Keep Kennedy Plaza central

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Kennedy Plaza before its lovely bus kiosks were frogmarched out of town. (goprovidence.com)

The master planners of Providence and Rhode Island have figured out how to screw up Kennedy Plaza again. In 2015 they removed its four elegant, Art Nouveau-inspired waiting kiosks, replacing them with sterile plasticky kiosks. Now they want to dig a trench between the plaza and Burnside Park, even as they propose to knit the two halves together into a sort of mini-Central Park from which the city’s central transit hub would be evicted.

I described a similar idea in a 1992 Providence Journal column, “Postcard from Providence 1997,” written in the guise of a convention-goer raving about developments in the city five years hence:

The fellow at the next table said Kennedy Park used to be a bus plaza, but was relandscaped as a park after two pedestrians in one week were killed by hurtling buses. Now, he said, the bus routes terminate in a station under the park.

A letter writer informed me that the water table was too high to permit an underground bus station. That means that even a less-ambitious feature such as an underpass may be much more expensive to build than the planners expect. The Journal reports on a plan to reconfigure Kennedy Plaza and build four new bus hubs in or near downtown for riders kicked out of the plaza. All this would be financed with money from the $35 million bond issue voters approved in 2014 to pay for about half of what is now proposed. And the planners say it could be done sometime next year.

Are they kidding? As the Journal’s editorial pointed out, this is the same crew whose recently completed pedestrian bridge cost seven times its original budget while blowing through a succession of moving goal posts in an endless construction schedule.

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Kennedy Plaza at lower right and Burnside Park at upper left. (GateHouse Media)

Worse, however, is that Kennedy Plaza is the most rational site for a bus terminal in Providence. A new shuttle between Kennedy Plaza and Providence Station would provide for at least that aspect of the transit system’s genuine needs, which were inflated in order to justify the 2014 bond issue. A new bus hub at the train station makes no sense, and adding three more bus hubs makes even less sense.

Those three are to be built at the Garrahy Judicial Complex near the I-195 corridor, the Victory Plating site near Rhode Island Hospital, and what the Journal describes as “between Washington Street and Exchange Terrace.” Huh? That’s Burnside Park! Is the Journal’s description wrong? Possibly. Or is the plan merely to hop the buses from one side of Washington Street to the other? Impossible. Even from these incompetents, that’s taking implausibility way too far.

It sounds like they plan to redistribute buses, bus riders and idlers who are not waiting for a bus (the real target of this plan) from one central place to three or four decentralized places. It would make more sense (and cost far less) to have buses pick up and let off riders at bus stops on routes extending in all directions from Kennedy Plaza. This is how buses operate in most cities. But maybe that’s not “creative” enough for the “Creative Capital.”

I think people like former mayor Joe Paolino, long a downtown property czar, exaggerate the anxiety caused by those who while away their idle hours in the plaza. He proposed the ban on smoking to shoo them off and that apparently has not worked. Now he – and others, too, of course – want taxpayers to finance a reworking of downtown’s familiar patterns in order to get insufficiently chic citizens out of their corporate hair.

Isn’t that what the police, God bless ’em!, are for?

But then the city would have to fill its hundred or so unfilled police slots. Well then, fill them! That, along with keeping Kennedy Plaza as a central bus hub (and returning the old Art Nouveau waiting kiosks) would cost a whole lot less and be far more efficient.

And far more beautiful. But then, beauty and creativity are considered mutually exclusive nowadays by young creatives – and their corporate artist wannabe followers. Do they have a right to exercise their will to ugly at the expense of the rest of us? No. Do they have the power to do so anyway? We shall see.

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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10 Responses to Keep Kennedy Plaza central

  1. Brendan says:

    Stand at the front door of the Starbucks or Ben & Jerry’s on Thayer and listen to the roar of the buses as they emerge from the transit tunnel. What charm! Wouldn’t it be lovely to introduce that to Kennedy Plaza!
    In all seriousness, the tunnel plan proposes ramps to and from the tunnel far to steep for a bus to operate on. That speaks volumes to the attention that RIDOT (you, know, an agency filled with professional, licensed engineers) has actually paid to this. It sadly is nothing but an attempt for Mr. Paolino to rid his front door of all those that he views as ‘undesirables.’
    Dave, the “between Washington and Exchange” bus stops that you were confused about would indeed be right in the middle of the western end of Burnside Park. Their site plan shows a new 50′ wide roadway connecting Dorrance and Exchange Terrace with four bus stops. What a sick joke.

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  2. Andrew says:

    Imagine being able to say “The fastest way to travel into or through Providence during rush hour is by bus.” All it would take is through running bus lines, on non circuitous routes, on exclusive lanes. The cost: paint and enforcement cameras. And a few dozen less on street parking spaces.

    The system in place and ideas like this tunnel and out of the way bus hubs reflect the apparant conviction that the value of the most important bus rider’s time is less than the value of the least important driver. Wonder why.

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  3. Washington Street is about about 9′ above the NAVD 88 benchmark (used on USGS maps). Mean High Water (high tide) in Providence is at 2′ above NAVD 88, and Mean Low Water (low tide) is 2.3′ below NAVD 88. That means the bottom of the tunnel will be about 5′ below NAVD 88, or 2.7′ below Mean Low Water. How do they plan to keep the water out?

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    • Precisely, Peter. Thanks very much for your detailed knowledge. But what is NAVD 88? Translation, please! Also, I wonder why the Journal and RIPTA/RIDOT cannot decide whether the trench is a tunnel (it is not) or an underpass? I’m not sure it is properly called an underpass – it seems from the map to be a depressed road that passes beneath three pedestrian bridges. Also, do you have any thoughts on why the Journal seems to think one of the three (or four?) new bus hubs is in (or around) Burnside Park? So far as I can tell there is no official document on this plan yet available.

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  4. barry schiller says:

    David, both you and the Providence Journal editorial make good points. Having once been on the RIPTA Board of Directors I know RIPTA cannot afford to squander the rare capital funding opportunity that the $35 million bond voters approved might provide, using those funds to make transit worse must be resisted. There is an alternative, that unlike this RIDOT scheme, had lots of public and city input. It would locate most bus stops along a 2-way Washington St and close the street separating Burnside Park from the skating rink, making one continuous public space.
    There is also a much more collaborative process underway developing a “Transit Master Plan” – hearings on it are scheduled next week! But RIDOT’s scheme, developed without any public input, would squander the bond funds that could actually improve transit.
    As for Joe Paolino, I sympathize with his desire to see a reinvigorated financial district, but instead of discouraging transit use he might be better off trying to promote the one transportation advantage that district has over everywhere else in RI – good transit access from all directions, as well as a vibrant public space thanks to the Parks Conservancy have so improved Burnside Park. The goal (for climate reasons too) should be to have lots of commuters, clients, visitors, shoppers coming downtown by transit. That will also reduce congestion and keep more of our energy dollars from flowing out of state. All aboard Joe!

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  5. Michael Tyrrell says:

    David,
    As you well know, market forces are largely at play here. Your concerns are highly valid, however the Plaza, as it functions now, and absent a strong and dedicated 24/7 police presence, is not conducive to “big ticket” investment. As a result, Properties like the Industrial Trust Tower continue to languish. Uniting Burnside Park and the Plaza into a single civic space akin to Boston’s Post Office Square seems apt.

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    • I’m not so much against uniting the two sides into a park as I am worried about how it might be done. I’m a bit anxious about a so-called “public space,” where the potential for uglification is very high. Witness the colorful new kiddie park, which, however admirable, is garishly designed in its context. Why the trench? (It is not a tunnel but an underpass, and I’m not even certain it is that.) With Joe going around raving about the hobos he may be talking down the market himself. And why is it expected that a bigger park would be free of bums? It is the animation of a public space that helps them seem more inconspicuous and less ominous to some old ladies and former mayors. So why not hire the strong and dedicated 24/7 police presence and have done? Keeping order – preventing crime and disorder by their presence – is their primary duty. Why wreck the budget and the transit system in one fell swoop?

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  6. LazyReader says:

    Modern architecture is a cult. In a sense it follows the patterns of cults.
    Isolation: Stir people away from large gatherings. Every cult has it’s headquarters.
    It destroys. The purpose of deconstructivism is to break down the established set or ignore the physical realities present in the nature/situation. Dull peoples perception of reality and they’ll accept anything you plop in front of them. Case in point, WTC 1 or the freedom tower, payed for out of nearly 3 billion in Federally insured dollars. A stretched chinese food container with a wire brush top.

    It claims special knowledge and morality. Like modern art the architecture world justifies uninspired and ugly buildings by adding societal or social causes that rip into political, social or racial capacities. Which is why so many celebrity starchitects design museums and institutions they often fill with the very crap they create.

    Cult indoctrination begins by tearing down a person’s confidence and self-esteem; i.e., one’s emotional equilibrium as established via the childhood development of one’s intuition and senses and replace it with dependence on outside forces. Tactics for achieving this include mental and physical humiliation. What’s more humiliating than cajoling poor people into a concrete box to live in. Let it fall apart, attribute blame to the current government running the place, promise the next time will be better and replace the rattrap.

    Cults are also famous for accumulating wealth at the behest of it’s constituents. Most celebrity architects these days build things often paid for by government (taxpayer) expense. This bus station is the same, replace simplicity with EXPENSE.

    One of my favorite gags is in the comic “The Flash” where Flash saves a group of people from a collapsing apartment building (typical drab, poorly designed and boring), upon saving the entire group they question where they’re going to live. Flash immediately zooms off to the library to speed read everything there is to know about architecture, building, plumbing, carpentry,etc and zooms back and rebuilds the apartment, not only does he rebuild it, but builds it architecturally superior to the original. One of the funniest moments in comic history next to Superior Spider-Man being kicked in the ding dong and Kyle Rayner (Green Lantern) uhh, spiked drink encounter.

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