The Future of Kennedy Plaza

In light of state plans for a multi-hub bus system, stakeholders reflect on the function of the city’s transit center

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Whether passing through on foot or by one of many means of transit, Kennedy Plaza, our city’s vital center, can be a destination or a layover to surrounding retail, restaurants, and offices. Pre-COVID, summers carried Latin beats from salsa lessons at Providence Rink and Winter Lights Markets promised swaths of revelers shopping under tents in the lit-up Burnside Park. On ordinary days, it remains an essential communal spot for people without housing to gather and access services. Even this past year has seen plenty of adaptations to keep the Plaza’s spirit alive through comedy nights at Trinity Beer Garden, farmers markets, and the Space Transformation Station’s whimsical robots and “Yuranian Aliens” interacting with commuters.

When you picture Kennedy Plaza, buses probably come to mind, too.

“I believe the multi-use functions of Kennedy Plaza work well,” says Patricia Raub, Coordinator of RI Transit Riders and a vocal opposition to the city’s and state’s Multi-Hub Bus System proposal to disperse several bus berths across three hubs. “All this activity provides the ingredients for what the celebrated city planner Jane Jacobs regarded as ‘the ideal urban environment’: one that has the potential for human interaction, offers a lively atmosphere, and ensures that there are enough ‘eyes on the street’ to help to ensure safety…. The presence of public transit users is as important to the success of the Plaza as a public space as are any of the other individuals and groups who pass through it.”

With a $35 million bond approved by voters in 2014, Governor Raimondo and Mayor Elorza announced early November the plan to move forward with the Providence Multi-Hub Bus System proposal, which was developed with RIDOT and RIPTA with the aim of improving connectivity across the city center via the addition of new transit hubs. “It spreads out the heavy concentration of buses and pedestrians from a congested Kennedy Plaza to strategic satellite locations at the Innovation District, the Providence Train Station, and along the edges of Kennedy Plaza,” according to RIDOT Director Peter Alviti, Jr. in a press release detailing the plan. “This configuration gives riders access to their jobs, educational institutions, entertainment, and key intermodal transfers to major northeast metropolitan areas.”

While a public engagement process is still underway as a part of the project’s design phase, a group of community stakeholders representing a variety of affected businesses and services met virtually mid-November for the Life in Kennedy Plaza Zoom panel that began to identify and unpack Plaza functions that the proposed multi-hub plan risks dismantling. Organized by the Providence Streets Coalition and moderated by Dwayne Keys of the South Providence Neighborhood Association, the panel drew insights from organizations like the RI Homeless Advocacy Project, the Providence Foundation, RICARES, the BIG NAZO satellite studio Space Transformation Station, and others, in an effort to bring not only bus riders’ voices to the discussion but also those of the underserved and low-income populations, whether sheltered or unsheltered, and those living with disabilities or in addiction recovery, who rely on Kennedy Plaza as an essential access point in ways not always visible to the occasional passerby.

In its current state, Kennedy Plaza doesn’t come without its challenges and opportunities for improvement. State Senator and downtown merchant Joshua Miller explains in the panel, “I see [Kennedy Plaza], as a person who’s directly involved in policy, as a barometer for how well we’re doing in so many different policy areas.” State- or city-wide issues beyond transit, like the housing crisis and lack of Housing First programs, manifest more visibly in the Plaza because of its nature as a hub that connects the whole state. For the microcosm to flourish, maintenance and upkeep to the physical infrastructure – things like lighting, sidewalk repairs, and restroom facilities – as well as social services like a homeless outreach center, programming, and public safety are essential.

“There’s plenty that works – and that doesn’t – in Kennedy Plaza today,” says John Flaherty, Deputy Director of Grow Smart RI, who explains that along with passenger amenities like restrooms, real-time bus schedules, shelter, and easy access to food and retail, Kennedy Plaza provides a central location for robust daily transit use. “In order for people to get where they’re going quickly and efficiently, the primary function that most needs to be preserved is the ability to make all transfers and connections in a single convenient location.”

Diego Arene-Morley, program manager at RICARES, explains that the converging of folks from all walks of life and all over Rhode Island in Kennedy Plaza also allows for more efficient distribution of the lifesaving overdose treatment, Naloxone, which took place all summer, along with easy access for their clients in addiction recovery to get to their Mathewson Street center.

So what would an improved infrastructure look like to support these functions? “I absolutely believe the opportunity exists to improve Greater Kennedy Plaza as a safe, more inviting and welcoming public space for all Rhode Islanders while also improving transit mobility and accessibility,” says Flaherty. “Specifically, the vision developed by the City of Providence with significant public input in 2018 outlined how this could be achieved. The concept included the concentration of transit routes and stops along Washington Street, while also proposing a number of traffic circulation and pedestrian improvements, enhanced shelters, landscaping, and the unification of Biltmore and Burnside Parks with public programming space in Kennedy Plaza. Critically essential to any such plan would be the commitment to proper maintenance and security.”

Raub and the RI Transit Riders group call for the multi-hub plan to be halted, for a more robust impact assessment to be launched to research not only bus connection times and convenience – which Raub and several other stakeholders argue in the panel will be harmed by the multi-hub plan rather than improved – but also the impacts to the communal third space that is Kennedy Plaza.

Despite its shortcomings, invested organizations close to it envision a positive, inviting future for Kennedy Plaza if funds are redirected toward keeping it together. “The character of the city is on display there,” says Erminio Pinque, Director of the Space Transformation Station, and whose performers and educators interact and infuse joy daily into the everyday life of the city center. “Art programming and increased social service outreach would, in our opinion, do a tremendous amount to amplify the positive potential and transform the space into a place where interesting things are happening.”

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