Providence, RI

Contact Name
Joelle Kanter
Project Dates
Our committee began meeting in 2009. Signs are currently being fabricated and should be installed in the first quarter of 2017.
Tags
Marketing, Design
Several years ago, a group began meeting regularly to address the lack of a comprehensive wayfinding signage system in downtown Providence. We recognized that the existing collection of 20 green signs (which was developed as part of a plan in 2000) was inadequate, outdated, and unwelcoming for residents and visitors. Compared to well-designed, attractive systems in other cities, our signs did not leave a positive impression on visitors, and they certainly didn’t help people navigate the downtown streets or find their destinations. Together we envisioned a new cohesive signage system that would effectively direct traffic from major roadways to major downtown attractions, welcoming people and giving them a clear sense of orientation. Our new system of 76 signs is now ready for installation.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
The project goals are:
• To help people navigate the downtown environment.
• To enhance the perception of downtown Providence and its offerings.
• To encourage greater visitation to and between downtown attractions.
• To assist drivers with finding parking near major venues.
• To improve the visual quality of the downtown area by replacing existing wayfinding signs with a new cohesive, recognizable system.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
Initially, we worked with consultants that had identified locations for more than 100 signs within the project area. Several partners expressed concerns about signage clutter, and they advised us to reduce the total number of signs. Later, once we had selected a designer and approved a design, we began raising funds based on preliminary estimates. In March 2015, we issued a request for proposals for fabrication and installation, and we learned that the project cost was much higher than anticipated. We had to continue our fundraising efforts and we also considered installing the signs in stages. Ultimately, we did raise additional funds through significant grants from the Providence Tourism Council and Commerce Rhode Island for Main Street streetscape improvement. We also reduced the number of freestanding signs and replaced them with panels that can be mounted on existing light posts at a lower cost.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
The Providence Foundation has taken the lead role on the project, in partnership with the City of Providence Dept. of Planning and Development. Early on, we managed an active committed that helped us finalize our selection criteria, choose destinations and districts, and hire a designer. The following partner organizations were involved in that committee:

The Providence Foundation
Providence Downtown Improvement District
Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau
Providence Dept. of Planning & Development
Providence Dept. of Art Culture + Tourism
Providence Dept. of Public Works
Providence Performing Arts Center
RI Dept. of Transportation
RI Public Transit Authority
RI Convention Center Authority
Providence Revolving Fund
Roger Williams National Memorial
RI Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) played a significant role with helping us understand federal guidelines for signage, and coordinating sidewalk and road reconstruction projects in the downtown area. RIDOT also funded the fabrication and installation of 5 signs in the I-195 area in 2015, which helped to reduce our overall project cost. (A sample sign can be seen in the attached photo).

Once fundraising became our priority, the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Providence Department of Art, Culture + Tourism provided assistance. Now that we are preparing for installation, the Providence Department of Traffic and Engineering is very involved. They are coordinating with our contractors, and their team has removed existing signs.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
The Downtown Providence Wayfinding Signage project strongly supports local economic and community development goals. It encourages tourism in Providence, giving visitors a sense of arrival at key gateway locations and connecting them with information about the breadth of offerings downtown.

Designed by John Seeley, formerly of Selbert Perkins Design and now principal of Surface Matter Design which is based in Providence, the signs have simple layouts that relate to our capital city’s strong sense of place. The front panels feature messaging in a bright, legible modern font, while the back panels of each freestanding post feature stylized renderings of iconic Providence landmarks including Providence Performing Arts Center and the First Baptist Church in America. The signs are designed to be legible, and they should enhance but not compete with our beautiful built environment.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
Direction Philadelphia, which started in the 1980s and has been very effective.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
1. We evaluated current conditions and inventoried existing signage.
2. We finalized the list of destinations based on the criteria that we approved in committee meetings.
3. We planned the new system, determining the best routes to each destination and the ideal locations for the signs.
4. Through a bidding process, we hired a designer, who developed several concepts for our consideration. We tested them for legibility in the field, and ultimately, we selected a design that reflects our city’s historic background and strong artistic sensibility. Once we finalized our plans, the designer developed a full bidding package containing sign layouts for sign fabrication and installation.
5. After fundraising for a few years based on preliminary estimates for the system, we issued a request for proposals to signage companies in RI and MA in early 2015. We interviewed 2 firms and reviewed their bids with staff from the Providence Dept. of Public Works. The lowest bid was much more expensive than we had anticipated, so we had to continue fundraising throughout much of the past year.
6. We received two large grants which allowed us to finalize the contract with the sign fabricator. Now, the project is in its final stages, and the signs are ready for installation within the next two months.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
Initially, we had hoped to incorporate pedestrian scale signs into the system. Once we understood the potential scope of the budget, we realized that pedestrian signs would have to follow in another project phase. We also refined the actual messaging plan many times based on changes to street patterns and destinations. Most recently, we changed several freestanding signs to the pole-mounted format in order to reduce the impact on sidewalks and lower the budget.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
Fundraising was a major challenge, but we finally met our goal this year. Selecting sign locations was also difficult due to sidewalk conditions such as vaults, trees, and existing signs.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
Major grants from the Providence Tourism Council and Commerce RI filled our funding gap and allowed us to sign a contract with ViewPoint Sign and Awning for fabrication and installation. We also spent a great deal of time reviewing existing conditions, and we changed several sign types from freestanding to pole-mounted where sidewalk excavation was challenging.

What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. Understand the challenges of installing signs in a historic downtown area, such as finding ideal locations, following MUTCD guidelines, ensuring sign legibility, limiting the number of messages per sign, and minimizing sign clutter. Move forward anyway!
2. Get general buy-in from the destinations that will be included in the signs, but don’t require financial contributions. The most appropriate messages should be listed regardless of their ability to pay.
3. Recognize that the signage system will change over time and will require ongoing maintenance and investment.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
The signage project should have multiple community and economic development benefits. It was primarily designed to help motorists navigate the downtown environment and assist them with finding parking near major destinations. Downtown street patterns have changed within the past few years, and it’s important to keep our signs up to date with consistent messaging and visual cues.

Removing and replacing the existing cluttered signs with a new cohesive system will enhance the public perception of downtown Providence and its offerings. This should support creative placemaking and encourage greater visitation to and between downtown attractions.

Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
We believe the project will be successful once completed. As mentioned above, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation already installed 5 of the signs in the Point Street area, and they’ve helped to brand and unify the neighborhood. We look forward to following through with the rest of the system.
How did you measure this success or progress?
Once the complete system is installed by the end of February, visitors should have a positive first impression when they arrive in Providence, and they should be able to navigate the downtown street network easily. We will look for anecdotal feedback from the tourism community about the signs’ visibility and impact. Most importantly, we’ll want to know if the signs are clear and legible, and whether destinations are easy to find.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
The project will be installed in early 2017, and we should be able to answer this question then.