This weekend, and for about six months after, commuters will give way to construction workers at Kennedy Plaza, as work begins on a re-arrangement planners hope will create a more socially welcoming and logistically efficient plaza.
The rearrangement is intended to serve two masters. For the city, it's a chance to create an open public space in the heart of downtown that can host farmer's markets, festivals or just strolling pedestrians.
For RIPTA, the state's public transit agency, it means upgrading the plaza with new shelters and devices with screens that will show real-time arrival updates for waiting riders. It is also the first step of a long-discussed expansion of the mass transit network in the city that RIPTA hopes will position it to take advantage of expected new development in the city, particularly in the Jewelry District and the old Route 195 land.
The plaza project will cost about $2.4 million, $1.7 million from city bond money and $700,000 of RIPTA funds, said Ann Gooding, a Taveras administration spokeswoman. Work is expected to be finished by the beginning of December.
When it's done, the area in front of the federal courthouse that now hosts a half-dozen bus lanes separated by long, narrow islands will be replaced by a tree-lined plaza. The bus stops will be pushed out to the surrounding streets.
Clifford Wood, executive director of the Downtown Providence Park Conservancy, said the project will make the plaza a social hub as well as a transportation one.
RIPTA marketing director Amy Pettine said the plaza redesign is part of a more ambitious plan to expand mass transit in the city. The reworking of the plaza is meant to go along with secondary hubs at the Amtrak station on Gaspee Street and another somewhere in the Jewelry District, near the Garrahy Courthouse and Davol Square. That other work would be financed by a $40-million bond that will be on the November ballot.
Not everyone shares Wood's and Pettine's excitement about the plaza changes. Barry Schiller of the RIPTA Riders Alliance, an independent group that lobbies for mass transit and advocates for riders' interests, said the group is concerned that RIPTA and the city are getting ahead of themselves.
The multi-hub plan that Pettine describes is a good one, Schiller said. But the city and the agency should have waited to see whether voters approve the November bond issue before going ahead and rearranging Kennedy Plaza.
While the plaza project will produce a more socially useful setting, he said it will also have fewer bus stops than the current configuration. If there are other hubs in the system to take up that slack, that will be fine, he said. But if the bond issue fails, the rebuilt Kennedy Plaza will be too small for current demand.
The bond should have been step one, he said, and the plaza step two, not the other way around.
The plaza's current compact design suits the needs of elderly and disabled riders, he said, by making it easier to go from bus to bus. The new layout will require longer walks along the edges, he said.
During the work, those walks could be even longer, as the displaced bus stops are being pushed to the plaza's outer streets. Most are being relocated, for now, to Exchange Terrace, opposite Burnside Park and running down Sabin Street, past the Omni Hotel and the convention center. Others will be spread along Exchange Street from the intersection with Fulton Street, along the federal buildings to Memorial Boulevard near the Providence River.
Details of the new stops are posted on RIPTA's website and agency employees will be prowling the plaza for the rest of the week, handing out pamphlets explaining the relocation. The customer service building by the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument across Dorrance Street from City Hall will remain open during the work as well, Pettine said.
Besides relieving pressure on Kennedy Plaza, Pettine said the second hub strategy is part of a plan to allow RIPTA to expand with the city. She said the Jewelry District, in particular, is an area the agency feels is underserved.
Besides the court complex, Pettine said the hospitals, which aren't a long walk from the Jewelry District, are a source of possible riders. The Taveras administration has also targeted that area for a major economic development push.
The centerpiece of that initiative is a joint effort by the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College to build a school of nursing in the neighborhood around the South Street power station. Brown University will have offices there as well.
Copyright 2014 - The Providence Journal, R.I.