Kennedy Plaza construction continues

In 2011, Rhode Island received $200,000 from the National Endowment of the Arts in support of a Kennedy Plaza bus terminal renovation.

As summer fades into fall, the reconstruction of Kennedy Plaza — which began July 12 and necessitated route detours and temporary bus shelters — is continuing according to plan.

The redesign, which is set to be completed this fall, is a collaborative effort between the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority and the City of Providence to enhance the plaza’s environment and to improve the ridership experience for public transit users.

But the work has faced criticism from some who believe the reconstruction signals an attempt to gentrify a portion of downtown Providence and that it will negatively affect those who rely on public transportation.

“We’ve got the information out there,” said Amy Pettine, planning director for RIPTA, noting that posters and informational postcards were distributed prior to the project’s commencement, and customer service representatives remain available at the RIPTA office to answer any questions.

The temporary bus stops are spread out, so “the distances are definitely greater than what people experienced in the plaza,” Pettine said. But the reconstruction required the stops to be moved, and RIPTA was limited by the street configurations in the surrounding area, she said. “There are only so many places you can park a bus in downtown Providence.”

The project’s completion will increase green space and improve safety, Pettine added.

The planned bus stops will be spaced around the perimeter of the central square, marking a change from the four lane, 16-bus berth section that previously cut through the plaza. This may increase the distances that riders have to walk, but Pettine said she does not think these distances are excessive. Each new stop will have a three-sided bus shelter complete with identification poles and real-time LED signs displaying bus arrival times.

In 2011, Rhode Island was awarded a $200,000 “Our Town” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to revamp the Kennedy Plaza bus terminal into “a grand plaza and central gathering place for the city’s residents, tourists and workers,” according to the NEA’s website.

“The area is going to feel more contiguous,” Pettine said, adding that “the design called for the creation of a large pedestrian space” to promote more activities in the plaza and the surrounding area. Though a snow melt system will be abandoned in some areas of the plaza due to the logistical challenges of the redesign, Pettine said the system will remain around buildings and emphasized that there will definitely “be a maintenance plan in place” to ensure the safety of passengers.

The RIPTA Riders Alliance held a press conference Aug. 5 urging officials to gather more public input before continuing with the project. The alliance is a “grassroots volunteer-led organization that advocates for the expansion and improvement of public transit service” in Rhode Island, according to its Facebook page. The alliance did not respond to a request for an interview.

Steve Ahlquist, president of the Humanists of Rhode Island, said some people feel the project was forced on them and worry that “there was no real reason” for the reconstruction. In an Aug. 6 article on RIFuture.org, Ahlquist wrote, “Kennedy Plaza has been fenced off and is being destroyed as quickly as possible, before an outraged public can mount any kind of coordinated defense. … This is class warfare being waged against the most vulnerable populations in our state.” Forty-five people attended the RIPTA Riders Alliance press conference against the renovation, Ahlquist wrote.

“I don’t think it is that much of a controversial issue,” said Cliff Wood, executive director of the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy, adding that these concerns are limited to a relatively small group of people. Wood emphasized the project’s goal to “create public mixed-use spaces,” noting that research done prior to the plaza’s reconstruction indicated that riders “overwhelmingly” thought Kennedy Plaza — which served about 13 million people per year in 2000 but now serves 22 million people per year — could benefit from improvements.

“RIPTA really needs to find out how to accommodate that growth,” Wood said, adding that it is always a challenge to expand a service without experiencing some growing pains. By collaborating with the city and community, developers hope to create a park that is cleaner, safer and more enjoyable than the former Kennedy Plaza, he added.

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