Seeking a balance, city hosts conversation on future of Kennedy Plaza

Mayor Jorge Elorza speaks to community members at a public forum about Kennedy Plaza.

PROVIDENCE, R.I (WPRI) — The downtown plaza named for President John F. Kennedy that serves as a major hub for bus travel in the city may be getting a big makeover in the coming years.

Mayor Jorge Elorza hosted a community forum Thursday night for members of the public to share their ideas for the future of the plaza, which the city plans to redesign once the Rhode Island Transit Authority redirects a number of bus routes from the plaza to a proposed Intermodal Transit Center slated to be built near the Providence train station.

“I truly believe that great cities have great public spaces,” Elorza said, telling the crowd that he envisioned Kennedy Plaza turning into something resembling New York City’s Central Park or Bryant Park.

The plaza is currently dominated by buses, both from RIPTA and two private carriers, Peter Pan and Greyhound. Safety has been a concern there, as multiple pedestrians have been struck. Last year, a woman was hit and killed by a Peter Pan bus while walking in a crosswalk. In 2015, a federal court officer was struck and killed by a RIPTA bus, also while crossing the street.

“What we’re trying to do is strike a balance,” said Bonnie Nickerson, the city’s Director of Planning and Development. “Kennedy Plaza has always been the civic hub of the city. It’s where people want to be. There are all kinds of different activities, and we want to just balance the transit presence with all the different civic activity in the plaza.”

RIPTA has not put out a plan for how many bus stops might be moving to the new Intermodal Transit Center, which is a Rhode Island Department of Transportation project. But spokeswoman Barbara Polichetti says the general plan is to decrease the agency’s footprint in Kennedy Plaza while providing ease of service to riders. She said there will still be RIPTA stops in Kennedy Plaza for the many riders who use the bus to get downtown.

A slide at a presentation on Kennedy Plaza presents options for a new design.
A slide at a presentation on Kennedy Plaza presents options for a new design.

Peter Pan and Greyhound buses will all likely be moving to the Transit Center.

At the public meeting, Nickerson presented four possible options for redesigning the plaza once the RIPTA presence decreases. The plans change the configuration of “greater Kennedy Plaza,” which includes Burnside Park, the skating rink and Biltmore Park. Members of the public weighed in, suggesting better pedestrian access, bike infrastructure, a playground, and more contiguous space that isn’t broken up by bus routes.

“[Kennedy Plaza] wasn’t designed for buses, it was designed for horse and buggy,” said former Mayor Joe Paolino, who owns a business on the plaza.

A photo of Kennedy Plaza from before 1900 shows horses pulling carts.
A photo of Kennedy Plaza from before 1900 shows horses pulling carts.

He said he hopes the plaza will become safer and more attractive.

“Can that be something spectacular?” he said. “I’d like to see art and sculpture. Get the artists from RISD and from the local schools and Providence, and let them use that plaza to be able to do some fun things.”

Paolino has been outspoken about improving the plaza and downtown area, supporting an ordinance to prevent some panhandling and even purchasing St. Joseph’s hospital to help provide housing for homeless people. The plan faced backlash at a news conference last month from people who live in the South Providence community.

“I’m just taking a step back, I’m trying to rearrange my thoughts and I’m meeting with various people in the community,” Paolino said Thursday. “I was willing in the private sector to put my money where my mouth was and to make something available.”

Mayor Jorge Elorza has proposed to open a day center in the city, so homeless people have a place to go instead of being outside. A spokesperson for the mayor says the project was awarded to social services organization House of Hope, but a location for the center has not been chosen.

At the meeting Thursday night, Deborah Wray sat in the back of the room holding a sign that read: “Keep the bus hub where the people are. Save Kennedy Plaza.” She said she takes the bus every day.

“I don’t want anyone in this room who doesn’t look like me to forget what it’s all about,” Wray said. She said the plans shouldn’t just be about “making Providence pretty.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo issued a statement Thursday on the plans to redesign the plaza: “I’m pleased with the enthusiasm to re-imagine Kennedy Plaza and look forward to seeing what the community comes up with. The state’s role will be to enable transportation changes that support the vision for economic development in downtown Providence.”

Raimondo said in order to justify any state investments, the proposed project will need to ensure public safety, minimize disruptions to RIPTA service, and be fiscally responsible.