By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Kennedy Plaza is scheduled to get a makeover. The plaza, once used as a regular gathering space, has evolved into a chaotic network of fragmented parks, multilane traffic, bus lanes and a seasonal skating rink.
Eleven lanes of traffic between the Bank of America Building and Burnside Park and four more between Burnside Park and the old train station leave pedestrians dodging cars and buses while crossing the plaza.
Until recently, events in Burnside Park were rare, resulting in few visitors. Instead, the park became an unofficial day shelter for the city’s homeless, an issue that Occupy Providence brought sympathetic attention to in 2011. Now, the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy (DPPC) intends to revitalize the plaza and transform it into a place Rhode Islanders want to spend their time.
The DPPC unveiled its ambitious vision to a crowd of 500 people April 18 at the Biltmore Hotel. The plan includes drastically less traffic dissecting the plaza, better transitions between the plaza’s regions, eateries with outdoor seating and venues for outdoor entertainment. There were more trees, a water feature and a designated parking lot for food trucks.
“Every major city around the world has a central square where people congregate,” said Cliff Wood, the DPPC’s executive director. According to Wood, the plaza has slowly declined since the 1960s, when Kennedy Plaza played host to an important campaign speech by John K. Kennedy. Now, Wood said, the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction, in large part because of the DPPC’s efforts.
During the past few years, DPPC has encouraged groups to use Burnside Park for community events. Activities such as Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Downtown Farmers Market and family friendly programming like Providence Storytime in Burnside Park have improved the plaza’s reputation, Wood said.
“We use children’s programming to make grown men feel safe when they walk through the park,” he said with a laugh.
Perhaps the most impressive happening to occur in Kennedy Plaza’s recent history was last year’s First Works, an event that brought 40,000 people to the square to see acrobats perform atop some of the city’s tallest buildings.
The DPPC is now ready to break ground on its physical projects. To implement the massive changes proposed, DPPC estimates it needs about $20 million. The organization has secured about $2.4 million in funding from the city of Providence, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) and a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant.
Despite a financial shortfall, Wood said the project will be implemented section by section, and that the plaza will see significant changes during the next 15 months, including alterations to the plaza’s traffic lanes and improvements to Burnside Park.
While most people in attendance for DPPC’s announcement seemed eager for change in Kennedy Plaza, some voiced concerns about the fate of the bus services that currently take center stage in the plaza. Kennedy Plaza serves as a main hub for RIPTA, with dozens of route transfers.
Wood assured the audience that RIPTA services would be maintained at their current level after the project was completed, but didn’t offer details about how this will be achieved if most of the bus lanes are removed.
“Know that this is good for RIPTA,” said Wood, just before transitioning to the possibility of having a carousel in the park.
Gov. Lincoln Chaffee, who spoke at the event, claimed the project was good for RIPTA and the environment, but failed to explain why.
Randall Rose, a volunteer for RIPTA Riders, a public transit advocacy group, said the presentation left important questions unanswered. “They claim this project will help transit, but the evidence was pretty skimpy,” he said. “The only concrete detail offered by the speakers about public transportation is that there will be fewer bus stops.”
Rose and others are concerned about the priorities of the project. “We do not see signs that this is pro-transit or pro-environment,” Rose said. “Instead they are interested in an upscale place that generates higher values. Higher values don’t necessarily help those who need the bus.”
Rose also said he was disappointed that the speakers gave the sense that having bus riders in the plaza is a problem.
Barry Schiller, a longtime advocate of public transit and bike-friendly cities, also had questions. “How do you reduce the bus presence and make things better for passengers at the same time?” he asked. “People see transit as a problem instead of seeing an opportunity for a statewide transit hub.”
Schiller didn’t deny that the project could bring about positive changes for public transit. “Some of the drawings show buses in the plaza, just rerouted and more efficient. That could be a good thing,” he said. “Transit and passengers are often overlooked. I hope this time is different.”
Ned Handy, a DPPC board member, reaffirmed that the intent of the project is to maintain the integrity of the plaza’s bus service. The new plan would move bus berths to the perimeter of the plaza, and, based on the findings of RIPTA’s imminent comprehensive operational analysis, may divert some routes from Kennedy Plaza if they don’t need to transfer there, he said.
The Peter Pan and Greyhound terminals may also be relocated, according to Handy.
Wood stressed the benefits to walkers and bikers. “Kennedy Plaza will be a one thousand percent better place to be on foot,” he said. According to Wood, mobility around the square for pedestrians will be greatly improved, and bikers will be able to navigate more easily because of the reduced number of traffic lanes.
When asked specifically about RIPTA services in Kennedy Plaza, Wood explained that RIPTA’s operation in the plaza is based on 20-year-old data. The forthcoming analysis will better reflect RIPTA’s present-day needs, he said.
Amy Pettine, RIPTA’s planning and marketing director, said the DPPC project will not reduce bus services in Kennedy Plaza. According to Pettine, RIPTA is working closely with the city and the DPPC to improve the transit experience.
“We are advocating for new and improved bus berths, more space for waiting passengers, improvements to the transit building and better public information,” Pettine said.
RIPTA will also group routes that travel in the same corridors or to the same destination in the same or adjacent berths to make catching buses easier, she said.
Pettine said RIPTA is nearing the completion of its comprehensive operational analysis, which she described as a thorough examination of the agency’s entire system. She said that only one route has been recommended to be diverted from Kennedy Plaza thus far. Pettine also noted that despite the elimination or consolidation of some routes and a reduction in the number of berths in Kennedy Plaza the volume of service will remain the same because of increased efficiency and scheduling improvements.
Even if RIPTA grows in the future, Pettine said, there is additional space alongside the park and Exchange Street for future berths.
Less berths in Kennedy Plaza frees up physical space to allow for other uses, but the plaza will continue to serve as a transportation hub, Pettine said.
“Currently, Kennedy Plaza basically does one thing — serve bus riders,” she said. “A mixed-use vibrant area would be an improvement for everyone who uses the plaza and RIPTA supports efforts to create a better experience for our riders. De-emphasizing the single use of buses and bringing other activities for our bus riders and possibly attracting new riders by providing a safer, multi-use environment is something RIPTA supports.”