Forces are gathering to undo much of the good work done in recent decades to improve the city of Providence. Our beautiful new waterfront seems about to be sacrificed unnecessarily to climate anxieties. Kennedy Plaza, the nexus of public transit in the capital of the Ocean State, seems about to be transformed – again, unnecessarily – into a goofball kiddie playground, a redundant extension of the goofball kiddie playground proposed for Waterplace Park.
City and state officials are drooling at the gusher of allegedly free federal funds flowing from Washington, hundreds of millions of dollars, and they are falling for the most fiscally unsound schemes to spend the money. This windfall, if it is not spent more wisely, will be diverted away from real needs of real people that have arisen either from the covid pandemic or needs long unmet – such as the need for more affordable housing and repair of our public school infrastructure.
The city’s next mayor, the newly elected Brett Smiley, must act to ensure that better options are not foreclosed before he takes office.
Providence has in recent decades won international accolades for projects that have enhanced the livability of our city. First among these is officially known as the River Relocation Project, which reopened the hidden, neglected Providence and Woonasquatucket rivers between 1990 and 1996, lining them with arched bridges and river walks that link together a host of new parks.
Second among these projects, shaped over a longer term, is Kennedy Plaza, which has already seen its beauty degraded by the removal of its elegant Art Nouveau bus waiting kiosks, replaced in 2015 with unembellished utilitarian cubicles unworthy of our city’s central civic square. Its intermodal bus terminal and the skating rink next door in Burnside Park were designed to enhance its historical character, improving Kennedy Plaza’s status as a nationally recognized example of the City Beautiful movement that swept the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We should take care not to tamper unwisely with this landmark.
Both of those projects are successful cases of urban planning, without which a third project would not have happened. The Downcity Plan transformed our downtown from a down-at-the-heels civic center into a thriving neighborhood. The plan stripped off poorly conceived mid-century faux façades slapped on to “modernize” buildings in a variety of traditional styles. All have since been replaced by new façades that reflect the city’s historical character. This helped to promote a return of shops, restaurants and college facilities to downtown, and attracted people who had never considered embracing a downtown lifestyle. They bought or rented apartments above shops or units that once were doctor’s offices, offices of municipal agencies or the sales floors of long-gone department stores.
Thus did a brand new residential neighborhood emerge that had not graced downtown since before it was downtown. Here, briefly, is how it happened:
In 1828, the erection of the Arcade – America’s oldest shopping mall – sparked a commercial boom, luring shops from the east side of the river to the west side, transforming what had been a residential district since the early 1700s into a new commercial district, which by the 1890s was among the liveliest in the nation. Depression and World War II left the city with a dreary, dilapidated downtown. The commercial district was at last revived in the 1990s and the 2000s by the Downcity Plan and other efforts to preserve the city’s historical character. For example, the Providence Preservation Society and its revolving fund helped finance many rescues of old buildings facing demolition in downtown.
The revitalization of downtown and the entire Providence renaissance phenomenon would likely not have happened if the waterfront had not been revived – largely the work of the late Bill Warner – or if Kennedy Plaza had not been improved. These innovative approaches are recognized by public planning agencies and private urbanist associations around the nation. Providence has fared well in dozens of surveys and polls ranking cities based on various measures of livability. Now, before downtown has even reached its potential as an urban mecca, the city’s innovative urban interventions are suffering from an epic bout of misunderstanding that has exposed the two major projects described above to reversal, putting the third major project, downtown revitalization, at risk.
A future of economic decline for Providence and Rhode Island will be the result if these planned mistakes are not corrected.
Local magazines such as Rhode Island Monthly and Providence Monthly, and news outlets such as the Providence Journal and GoLocalProv, have recently featured articles on the so-called “new downtown,” including changes to Kennedy Plaza and Waterplace Park. Every one of the articles portrays these plans as done deals. Curiously, the articles seem rather subdued in describing the changes, tiptoeing around their boldest aspects, as if they were afraid publicity might arouse suspicion.
Waterplace Park is supposedly going to get a new water feature that would produce “rain” to supposedly enhance the pedestrian experience. Just what we need! Worse are plans to raise the level of the river walks by as much as 11 feet, to prevent high tides from engulfing the stone paths, as they do on occasion but might do more often in the future. To judge by publicly available illustrations (see above), the newly raised paths seem to consist of boardwalks lined with chain-link fencing.
That is aesthetically appalling, to say the least, but more so when you consider that an easy remedy – one that’s already used frequently on WaterFire nights to maintain high tides throughout the evening – is to use the Hurricane Barrier to adjust the tide. Why not use the barrier for the same task, in reverse? Perhaps it would make too much sense to employ an existing mechanism that can do the job for a fraction of the cost of raising the river walks by up to 11 feet. Using the barrier for this purpose would also eliminate the need for a pedestrian bridge over Memorial Boulevard to connect Kennedy Plaza to Waterplace Park.
Eyebrows should arch at the utter folly of the changes proposed for Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park. Merging the two, now divided by Washington Street, would create a sort of mini-Central Park in Providence. Fine. But why should the old skating rink be demolished and replaced by a new rink mere yards away? The plan is for the new rink, with vague, amoeba-like qualities, to be located where the existing bus terminal now sits. In place of the old rink would be a set of basketball courts and other athletic amenities. On a vacant lot four blocks south of the plaza a costly new building for the new bus hub (attractive enough, if its design survives) would be built.
Moreover, the proposed skating blah would be joined on Kennedy Plaza by new modernist structures out of sync with the City Beautiful look of the plaza itself and the majority of historic buildings that form its trapezoidal shape. The beautiful plan for Kennedy Plaza submitted in 2013 by the design firm Union Studio was frog-marched out of the picture years ago. There is a plausible rationale for changing Kennedy Plaza into a civic square with activities more appealing to the upscale residents of the soon-to-be renovated Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Building. There is also a plausible argument for relocating the bus hub to a new building blocks away that offers less space than the plaza for transit to expand. That argument demands a revival of the plaza proposal by Union Studio founder Don Powers.
The city should abandon its ridiculous plans for Kennedy Plaza and Waterplace Park and substitute the ideas described above. Kennedy Plaza need not change much. The potential threat posed by rising tides to Waterplace Park should be dealt with by calibrating the Hurricane Barrier to let in more or less river water as needed to control water levels. That is its job; it need not be restricted to flood control. The barrier’s innovative use to regulate the tides during WaterFire shows how it can be used to address the possible effects of climate change.
The millions saved by shelving overly ambitious plans to bring unnecessary change to Kennedy Plaza and Waterplace Park should be redirected to uses more in line with the purposes envisioned for that money by Congress. Let it go to help people whose lives and futures have been disrupted by covid and, more, by the excessive state and federal response to the covid threat in 2020 and 2021. The extensive cost of governments’ ignoring the science, and suppressing voices that promoted more sensible strategies, should not be borne by citizens.
As I’ve stressed in my writing about Providence for decades, the city should promote new development that strengthens its brand. Its brand is its distinctive historical character. Again and again throughout this city’s master plan and its zoning ordinances, developers and contractors are required to build in ways that fit in with and preserve that historic character. Those laws have been routinely and purposely ignored for decades. That must stop.
Anti-tradition is the new mantra not just here but everywhere else. The attitude has become conventional. This means that strengthening Providence’s historic character is truly innovative, even if it also means relying on the past for inspiration. People prefer traditional buildings by three to one over modernist architecture, which is still unpopular even after a century. Yet attacks on tradition grow ever more routine, even mandatory. Providence should take advantage of this contorted reality to steal a march on other cities by pushing its historic ambiance as its chief allure.
Our location between Boston and New York is an advantage we may always count on, but the fiscal and economic policies of the city and state cut against future growth in ways that can be counteracted only by our attractive cultural features – and our historic character is as big a cultural feature as any.
To paraphrase Franklin: “A beautiful city, Ma’am, if you can keep it.”
The importance of this story of Providence’s recent decades arises from the fact that so many of its citizens know so little of its history, even its recent history. We are ignorant of our own best interests. Change for the sake of change is not good policy. If citizens knew the whole story of their city’s recent past, they would be alarmed at the kooky visions of its future. But we don’t know, so we read accounts of “the new Providence” with a foggy equanimity.
Readers, consider yourselves forewarned.