Don’t fob off cheap, easy link

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Proposal for new bus hub under the Rhode Island State House lawn.

Friedrich St. Florian and Dietrich Neumann, RISD and Brown architectural illuminati both, have concocted what may be the most interesting, perhaps the best, idea for a new bus terminal to replace the one at Kennedy Plaza. In a Providence Journal oped, “A bus depot below the State House lawn?,” they describe how the depot could be built under the lawn within the slope of the hill that leads up from Providence Station to the Rhode Island State House.

The state Department of Transportation has vaguely proposed a new depot above ground along with a private component. Both elements, it appears, would be arrayed on either side of Providence Station, on Station Park or on a strip of the State House lawn created by relocating Gaspee Street to a point that would narrow but even out the lawn. Unclear is which element would go where. The state’s plan, poorly thought out as it is, also includes a “skyline-altering” tower for the private component.

As I’ve written in several posts, I disagree with any plan that features a new central bus depot. This is unnecessary and was not specifically mentioned in the $35 million bond issue passed in 2014 and now expected to finance the state’s portion of the plan.

The state does not need a new central bus hub. A better link for riders between the buses and the trains is easy-peasy. A continuous bus loop connecting Kennedy Plaza and Providence Station would accomplish this for bupkis – a few thousand dollars a year.

The state’s real purpose, I think, is to eliminate bus riders and idlers (two groups that partly overlap) from the plaza so it can be redeveloped as a “public square.” Burnside Park already serves quite well as a public square – unless the real reason is to make it easier to redevelop the Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Building.

A plan to remake Kennedy Plaza into a space more congenial to more people is not without merit, but it should be done straightforwardly. It could be accomplished by changing bus routes in downtown from a system where buses stop only at Kennedy Plaza to one where buses stop briefly at the plaza and continue on to bus stops on every block or so throughout downtown. That is how most cities configure their bus systems. That would thin out, though not eliminate, the plaza’s bus and bum populations.

The elements of a public square could then be constructed as imagined by the downtown design firm Union Studio (see below). I would not tear down the arched entry to the skating rink, and I would bring back the Art Nouveau kiosks replaced in 2015 by cheesy, sterile waiting kiosks. The continuous bus loop between the plaza and the Amtrak station would continue to make sense in such a plan, if a new public square is carried out.

Or the state could save the $35 million bond money, or split it between the public square and a bus sub hub next to the municipal courthouse on Dorrance Street, a proposal that was envisioned (along with a Providence Station bus sub hub) in the thinking behind the bond issue. This would allow the broader scheme to move forward more swiftly.

As for the Neumann/St. Florian proposal, drawings published with their Journal oped do not seem to bear out the suggestion that the view corridor to the State House would be unaffected. The cherished view from in front of Providence Station would be mostly blocked by the entrance portal to the underground hub on Gaspee. They could dig deeper into the hill, perhaps, but that would be more expensive. That might also avoid the unfortunate flattening out of the graceful set of hillocks leading up to the State House.

Finally, their plan suggests no private component. If that was not considered necessary to bring about the new depot, it’s hard to see why the state would have led with its chin by planning to put a number of new buildings on or near the State House grounds.

Tinkering with sacred land around the State House remains unnecessary and unwise.

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Rendering of the proposal to renovate Kennedy Plaza as a public square. (Union Studio)

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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8 Responses to Don’t fob off cheap, easy link

  1. barry says:

    David, thanks for your postings on this topic, too few are questioning the need for spending tens of millions on a new bus hub.
    One reason for this is as most do not actually use the buses so do not know there are already five major bus lines, Routes R, 50, 55, 56, 57, that provide very very frequent service to the railroad station. The relatively few passengers that actually transfer between buses and trains already have access to indoor waiting, bathrooms, information, even a coffee shop at an existing “intermodal center” called the train station.
    Admittedly, improvements can be made with signage, real-time bus information, a canopy to help shelter bus passengers on the outside, and compatible fare cards that can be used on both trains and buses.
    Those who do not actually use the trains may also be unaware of how congested the area already can be, adding unnecessary buses can only make that worse.
    As David notes, one reason for the support of this additional bus hub project is the desire of some to get the poor out of Kennedy Plaza, (I don’t think the new bus hub will do that) but another may be because many politicians love awarding multimillion dollar contracts and the contractors and construction workers will favor any construction no matter how wasteful.

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    • All excellent points, Barry. I agree that moving the main bus depot up to the train station is unlikely to remove idlers from KP. More likely (though not highly likely) is that there would be enough additional users of a public square in KP that the idle will be less conspicuous and thus less off-putting to those of extremely tender sensibility. It may be that a public square would attract even more of the idle, requiring even more users to make the idle less conspicuous.

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  2. Steve says:

    David, you write “The state does not need a new central bus hub. A better link for riders between the buses and the trains is easy-peasy. A continuous bus loop connecting Kennedy Plaza and Providence Station would accomplish this…”

    First, I agree that the state doesn’t need it, but Providence does, and very much so. This idea floated by the boys makes little sense in terms of an economic component to the station…it has none.

    But, the DOT approach is designed to couple an urban bus hub to the nation’s 11th busiest Amtrak station and the desire for businesses and young professionals to have easy access to metro (Providence Metro – particularly its airport) and regional (PVD-BOS-NYC) travel. Hence, the desire to have a commercial and residential vertical component.

    Frankly, I was hoping for the Capital Center parcel just north of the Citizens tower.

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    • I don’t believe, Steve, that you have made your case that the desire for easy access is satisfied by the state’s plan any more than it is satisfied by the bus loop I have proposed.

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      • Steve says:

        My response is that urban planning in a very densely populated city shows that an intermodal central station combined with a residential/commercial mix is very desirable. As one of the nation’s most densely populated major cities (9,800/sq miles) and the core of a 1.6M Metro, this fits for Providence. In that this is on the northeast corridor, it is more concentrated. After all, this is Providence, not Portsmouth.

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        • I’m not arguing, Steve, that we don’t need an intermodal station, only that we don’t need a new one. We already have one, well situated. Because the train station has moved farther away from the center over the years, the link between train and bus has grown weak, and that needs to be addressed. But instead of moving the intermodal station, we could set up a bus loop to address the problem at far less cost. Residential does not need to be cheek by jowl with the State House. Plenty of it is arising toward the center of downtown, which helps with the benefits of density.

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  3. Bruce F. Donnelly says:

    With autonomous jitneys deploying all over the country and autonomous buses following soon after, I would not recommend spending a lot of capital on physical hubs until transportation planners get a handle on how all the complex parts will shake out. In general, I expect that the need for physical hubs will decline. Once the cost of a driver doesn’t have to be amortized over a large vehicle, and once real-time scheduling and routing are ubiquitous, I doubt that the physical infrastructure will have to be anywhere near as robust. Helsinki is the city to watch. It has both a mobility-as-a-service system and a pledge to eliminate private automobiles, and it is innovating rapidly.

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    • Perhaps your prognostications will be on target in some cities, Bruce, but I doubt Providence will ever put up with the elimination of private automobiles. I agree that autonomous jitneys and buses would cut the need for bus depots, but I doubt they will come about as fast as some are predicting. Whenever spellcheck screws up something I’ve written, I exclaim “Can’t wait for the driverless car!” If we can’t get spellcheck right, who is going to trust driverless cars going 60 mph on road networks where everyone else has a driverless car too! Danger, Will Robinson!

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