermodal facility” already there called the “train station” where those (relatively few) who use bus-train connections already have a place to wait and get information and very very frequent service on 5 bus lines to KP. Passengers do NOT need another facility and we cannot afford to waste $35 million. But as it seems the buses will continue to go to Kennedy Plaza as that is where most passengers want to go, you are right to consider how to best accommodate them. While you have the expertise on design issues, I think your idea of a counterclockwise circulation around the borders of the Plaza is unrealistic. For one thing property owners on Fulton St, Exchange St, and Exchange Terrace will not want bus stops, and bus passengers, on the sidewalks in front of their property. That would make the situation worse for them, they won’t allow it.
    I do wonder if it is possible to replicate the great public squares of Europe by banning all motor traffic from all of KP (except perhaps for delivery vehicles during restricted hours) Rick Steve’s tourist shows from great and medium size cities there so often shows wonderful squares just for pedestrians, often with cafes, bandstands for music, merry-go-rounds, people strolling, flowers, and, I’m sure you would note, beautiful historic buildings to help generate the crowds.


    • Barry, thanks for your very good letter. I do not see where we are in disagreement. I agree that the new bus hub will not happen largely for financial reasons. Maybe we disagree about how the traffic around KP/Burnside should be routed – I would note that it already is counter-clockwise on all four sides, but am open whether it should be made two ways all the way around, or one way. As far as bus stops, I don’t think the streets around KP/B should be lined with them as they are now on Exchange Terrace, but that they should be a block or more apart, integrated with a similar regularity of stops throughout downtown. As for a European-style square, are you suggesting that even the roads around KP/B be eliminated so that the square would reach inward from all of the building facades? I”m not sure that is plausible, but I would not object to it. I only suggest that Washington Street be eliminated within the square, so that the trees, verdure and footpaths could extend from Burnside Park over, in the fullest possible degree, to Kennedy Plaza. Returning the bus routes to a normal downtown pattern, without any hubs, would eliminate the need for the existing hub let alone a new hub. I am not familiar as you are with the existing bus routes, so maybe one or more routes already connect the train station with the plaza. If not, a bus loop between the two (which I forgot to mention in Friday’s post but have mentioned many times in other posts) would suffice at far, far less cost.

      So, Barry, I think we are pretty much in agreement, yes?


  3. Deborah Dunning, former Executive Directot? says:

    David –

    Thank you for your honest, positive and productive commentary
    on the new plan for Kennedy Plaza. And for the compelling plea
    to leave the Statehouse Great Lawn to continue to point visually
    to our state’s most majestic building by McKim, Mead & White.


    • Thank you, Deborah. I don’t see how they can go forward with this plan at the foot of the State House. Deming Sherman seems to be dead set against it, and there was no hint of it in the explanation for the bond issue in the booklet that voters read to understand the reasons for the various bonds. A bus loop between KP and the station would serve entirely the purposes stated originally for the bond. I cannot see it happening.


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