Opinion

Downtown Landlords Block Public Toilets Then Public Officials Point Fingers

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The restrooms in the transit building at Kennedy Plaza have been closed for 15 months, for all kinds of alleged reasons. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

The disdain powerful downtown Providence property owners have for the unhoused, disadvantaged, disabled and the working class couldn’t be more obvious. The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority restrooms at Kennedy Plaza remain closed because private interests believe this public space belongs to them. They’ve spent the past several years forcing elected officials and the agencies they control to sweep what they perceive as the plaza’s human detritus into downtown’s dark corners.

The shuttered bathrooms are the landlords’ latest power play. It has the usual suspects spinning tales as to why the public facilities remain closed.

The coronavirus initially provided great cover for the power move, but that veil was lifted when RIPTA restrooms in Newport and Pawtucket and the facilities at the Amtrak train station less than a mile away reopened.

A letter sent to RIPTA last summer from public-health officials urging the agency to reopen the Kennedy Plaza bathrooms didn’t sway the downtown puppet masters.

Now, their strings have public officials shrugging their shoulders and pointing fingers in all directions, including at the police.

This week RIPTA, along with the president of the local Amalgamated Transit Union, issued a press release to address the growing number of calls for the reopening of public restrooms in the transit building at Kennedy Plaza. They first “noted that the Authority is responsible for enforcing a current federal mandate requiring face coverings on its vehicles and properties.”

Wait, why do buses and buildings need to wear masks?

The finger-pointing begins in the second paragraph. RIPTA would like you to know that it would love to create “exterior public access to the existing restrooms and add employee-only lavatory space inside the building,” but the city isn’t playing ball.

“[T]he City has indicated that it has other plans for Kennedy Plaza and has hired a consultant to look at other uses for the building and the surrounding property which RIPTA leases from the municipality,” according to the June 8 press release.

RIPTA said it’s unable to execute the plan it has formulated to reopen the bathrooms because of “uncertainty about RIPTA’s future presence in Kennedy Plaza.”

RIPTA maintains exclusive use of the terminal and the plaza in exchange for $1 a year under a 30-year lease that runs through 2032, according to a recent Providence Journal story.

Its CEO is waiting for the downtown overlords to OK the unlocking of the public bathrooms. In the meantime, RIPTA said it remains committed to continuing to work on a solution with the city and all interested partners.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office told the Providence Journal that the city “recognizes that this is a serious community health issue and has made every effort to have RIPTA reopen the restrooms at Kennedy Plaza to the public.”

He, too, said the city is “committed to working with all the parties involved to ensure that public transit users and others passing through Downtown Providence have access to safe and sanitary facilities.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Dan McKee said the governor is actively working to bring about a resolution. Translation: He too is waiting to be told what to do by those behind the scenes.

McKee also introduced another culprit in the saga of a few locked doors: financial constraints.

“It is a budget issue,” McKee told WPRI. “I was told it will cost about $1 million to do that.”

There was money available, however, to install portable lavatories at Kennedy Plaza. And this is where the finger-pointing returns to the people the downtown power brokers want removed from their sight.

Vandalism and needles required the transportable toilets be removed, according to RIPTA and public officials. RIPTA’s CEO and the union president have asked for “an improved police presence in the Plaza to help prevent any unsafe activities that may take place inside and outside the building.” They also noted that, “Increased policing would also help RIPTA enforce the current federal mandate which, consistent with guidance from the CDC, requires face coverings when using the nation’s transportation network.”

The sweep of Kennedy Plaza began in earnest five years ago, when one of the downtown landlords supported a city ordinance that would ban panhandlers from asking for money from people in cars. There was talk of moving Kennedy Plaza bus stops to Allens Avenue — a road heavy with truck traffic and caked with industrial pollution. This relentless effort to essentially privatize public space has picked up the pace since then.

Three Kennedy Plaza redesign plans have been put forth by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and RIPTA. They all involved reducing or removing bus stops in Kennedy Plaza and moving them to downtown’s periphery.

The plans are always hailed as improving public transit, but even a cursory viewing of the proposals shows that is a lie. Moving bus stops to remote locations with little shelter and no bathrooms isn’t an improvement. Requiring additional transfers isn’t convenient. Ignoring the needs of people with disabilities isn’t progress.

Last November, RIPTA’s CEO, RIDOT’s director, the mayor of Providence and the former governor now in Washington, D.C., put on a show for their masters.

During an 18-minute online pep talk, where no questions were allowed and legitimate concerns about the Multi-Hub Bus System were ignored, the puppets waved pom-poms.

“In my mind, this project and the fact that we are all here holding hands announcing that we are moving forward to make this a reality, means we’re together taking one big step towards a more resilient, connected, sustainable Rhode Island,” Gina Raimondo said.

It’s such a wonderful plan that Grow Smart Rhode Island and the South Providence Neighborhood Association filed a federal civil rights complaint against the state over the project, alleging it’s discriminatory.

That’s why people who actually use public transit have said dispersing the downtown bus facility to out-of-the-way hubs will impact riders who are disproportionately people of color and low income. That’s why they have called the idea a flawed plan and claimed the process has largely ignored those who would be most affected.

Why should we believe a group of elected officials and bureaucrats created a public transit plan that is more resilient, connected and sustainable when they can’t even find the key to open the bathrooms?

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.

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  1. Thank you for this excellent article.

    The number of partly or fully disabled Rhode Islanders is likely to be increasing with "long Covid" too. A lot of people are continuing to have breathing trouble. How is that going to interact with dispersed bus transfer locations??

    Have the downtown landlords considered that they benefit from a generally stable society — that could be improved a lot for all! — more than they benefit from a nice view of fountains, if those have to be fenced off and guarded by dogs?

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