Kennedy Plaza has been the historic center of Providence, Rhode Island, for a century and a half, and the city has been trying to figure out how to best utilize the space for about as long. “Kennedy Plaza has always been the city’s center, but it never really lived up to its potential because it’s so fragmented,” said Don Powers, a principal at Providence’s Union Studio Architecture & Community Design. “It’s never really achieved its position as the major public square for the state that it should be—a preeminent public space in New England.”
The plaza is comprised of several smaller, disparate public spaces, each managed by separate agencies, from the City of Providence, its parks commission, and the state’s transportation agency, RIPTA. “There’s not one client to work for at Kennedy Plaza. Each section has a different group overseeing it,” said Powers. “A lot of calves have to be herded if you want to get some kind of unified plan. There’s never been a single entity that could hire someone to redo the whole thing.”
Courtesy Union Studio
“RIPTA’s plan doesn’t do the more subtle things a more nuanced space could have done,” said Powers. “The important thing is that the buses are gone. Now that space can be used for other things. They’re making a blank canvas out of that space. That won’t prevent what we’ve designed from being eventually implemented.” He hopes the city can continue with the larger plan without losing its ambitious goals. “What has frustrated some is the new design seems to have been done independently of what else has been going on,” said Powers.
“Our master plan shows eight to ten specific spaces with eight to ten scenarios of use. The plaza was designed to house all those kinds of uses with a variety of intensities from active to passive.” On the bus mall site, the master plan shows a formal garden around a fountain called Judicial Square, a space for farmers markets and community gatherings called Market Square, and Civic Plaza in front of City Hall with a restaurant. “We broke the bus mall into several spaces, designing through program rather than physical space,” said Powers.
Ultimately, the future of Greater Kennedy Plaza will be in the hands of the city’s next mayor, to be elected this fall. “We hope the next mayor shares our vision,” said Powers. “I’d like to think enough momentum has gathered that a new mayor wouldn’t stop the effort. A number of candidates have expressed interest in the project.” Even with that uncertainty, change is needed at the site. “Currently, Kennedy Plaza is so difficult, unkempt, and even a little threatening. It’s not a pleasant experience.”