Panelists Agree: Kennedy Plaza Belongs to Buses
November 25, 2020
PROVIDENCE — Kennedy Plaza was a place where people of history stood and inspired.
In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt gave a rousing speech on the steps of City Hall. Fifteen years later, Harry Houdini enthralled a crowd of locals with his marvelous feats of magic.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy brought a glimpse of Camelot to downtown Providence during a stop on his presidential campaign. He made such an impression that, after he was assassinated, the plaza was stripped of its original name — Exchange Place — and renamed in his honor.
Today, Kennedy Plaza is the heart of public transit in Rhode Island, and a place where homeless people and bankers commingle. But its future is uncertain.
The resistance to the state-led breakup of the Kennedy Plaza bus system into a multi-hub system is still going strong.
On a recent Tuesday evening, the Providence Streets Coalition hosted an online meeting to talk about the future of the plaza. A group of activists and stakeholders were invited to do what they say the state and city haven’t done: have a conversation with the public about what it envisions for Kennedy Plaza.
“We’re doing exactly what should have been done from the beginning,” Dwayne Keys, chairman of the South Providence Neighborhood Association, said during the Nov. 17 virtual meeting. “When it came to this idea of this multi-bus hub … thing that we were questioning was who did they ask? Who did they talk to? Did they speak with the end user, those who rely on transportation?”
While the Rhode Island Transit Riders was invited to a Zoom presentation about the plan this summer, the group noted in a July 31 letter that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT) plan “is slated for implementation on an accelerated schedule without ever having a public hearing or workshop.”
Just a few weeks ago, on Nov. 5, after months of pushback from transit activists, nonprofits, concerned residents, and even the City Council, Gov. Gina Raimondo stated that she will be moving forward with the Multi-Hub Bus System.
“Our multi-hub system, which was developed after years of stakeholder feedback and input, will be good for riders, good for the environment, and good for jobs,” Raimondo said.
A week after the governor’s pronouncement, on Nov. 12, Mayor Jorge Elorza and the city’s Department of Planning and Development announced the selection of the London-based Arup Group to lead the design of a “cohesive vision that connects Downtown Providence’s public space network, while maintaining an easily accessible, transit-rich environment.”
Even before this recent push by the governor, other state officials, and Elorza to move forward with the redesign of Kennedy Plaza, the opposition has felt that the people who use the space have been left out of the decision-making process.
“We need a robust community engagement process first, as well as doing an impact assessment that would look at what would happen if we make such changes before moving forward on that decision,” Keys said.
Opponents claim the current plan, which would disperse the main bus hub at Kennedy Plaza to three locations — the Providence train station, Dyer Street in the Innovation District, and two stops at Washington and Dorrance streets on the fringe of the plaza — would be more inconvenient for passengers and is ultimately designed to push the poor and disenfranchised out of this downtown public space.
The money for an update of Kennedy Plaza was approved as a bond question in 2014, but voters didn’t specifically approve the Multi-Hub Bus System.
“We suggest that a minimal goal of any new multi hub proposal that emerges from this process be to ‘do no harm’ to the racially diverse group of Rhode Islanders, including many front line workers, who currently rely on transit service passing through Downtown Providence,” Scott Wolf, executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, wrote in an Aug. 19 letter to the governor. “Unfortunately, the DOT proposal on the table does not even meet this modest standard.”
During the Nov. 17 online meeting, Keys moderated a panel of business owners, nonprofit representatives, and transit activists who are concerned about the future of Kennedy Plaza.
Among them was Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston, who owns Trinity Brewhouse; Barbara Freitas of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project; local activist Terri Wright; artist and Big Nazo Lab creator Erminio Pinque; Cliff Wood of The Providence Foundation; Diego Arene-Morley from Rhode Island Communities for Addiction Recovery Efforts; and Cedric Huntley, interim director of the Nonviolence Institute.
The group agreed that Kennedy Plaza is in need of change, and desires ranged from a stricter enforcement of no-smoking rules to more services and programming in and around the plaza.
“I think we need programming for everyone,” Huntley said. “Something every day that is positive and really promotes all the things that Kennedy Plaza has to offer. I think it comes through programming and arts … and it has to be attractive to everyone, so it might be a youth day one day, it might be something that addresses the homeless, addiction, something that brings business into downtown.”
Freitas said she had spoken with some of her constituents about their needs and desires for the space, and much of what the homeless want was improved access to basic amenities.
“Unlike RIDOT, I asked people what they wanted, what they need, and we’ve got to get down to basics: more bathrooms,” she said. “Right now, our folks have been using porta-potties downtown and then when there are no porta-potties, because they’ve either taken them out or they are being serviced … they end up having to walk from Kennedy Plaza to the train station.”
On a broader scale, Miller said the state of Kennedy Plaza often reflects what policy is working and what isn’t in Rhode Island.
“Kennedy Plaza is a kind of the barometer of how well we’re doing with a lot of policy,” he said. “Not only public transit, but also how well are we doing with all kinds of services.”
Arene-Morley noted that if you go to Kennedy Plaza you can viscerally see how a lack of resources for addiction and recovery and a housing crisis that has been exacerbated by the pandemic is playing out.
The conversation also briefly touched on the issue that has brought Kennedy Plaza to the forefront in the first place: buses. On this issue, all were unanimous in their thoughts.
As a final question for the panelists, Keys asked if they supported buses being in Kennedy Plaza.
He was met with resounding yeses.
“We are very big advocates for transit,” Wood said. “And we believe transit belongs in Kennedy Plaza.”