Google aerial photo of Kennedy Plaza:
Around again at Kennedy Plaza
Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline envisions a change of scenery in Kennedy Plaza, but RIPTA officials say they've worked too hard on the current configuration to change the bus depot now.
09:23 AM EDT on Tuesday, June 14, 2005
BY CATHLEEN F. CROWLEY
Providence Journal Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE -- Buses arrive at Kennedy Plaza with a metallic squeal of brakes, and they leave with a low growl from their engines and ripples of heated exhaust trailing behind them.
The bus depot in the center of the city pulsates with activity from 6 a.m. to midnight when the buses run. Each day, 50,000 riders pass through Kennedy Plaza.
Meiling Joseph rides a Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority [RIPTA] bus into downtown Providence nearly every day. The bus transports Joseph to errands, physical therapy, her gym and anything else she wants to do.
She points to the stone building across the plaza where she banks. She shops at the Providence mall looming behind her. She exercises at Curves nearby on Union Street. And bus number 54 delivers her to the doorstep of her therapist.
"It's perfect," she said.
Mayor David N. Cicilline doesn't think so.
He knows the plaza well. His City Hall office sits above it. Cicilline can hear the buses and his window looks out onto the stretch of concrete and bricks that pave the plaza from end to end.
He would rather see a park and greenery, like the flower beds and shrubs that sprouted from islands in the plaza a century ago. It's a "long-term vision," he said, knowing it won't happen quickly, if ever.
"As I look at great cities around the world, I don't know of one that has a bus depot in the middle of it," Cicilline said. "This was, at one time, a beautiful public space in which people were free to congregate in the center of the city. It would be great to restore that back to its earlier splendor."
Cicilline mentioned his idea at a business luncheon last month and he was surrounded with well-wishers when he finished his speech.
"They said, 'I'm so glad to hear you say that,' " he said.
RIPTA officials weren't so happy.
"Personally, working on that [Kennedy Plaza] project for 10 years, it's like, Oh my gosh, here we go again," said Mark Therrien, assistant general manager at RIPTA.
The plaza had been used as a transportation hub since the day sand and dirt were dumped into the Great Salt Cove to create more land for a growing city.
In the 1980s, the city built a full-blown bus depot on the plaza and RIPTA renovated it in 2002. The renovation took three years of planning and meetings, and totaled $12 million, of which the federal government picked up 80 percent.
"You can't walk away from that," Therrien said. "We'd have to buy it out and pay back the federal government."
Besides, RIPTA likes the bus terminal.
"We still feel it's a very good location for transit and are happy with it, but we will stay open to a conversation," he said.
THE CITY IS crafting a 20-year vision for development, and the relocation of Route 195 will create opportunities for redesigning the transit system.
Cicilline is suggesting that the hub-and-spoke transit system be replaced with "nodes" or clusters of bus stops that disperse the concentration of drop-offs. Other cities, such as Portland, Ore., use nodes.
But first, Cicilline said, the state needs a comprehensive transportation study to analyze long-term transit issues in Providence and the surrounding areas. Used properly, a transportation plan can guide development so there is enough residential density to support public transportation, including buses and other modes of travel.
"We are the fastest growing city in New England and with the kind of traffic that will come with that, we need to look at light rail or street cars, something to move people around the city in something other than their own cars," Cicilline said.
The city has requested $500,000 from the federal government to fund the study.
Therrien said RIPTA contemplated de-centralizing the bus depot in the late 1990s, but business owners along the main bus lines didn't like the proposition.
RIPTA also considered creating a bus depot on the west side of Route 95 for the bus lines that serve the South Side and West End buses.
RIPTA rejected it because it would have created segregated bus stations: the buses to the East Side, Newport and Barrington would have had use of the newly renovated Kennedy Plaza, while the buses that served Providence's minority neighborhoods would have had a bus station that lacked the amenities of Kennedy Plaza.
The idea was never made public because it was deemed too controversial, Therrien said.
A regional transportation study would be useful, Therrien said, but RIPTA already knows how critical Providence is to its success. RIPTA's most traveled routes all run through downtown.
"If a bus doesn't come to downtown Providence, it doesn't do well," he said. "We rank our routes 1 to 60, and 48 of those routes come to Providence, and they're the top 48 bus routes in our system."
The agency has tried bypassing downtown. Five years ago, they ran a bus from the South Side of Providence to Olneyville. Only one or two people rode the bus on each trip; RIPTA canceled the route after a year. Routes that run from suburb to suburb don't do nearly as well as buses that travel downtown, Therrien said.
RIPTA officials want to meet with Cicilline to talk about his vision for transit, he said.
"Downtown Providence is still the heart of the state of Rhode Island," he said. "The health of the city is the health of transit for us."
KENNEDY PLAZA, under one name or another, has been a hub of transit in the city since it was created, said Edward F. Sanderson, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.
Because the plaza lies within the Downtown Providence National Register Historic District, any changes there would need approval from the commission.
The land where the plaza sits used to be marshland of the Great Salt Cove. In 1846, the area was filled in and the city built a train station along the southern edge of what is now Burnside Park. City Hall was built three decades later. The train depot burned down in 1896 and was rebuilt 500 feet northwest, where the Rhode Island Foundation stands today.
The whole area was called Exchange Place to reflect the fact that people were changing between trolleys and trains, Sanderson said.
"This was always a busy area," he said. "It was never a peaceful oasis."
Photographs of the period show chaos and congestion.
The area in front of City Hall became a terminal for trolley cars. A waiting room for trolley passengers was built in 1907 on the City Hall side of the plaza and in 1913, the city laid trolley tracks in a circle around the plaza. Until then, the center of the plaza had been a vast, flat expanse that horse-drawn buggies, and later cars, traveling across in every direction. The area was landscaped into islands of flower beds and shrubs, but they fell into neglect during the Depression and World War II, Sanderson said.
Little changed between 1914 and 1984, when the city paved over the area and made it into a bus depot.
Sanderson wouldn't mind if the number of buses going through Kennedy Plaza were reduced, but they shouldn't disappear entirely, he said.
"I would hate to see the center of the city become empty -- beautifully landscaped, but nobody there and no cars and no people," he said. "I think that would be terrible. I would take activity over empty any day."
Staff writer Cathleen F. Crowley can be reached at (401) 277-7376 or ccrowley [at] projo.com.