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.