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City group works to give Kennedy Plaza a new look

Markets and concerts spruce up bus hub

For many Brown students, downtown's Kennedy Plaza is simply a crowded bus terminal, a place to make a quick transfer en route to a final destination.

But city groups want to make the bustling Providence landmark a destination in itself - a lively center of arts and culture.

In February, the city brought in a New York nonprofit consulting firm, Project for Public Spaces, to host a workshop to determine what improvements residents wanted to see made to the Greater Kennedy Plaza Area - which also includes Burnside Park, the Bank of America Skating Center and Biltmore Park.

A group, including representatives of the Rhode Island Public Transport Authority, the Downtown Improvement District and the nonprofit Providence Foundation, has been meeting to see Kennedy Plaza's facelift through.

Over the summer, the group sponsored daily events, such as Farmers' Market Fridays at Burnside Park, Rhythm and Soul Sundays with performances by the AfroSonic Collective, a rhythm band with live drummers and Public Square Tuesdays - at which local nonprofit organizations could present their missions. Many of the organizations represented in the working group also provide funding for the attractions.

Other events included band performances, Market Bazaars and other cultural shows.

"The greatest feedback was that people wanted to see more activity," said Deb Dormody, program manager for the working group. The idea is to create a "more active and vibrant city center," a goal that will include making the area more pedestrian friendly, she said.

"We're trying to turn Kennedy Plaza into a statewide public plaza," said Councilman Cliff Wood, D-Ward 2, who has worked with the group as a member of Cornish Associates, a real estate development company devoted to community improvement and a partner of the Kennedy Plaza group.

"The more reason that people have to come down, the better it is for that public space," he said. "Our goal is that when people come down to do one thing, they find two other things to do."

The European idea of a public square is making a comeback in the United States, said Frank Latorre, director of public space for the Downtown Improvement District. Kennedy Plaza is a place where "we can see people connecting with people," he said.

With winter approaching, outdoor activities will wrap up, Dormody said, adding that the skating center, which opens this weekend, will become the group's focus. Dormody said the group is preparing, behind the scenes, a spring schedule that will return with a "big bang."

The group also wants to encourage participation from Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design students, Dormody said. "What I would really like to see is for students to think of this particular area as a way for them to bring whatever clubs or organizations they work with on campus right into the city," she said.

"College students have a tremendous amount to offer," Latorre said. "We need to break the walls down between the colleges and downtown." The revitalization project might provide an opportunity for students to become involved in its planning, organization and implementation, he added.

The group has met with challenges, however - including the public's existing notions of what Kennedy Plaza is and is not.

"It was hard to convince people that (Kennedy Plaza) could change and that it was worth it," Dormody said. But she added that she was encouraged by how quickly attitudes changed after the projects began.

She likes watching people playing catch and walking their dogs in the parks, she said. "It's a small thing, but really remarkable for those parks," she said.

Transforming a concrete and pavement bus terminal into a thriving cultural center required the addition of some greenery to go with the blossoming cultural scene. A number of small physical improvements - "flowers, banners and better maintenance and repair work" - have spruced up the Plaza, said Dan Baudouin, executive director at the Providence Foundation.

In the future, the working group hopes to increase the number of activities offered in the area and to involve more people and organizations. "There needs to be more things to do for a wide variety of people," Latorre said, describing the possibility of a small stage set up in the future, along with permanent food kiosks and more tables and chairs.


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