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The planned Kennedy Plaza transformation, years in the making, is one of Providence Mayor Angel Taveras’ top economic-development priorities. The city plans to spend $1.7 million to help transform the commuter hub into a pedestrian destination with fewer buses and more investment downtown, creating what the mayor has called “a vibrant and dynamic park, pedestrian mall and public space.”
The Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy unveiled the plans in April, with the business community among the estimated $20 million project’s biggest supporters.
“Kennedy Plaza as it is now is unwelcoming and hinders business development in a major way,” said Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce President Laurie White. She added that the proposed transformation will make the plaza more multipurpose; “a gathering space for programming and activities, not just a place for people to kill time while waiting for the bus.”
If the project succeeds, it will not be the first time a transformation brought people and dollars into the city. The College Hill renaissance shepherded by former Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. landed Providence in national travel magazines and newspapers, helped attract an eponymous show that ran for five seasons on NBC, and made WaterFire possible.
The Kennedy Plaza project, however, will distinguish itself by aiming for the bull’s eye: downtown Providence.
The Kennedy Plaza area in question includes Biltmore Park, the skating center, Burnside Park and the area from City Hall to the Federal Building and U.S. Court House. Plans include integrating the skating center to a wider area, allowing for better off-season use, raised roadways for better pedestrian connectivity and calming car traffic, and a “civic plaza,” described by proponents as a “front porch for City Hall.”
“Great cities are defined by great places. Providence has many great places but not one as central and critical as Kennedy Plaza,” said Joe Haskett, senior associate at Union Studio Architects, which helped design the project. “Every great city has a central square that each of its citizens can recognize and want to go to – be they adults, students or kids. Furthermore, this citizenry is not only made up of individuals but also includes the cultural, civic and local business entities.”
The city’s $1.7 million is allocated from the Downtown Circulator Project. Using an Our Town grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, Haskett and his Union Studio Architects have led the process over the past 12 months.
White says funding may still be a problem, even with the possible deployment of federal funds. She remains optimistic, as does Haskett.
“We understand there are economic, regulatory and logistic hurdles to overcome but the partners involved in the process to date are working hard to make Kennedy Plaza a win-win for everyone,” Haskett said. “I’m confident that if the hard work currently being done by the conservancy, along with The Providence Foundation, the city, the R.I. Public Transit Authority and local businesses continues, then it’s only a matter of time before Kennedy Plaza’s full potential can be realized.”
Working toward that full potential is Cliff Wood, executive director of the conservancy. He believes in the project because of the importance of the city’s public spaces. Depending on their level of management and maintenance, he says public spaces can either be an asset or a detriment to the local economy and culture.
“We also know that this is a ‘pass or fail’ endeavor. Either you manage and maintain spaces at a level that attracts commerce, investment, people and positive activities, or you don’t meet that threshold and you are stuck with public spaces that deteriorate, discourage investment and ultimately become blighted,” he said.
Wood thinks public/private partnerships are crucial to success, bringing complementary private dollars to public spaces, adding to municipal capacity, and creating spaces where people want to be.
“The most successful public spaces have many great … but unrelated things, happening at once in the same area,” he said. “People come for these mixed uses, created vibrancy and a sense of safety and community. People can access Greater Kennedy Plaza by foot, bicycle, car or public transit.
Ideally, commerce will follow, whether in the form of food trucks, retail development, capital projects or increased property values and enhanced tax base. As Wood says, these opportunities arise when public spaces are managed, maintained and programmed at a high level.
In this project, that high level of management and maintenance includes improving bus operations at the heart of the plaza. RIPTA is considering reducing the number of bus berths to 10, relocated to the edges of the plaza, allowing the bus-only lanes in the middle of the plaza to be re-imagined for public use. The reconfiguration of the bus stops and improvements in front of City Hall could be completed in 2014, with some of the funding coming from federal money for roadway improvements from the Circulator Project.
“In the end, RIPTA may reduce the overall number of berths, however the volume of service in Kennedy Plaza will not diminish,” said Amy Pettine, RIPTA director of planning and marketing. “Instead of bus reduction, a more accurate description would be ‘de-emphasize.’ The recently completed Comprehensive Operational Analysis helped us identify ways to better use the plaza, which is currently beyond capacity and not working ideally for our customers. The buses are not going away, the number of bus berths, and possibly the amount of time buses dwell there, will be reduced.”
When completed, the project will owe some creative debt to other city success stories.
“We looked at Bryant Park and Herald Square in New York City, Pioneer Square in Portland, Tuileries Garden in Paris and The Interchange in Minneapolis to name only a few and all for various reasons,” Haskett said.
“Some demonstrated a successful approach to layout, urban design and economic development. Others showed unique ideas on how best to program the spaces and others showed options of how to integrate transit into urban centers while still appealing to nontransit users,” he said.
Other Providence projects, such as the micro-apartment and retail spaces in the Arcade and the Biltmore Parking Garage retail plan, feed into this vision. The collaborators agree that the most effective design and implementation at Kennedy Plaza will do nothing if there’s no way to attract the people. In a downtown long searching for a way to bring – and keep – the people coming, The Kennedy Plaza project has many supporters.
“The level of interest and the momentum the project is gaining tells me that everyone understands the significance of this project,” said Haskett. •