Each time news emerges of another plan to renovate Kennedy Plaza, Waterplace Park or other sites in downtown Providence, it gets worse and worse. Now there are plans costing upwards of $140 million to reconstitute Kennedy Plaza, remake Waterplace and demolish the skating rink, using cartoon architecture to suggest that the entire downtown be dedicated to children (as they say) of all ages. Many riders of the city bus system, however, would need to walk farther to bus stops and transfer at two new downtown bus hubs to reach their destinations.
That was the gist of “Splash park, mist ring part of plan for reimagining Kennedy Plaza, Waterplace Park,” an article on the front page of last Thursday’s Providence Journal. “And when WaterFire returns,” it reads, “you’ll gaze up at a giant ring suspended over the basin that sprays mist down upon spectators.”
WaterFire is often cancelled if there is rain. What if the performance stage at the center of the basin leaves too little room to maneuver for the boats that fill the burning braziers of WaterFire with wood or the tour boats and gondolas? Suppose visitors to the park don’t want to get wet? (See image above.)
The plan would raise the river walks around Waterplace by 11 feet to avoid floods in case sea levels rise, leaving the river in a deep gulch likely to reduce its safety and allure. It would link Waterplace to Kennedy Plaza with a “mini-High Line” bridge over the old Capital Grille parking lot. But you would still have to cross Memorial Boulevard because the two pedestrian tunnels from Waterplace to the skating rink – considered unsafe by experts – would be closed. The rink and its turreted pavilion would be demolished for a skateboard park and basketball courts. The rink would be moved to the plaza and rebuilt in a “serpentine” shape. The intermodal terminal would remain but the Soldiers and Sailors monument would apparently be relocated. A café, stage and visitors center with a box roof similar to those over gas station pumps would occupy part of the plaza.
The only admirable part of the plan is that Washington Street between the plaza and Burnside Park would be eliminated. Traffic would circle around existing streets. Alas, instead of extending the park and its greenery to the plaza (a step I urged in 1992), creating a sort of mini-Central Park, the plaza’s hardscape would be extended to the park.
All of this is too much, with too little thought given to how the pieces would fit together, or whether any of it is desirable, let alone necessary at a time when the city’s budget is terribly constrained. But Mayor Jorge Elorza is gung ho:
“We know that the Kennedy Plaza space has been the center of our city geographically, but it has never fully been the center of our city culturally,” Elorza told reporters at a Wednesday briefing. “In our mind’s eye, we have never had that city center in Providence that the other cities that we have all fallen in love with throughout the world have.”
Both halves of the mayor’s statement are wrong. Kennedy Plaza, Burnside Park, Waterplace Park and the skating rink have been the cultural center of Providence for nearly three decades. Thousands go there to enjoy themselves at festivals, concerts, ethnic celebrations and other events throughout the year. The mostly traditional buildings that surround our civic square, the pair of traditional buildings sited inside of it, and the classical statuary scattered within it, provide citizens with a grand place to gather akin to London’s Trafalgar Square, the Piazza Navona in Rome, and the Piazza San Marco in Venice. We could raise it toward the aesthetic level of those places, but instead we seem eager to distance our central square from those and other lovely models shaped by history.
My family and I ran into candidate Elorza in 2014 when he first ran for mayor at a carnival of the Holy Ghost School on Federal Hill. I asked him if he would favor development projects that fit into the city’s historical setting. He said yes. But he has not. So the city grows uglier. Now he wants to make it even worse. He should ask his planning director to resign, and cancel the city’s contract with Arup, the nutty London-based engineering firm that has produced this travesty. Many plans don’t die, they just fade away, like the uber-modernist Downtown Providence 1970 Plan. This one should, too, and the sooner the better. Or poor Bill Warner may never stop spinning in his grave.