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Still no basis to leave Kennedy Plaza – David Brussat

by David Brussat, Architecture Here and There, contributing writer on architecture

Image, above: Proposed Dorrance Street Transit Center four blocks south of Kennedy Plaza. (Union Studios)

Not much seems to have changed from last November when I first wrote about a new proposal to replace the Kennedy Plaza bus depot with a new, indoor facility at Dorrance and Clifford streets, four or five blocks south of the plaza next to the Garrahy courthouse. In late winter, public forums sought input, but bus riders seemed to remain frosty. I attended the first and asked why was Kennedy Plaza now too small?  I got essentially this reply, as quoted in the Journal Feb. 26, which did not, in my opinion, answer the question:

Greg Nordin, RIPTA’s chief of strategic advancement, said at Thursday’s hearing that RIPTA has “outgrown” Kennedy Plaza. Although the new transit hub would have a smaller footprint, it would be more efficient and allow more room for RIPTA to expand service, he said.

“A smaller footprint” must be the understatement of the week. When proposed amenities are added on the ground floor bus level, will there still be enough room for buses? A police substation, ticket machines, waiting area, restrooms, coffee shop, bicycle repair, lockers for riders, and social services are among the possibilities. The ground floor plan shows what seems to be a reasonable turning radius and space for bus activity, but nowhere near what Kennedy Plaza offers, although the lack of buses in the first and second images above and below might raise some eyebrows. That all such activity would be indoors is, to be sure, the the advantage riders like most – though, of course, Kennedy Plaza already has an indoor depot, which could be expanded at a fraction of the cost of the proposed new one.

Nothing seems to have changed except that bids have gone out and the process has advanced, with more public meetings, shifting timelines, the same mainly governmental and institutional supporters and the same opposition among riders, along with the usual inflation of costs rising from a $35 million bond issue in 2014 to a price currently estimated at $77 million. The post below, “Presto chango bus hub idea!” from Nov. 16, does not seem to need updates, except to add that the city and state now seem to be on board. 

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Presto chango bus hub idea!

Seemingly out of the clear blue sky a completely new bus hub idea has suddenly emerged in Providence. The Innovation District Transit Center, it’s called. The reigning notion of shifting most buses from Kennedy Plaza to a pair of new sub hubs blocks away has not been popular. Most riders believe the bus hub should remain in the plaza. So instead of sticking with the decades-old tried and true, downtown advocates such as the Providence Foundation and Grow Smart RI now propose a whole new ballgame, popping in from far left field.

So far, neither city nor state has turned thumbs up or down on the proposal.

According to a Providence Journal article by Patrick Anderson and published last Thursday, the new proposed bus hub would sit near the Garrahy Court House, on a large parcel of parking lots at the intersection of Dorrance and Dyer streets, one block from the Providence River. It would be a multi-use facility expected to include shops, restaurants and 40 units of housing in a six-story brick building. Will it be affordable housing? “Workforce housing” says the plan.

Anderson writes:

A coalition of nonprofits and businesses are promoting a plan to move the bus berths in Kennedy Plaza inside a proposed six-story building containing a new full-service transit terminal. In addition to shops, restaurants, an indoor waiting area, public bathrooms and parking, the new $77-million terminal building would also have more than 40 apartments.

The proponents, who include Grow Smart RI and the Providence Foundation, came up with the plan after the state’s proposal to replace the Kennedy Plaza hub with three new facilities sparked outrage from city officials and advocates for transit riders.

I don’t recall reading of any such “outrage” from city officials, who seemed perfectly willing to buy into spending a $35 million state bond issue on items that the public did not vote for in 2014. Transit activists have all along deplored the heightened distances and rider confusion considered likely under the plan to split up Kennedy Plaza’s central role, with two new sub hubs at the train station and, as originally conceived, at the proposed Garrahy garage. The plaza’s future grows only cloudier under the latest plan. The plan’s visioneers want to “alleviate crowding” in Kennedy Plaza. Huh? What planet are they living on?

The six-story building’s design is traditional, and quite nice, not surprisingly so from the downtown firm of Union Studio Architecture. Union Studio’s plan of 2013 for Kennedy Plaza, which integrated an upgraded public square into the existing bus amenities, was frog-marched out of the picture in favor of a sterile redesign, implemented in 2015, that included removing the plaza’s Art Nouveau waiting kiosks and substituting highly unenchanting plastic kiosks.

Now Union Studio has been tapped to design the new terminal on Dorrance. Does this mean that its 2013 plan for Kennedy Plaza is now alive again? Or is it more of a quid pro quo for having been stiffed by the 2014 plaza redesign, which introduced maximum sterility into what was once a lovely civic square? A tug of war between traditional and modernist visions of downtown’s future seems to be in progress. Advocates of civic beauty have had little to applaud of late.

Kennedy Plaza is named after a dead white male, so it seems to be an obvious candidate for cancellation by today’s laughably woke municipal administration and its corporate backers.

That may seem over the top, but apparently the city is now planning to sell its beautiful statue of Christopher Columbus, recently removed, rather than storing it until the current mania has passed. Think of the most stupid ideas for how to move this city forward, and they are all being thrown at the wall to see if they stick. A cartoonish new entrance to Roger Williams Park is being erected at its Broad Street entrance. Kennedy Plaza and Waterplace have been targeted with kindergarten amenities – referred to absurdly as a “more vibrant and welcoming public space” by proponents. They would, for example, place an automatic rain maker above Waterplace (just what we need!), raise the river walks by eleven feet, and demolish a perfectly good skating rink at Burnside Park in favor of a curlicue rink in the plaza itself. They seem willing to destroy beautiful Providence rather than continue to stew in frustration at its privileged status among American cities of its size.

All of this churning just wastes money that could fund genuine necessities as we emerge from the pandemic. I wonder how much of the $35 million in bond money even remains after so many rounds of idiotic “planning” since 2014? Not enough to fund the $77 million Innovation District Transit Center, I dare say! (Gov. Dan McKee has wrinkled his nose at that cost figure.)

This city has rebounded in the past half century because it has tried (fitfully, to be sure) to retain its civilized legacy, most endearingly and enduringly via its traditional redesign of the waterfront by the late Bill Warner between 1990 and 1996. How the latest ideas for Kennedy Plaza and public transit fit into a scenario that seems eager to repudiate that history is anybody’s guess.

To read the full blog: https://architecturehereandthere.com/2022/05/20/still-no-basis-to-leave-plaza/

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To read other articles by David Brussat: https://rinewstoday.com/david-brussat-contributing-writer/

David Brussat

My freelance writing and editing on architecture and others 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

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