Providence on suicide watch

Proposed mist ring above Waterplace; image does not show raising river walks by 11 feet. (Arup)

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.

Kennedy Plaza with relocated skating rink proposed cafe with gas-station style roof. (Arup)

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,, 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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30 Responses to Providence on suicide watch

  1. Rosalie Jalbert (Mrs. Ronald C. Jalbert) says:

    I can’t believe what Mayor Elorza’s plans for our former Renaissance city. Bill Warner may be spinning in his grave and I know my Ron is also as well as the many engineers and people who worked on that project and are no longer with us. I’m disgusted with his hiring a London-based engineering firm instead of someone from Rhode Island. Those engineers would be familiar with the fact that there was once a fountain in the basin that had to be removed because it was too expensive to maintain because of the brackish water, engineers who are familiar with the Providence River and its connectors and the fact that our ocean is rising. I am sitting here looking at a sketch hanging over my fireplace of the Original design of Waterplace Park. Nowhere does it show those hideous modern condominiums and restaurants and especially that Mall. It shows a crane that once was part of the X-games, held in capital city. The Original plan was for people to travel on Rt. 95 and see our gorgeous Capitol and stop to see it. Travelers were supposed to see a wonderful Park and Waterfront.It was a place for fun time and WaterFire was a welcomed event, something my husband never got to see. Instead the Park is gone and the Riverwalk is hardly passable with building looming over it. Someone has to tell the Mayor that his plan is hideous.


  2. Chloe C says:

    Waterfire is rarely cancelled for rain…as a volunteer who has been out in snow, pouring rain, and other intense weather, I can verify that you have stated something categorically false. So that leaves me asking the question, what else in this article is false? Facts are appreciated. Please stick to them.


    • Chloe, I did not say that WaterFire is always cancelled for rain, or even usually cancelled for rain. I said often cancelled for rain. We may argue about whether often or rarely is the more appropriate word. Occasionally probably would have been better, but often is not “categorically false.” As a percentage of all WaterFires, rarely would be accurate, but as a percentage of closures versus non-closures for rain, often is just as accurate.


      For readers who contact me by email, I am still not receiving any. I have contacted an expert to help me fix the problem.


      • Peter Van Erp says:

        That phrase “WaterFire is often cancelled if there is rain.” grated on me too, though not nearly so badly as the proposed project. It never rains at WaterFire! (although we do sometimes have heavy condensation).
        As the 3rd longest serving WaterFire volunteer (since 1997), I ‘m pretty sure WaterFire has only been cancelled for rain 4 times (out of 100s scheduled). We have had fires when the volunteers outnumber the visitors, such as the 100th anniversary of the completion of the StateHouse in 2004. The first time Spogga spun fire onto the bow of Prometheus (instead of into the water alongside the bow) was entering the Basin in a thunderstorm. Froma Harrop volunteered with Barry Fain for morning build in a rain shower. & c. & c.
        An editor would have encouraged you to rethink that infelicitous word “often”. A fact checker would have called WaterFire. But in our Brave New World of independent media, you are left alone to face the slings and arrows of the reader.


  3. Anonymous says:

    This is an extremely insensitive title for this article especially in light of the sad news from one of our Providence high schools on Friday.


    • I was unaware of the news you refer to, but would anyway challenge whether that makes the headline “extremely insensitive.” People alas commit suicide every day: does that mean I should never use the word as an analogy to what the city is doing to itself? I hardly think so. You may argue that as an analogy it is overstated. Still, I am sorry it happened in a high school here and hope you will soon forget about whatever distress the headline may have caused.


      • Steve says:

        Absolutely correct, David.
        Frankly, I am sick of the “I’m offended”, “my feelings are hurt”, “that/this/you are insensitive”, and emotional reactions to virtually every word or symbol that feeds self-appointed “victims”.


  4. Actually, the part I like is the bridge over Memorial Blvd. ..if only a combination retail space on street level and parking garage can be built near the Citizens bldg, and Canal Street made two way again with a small island in the middle for safer pedestrian crossing. This two way would make for easy in and out. It is wide enough.
    The problem with Providence is that too many main streets connecting downtown to other neighborhoods have been cut off. Westminster St., Fountain Street, Pine Street, Friendship Street, Hospital Street. Making access to Washington St. more complicated will add to the confusing can of worms. The relocation of rt. 195 was supposed to rejoin streets that were amputated when the original rt. 195 was built. In the process of relocating 195, we amputated Pine Street. We joined Clifford Street with Friendship Street instead of joining Clifford with Clifford and Friendship with Friendship. Heck, we haven’t even rejoined Claverick Street. It is just an empty lot between the two Claverick streets.
    We could have rejoined Alves Street in Fox Point and made that part of South Main Street compatible with sidewalk life, but we made an exit which cuts a great barrier into the neighborhood.
    Cutting flow to Washington Street would make access into and out of Providence more cumbersome than it already is. I agree that we should toss this plan like we should have tossed the Pei plan cutting Westminster Street and destroying the historical character of Cathedral Square, thereby creating a dead zone instead of a mimicked European plaza.
    All roads may lead to Rome, but not all main roads pointing toward downtown Providence don’t lead to downtown, but enter into a confused can of worms.
    …and why do we have to fill in a website to comment on this?


    • Peter Van Erp says:

      The bridge is over the parking lots, leaving an at grade mid block crossing of Memorial. So, by implication, there is nothing to like in this plan.
      I second your comment about Alves Street. The 195 exit should have ended at a stop sign at S. Main, not extended the highway two blocks north.
      So many missed opportunities.


  5. Alan Shawn Fakestein says:

    Plenty of (deserved) negative comments about Mayor Elorza here. But let’s not forget the Local Titan who started this ball rolling: our former mayor Joe Paolino, who gets the vapors just thinking about the great unwashed milling about just meters from his soon-to-be-unveiled boutique hotel at the edge of Kennedy Plaza. Heavens to Betsy! Better move all of us dirty transit users elsewhere, and dump another metric ton of borrowed lucre into redesign and redevelopment.


  6. Peter Van Erp says:

    Has anyone gone by Bill Warner’s grave? I should expect to see the ground heaving.


    • Thank you for reminding me, Peter. I have just added, as I had early on thought of doing, a final line in memoriam to the late Mr. Warner, the designer who gave us Waterplace, the river walks, the skating rink and much else that graces our city.


  7. LazyReader says:

    Can you play in it?
    Architects are assholes who think they can change society without examining the importance of the family. The ruling classes use broken and smashed up childhoods as instruments of domination round the world. That is why Child soldiers are ubiquitous in the Third World; cultures that victimize children sexually and emotionally often have low age of consent laws. It’s also why rich countries send 18-19 year olds to kill them. And why governments have no incentive to end child abuse; because the government needs abuse victims as enforcers of new dogma. If the enlistment age was 20, we’d have smaller armies. If the old fogies in suits and ties who constantly sit behind desks clamoring for war were the first ones drafted; world peace would be a lot more achievable. The largest institutions that frequently exploit children are all run by the government… the public school system, the foster care system and the prison system. Trusting the govt to fix the societal problems is like putting an addict in charge of a pharmacy. And architecture, public art, is a bandaid on a laceration. Children don’t need cartoon-itecture they need respect.


  8. GeBouWoW887 says:

    David, as a fan of good architecture both modern and antique, I rarely agree with you. But today I’m with you 100%.
    Instead of spending $140 million we don’t happen to have on a downtown amusement park, why not get Six Flags to spend their own money to build it. That way, we’d have outsiders to blame for wrecking the place.
    Did the Planning Department pay our real money to the consultants who came up with this idea? They should have given them play money for this joke.


    • Thank you, GBWW. The contract is for $1.8 million, I believe. And it is indeed play money. Don’t forget that Arup is based in London. If Six Flags were to volunteer to wreck Providence for free, it would still need the city’s permission.


      For readers who contact me by email, my email account with Google has not allowed me to receive emails for several days.


  9. barry schiller says:

    I agree too, and thank David for continuing to post about all the stupid wasteful ugly ideas being suggested for Kennedy Plaza. And as a bus user I feel doubly a loser if this is built as this clearly makes transit less convenient.
    Those opposed should consider contacting Governor McKee’s office, he is not invested in this the way Elorza and Raimondo are, and it can’t be financed without help from the state.


  10. Peter Van Erp says:

    The video is so depressing. Thank G*d & Covid19 the $140 million to build this travesty isn’t in anyone’s budget, and hopefully never will be. “Ultramoderne” my @$$.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My assumption, Peter, is that the city expects to get a pot of money from the Covid relief bill and is pulling out all stops to spend it as stupidly as they can manage, while making sure as little of it as possible goes to the relief of the individual citizen. Ultramoderne is, I take it, one of Arup’s subcontractors? I believe they were responsible for the proposal to uglify the Broad Street entrance to Roger Williams Park as well, but I’m not sure. I will look at the video. … Awful! A chain-link-fence paradise!


  11. Brian Heller says:

    Thank you, David.

    The man is delusional as clearly demonstrated by his gubernatorial aspirations.

    Thank God he is term limited as mayor.

    In any case, there are increasing rumbling about a recall and I suspect were it not for COVID, the recall would already be underway.

    Brian Heller

    Sent from my iPhone



    • I think, Brian, that Elorza’s role in all this is probably relatively minor compared with the local design elite and its functionaries, and perhaps developers and their functionaries. RISD and Brown have a lot of embarrassment to live down. Not that he doesn’t deserve the boot for other reasons.


  12. Olin Thompson says:

    David, well said. I agree with you on every point. I do not like the design, in total and it parts, I do not see where it improves our city plus, the city has many more important places to spend its money.


  13. Steve says:

    I could not agree more or hope for the plans feature h more


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