Positioned at the heart of downtown Providence, the Greater Kennedy Plaza (GKP) bus station serves as an important transportation hub for the city. Despite its central location with a park on one side and the financial district on the other, the space is not perceived as an inviting place. Setting out to change this impression, the city created a new design concept and a series of arts programming events to introduce new vibrancy and character into this unappreciated urban space.
With a population of over 170,000 in an area of just 18 square miles, Providence is a densely populated and ethnically diverse city. In the center of downtown, located on the site of the former Union Station, the GKP functions as the city’s multi-modal transit hub, through which 71,000 people using city taxis and busses—including 80% of the state’s bus traffic—pass daily. Though heavily used as transportation infrastructure, the area also tends to attract drug activity and is a congregating place for much of the city’s homeless population. Management of the site is also challenged with a complex bureaucracy involving the City of Providence Parks & Recreation Department, Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority (RIPTA), the Downtown Improvement District, and the Bank of America Skating Center also located on the site.
Historically, Providence was a thriving industrial center with manufacturing businesses in textiles, furniture making, locomotives, and jewelry. Though the city’s economic slide began in the depression era, the movement of industry to the South in the 1960s and 70s triggered further decline. Today, the city’s population is half of what it was in the 1920s. New growth has come from Hispanic and Latino populations, and Providence now qualifies as a majority-minority city with Hispanics constituting the largest percentage of residents and non-Hispanic Blacks and Asians close behind. At the same time, during the last twenty years, the arts have become a major part of how the city had redefined itself, helped in part by the presence of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. Young artists have converted steel yards into artist collectives and fire stations into studios, reusing old industrial infrastructure in new ways.
In the 1990s, the city fell on very hard times. “It was like a field that had grown fallow – nothing could grow here anymore,” says Providence Director of Art, Culture and Tourism Lynne McCormack. As the economy started to improve the city made investments in infrastructure, including the renovation of the bus station, but the city’s larger economic distress made a full recovery in the area difficult. In the early 2000s, the business and financial community expressed concerns that the space was a deterrent to business rather than a supportive public asset. To address this issue, the mayor convened a stakeholder group to consider ways of mitigating the area’s negative activity. In 2008, the city hired a project coordinator who was able to lessen the number of buses coming to the area, turning the space into a more civic amenity. Though progress was made, it was slow and stakeholders were keen to increase the momentum toward changing both the programming and perceptions of the space.
In order to improve usage and change how people saw the transit center, the city worked with local business and arts community leaders to imagine the space's potential. This group adopted a two-part strategy, organizing a series of arts-based events that brought together many in the city’s design, arts, and business communities and creating a long-term masterplan for the area. The earlier success of local artists, building community through re-imagined infrastructure, laid the groundwork and potential for arts-based programming to transform the unappreciated transit center into a vibrant community place. The masterplan that followed would further support the new perceptions of the space’s potential, illustrating what alternative schemes for bus routes and public spaces might look like.
Realizing the importance and value of having as many voices as possible in the project planning, the project team engaged the creative participation of nearly every sector of the community. The organizational partnerships included a broad range of local arts organizations, schools, non-profits, public entities, and commercial businesses. In public remarks at the FirstWorks Festival, the culminating event of the project, Buff Chace, Principal of Cornish Associates said, "all of the people that have come together to make this event possible tonight are really typical of how the City of Providence works. We are all on the same page, pulling in the same direction to really help this city realize its potential, and the arts are a key component of it."
- Art, Culture and Tourism
- Parks & Recreation
- Planning & Development
- FirstWorks - primary cultural partner for the festival
- AS220 - the PhotoMemory mobile gallery
- City Arts - ceramic mural installation in the Bank of America City Center
- Rhode Island Philharmonic - performances in City Hall as part of the FirstWorks festival
- Trinity Repertory Company/Brown University MFA - partnership for performances as part of the FirstWorks festival
- Steel Yard - new design pieces installed in the plaza
- WaterFire - collaborative programming on the evening of the festival
- Coalition for Community Development
- Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority
- Providence Foundation
- Downtown Improvement District
- Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau
- City of Providence Parks Foundation
- various property owners and developers
- Citizens Bank
- Cornish Development Association
- Meritage Properties
- Scott VW
- Rhode Island School of Design - a studio class specific to GKP interventions and public art works
- Union Studio - stakeholder workshops and design proposals
- Project for Public Spaces - advising the process of Union Studio
- NAIL Studios - design and manufacture of the PhotoMemory mobile gallery
Organizers divided the project into two parts: the FirstWorks Festival and a long-term masterplan. The festival was launched in the fall 2012, the culmination of activities held during the summer and fall that ranged from performing arts events to outdoor festivals and public art interventions. The festival itself incorporated events that included all of the performing arts partners, using the entire plaza space, and triggering widespread excitement about the site's possibilities. “We haven’t felt like this for a long time in this City,” said one festival attendee. Work on the masterplan, carried out by Union Studio and Project for Public Spaces, followed the festival. Together, they worked with the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy to draft a design vision for the space, and then unveiled those plans to an audience of over 500 through a series of community workshops.
At the inaugural FirstWorks Festival: On the Plaza, held on September 29, 2012, police estimated more than 40,000 people were drawn into downtown, generating over $1 million in economic impact. The Boston Globe ran a four-page color feature about the festival and the City, strengthening Providence's identity as the "Creative Capital." The free festival offered outdoor performances by headline artists, including vertical dance pioneers Bandaloop which performed atop the 30-story One Financial Plaza, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, and Squonk Opera. Because of their work with the festival, FirstWorks was selected to participate in the U.S. State Department's CenterStage initiative. The Trinity Rep/Brown MFA program performed Shakespeare on a stage created by award-winning set designer Eugene Lee, and the Rhode Island Philharmonic performed in City Hall chambers. With a host of international and local performers flanked by food trucks, family art activities, and public art installations, organizers concede the festival went well beyond anyone’s expectations. Wanting to build on the momentum, a steering committee has formed to establish a permanent, signature FirstWorks Festival beginning in 2014.
Most significantly, the festival and the masterplan design allowed the mayor and city council members to clearly articulate a new vision for GKP. Within weeks of the event, Mayor Angel Taveras listed the plaza project as one of his chief economic development priorities. "Transforming Kennedy Plaza into a vibrant and dynamic park, pedestrian mall and public space is one of my highest economic development priorities for Providence," he said in a statement. "We are committing $1.7 million (from the city’s Downtown Circulator Project) to catalyze this project to reconfigure and reduce the number of buses in Kennedy Plaza, turn the plaza into a pedestrian destination, increase property values and attract new investments in downtown Providence." The mayor’s plan for transforming the site includes improving bus operations at the heart of the plaza, reducing the number of bus berths, and allowing the bus-only lanes at the center of the plaza to become open public space.
AS220 Youth program, which does youth workforce development work, had youth talk to and take photos of people who used the plaza on a daily basis. Plans were for these photos to be put up in bus shelter adds with the help of NAIL, a local ad agency. However, the youth and a staff of ad agency came up with the idea of creating a mobile gallery and placing the photographs on the buses themselves. The project was so successful that AS220 Youth and NAIL are continuing their work together to help more underserved youth become involved with the effort.