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Consider if you will the following statement about the Carlisle Downtown Business District (CBD):

“Downtown Carlisle at the present time consists primarily of specialty and single purpose shops plus a strong base of service activities reflecting the presence of the courthouse and to a lesser extent the colleges. Major retailers of the department store category are almost non-existent.”

And also:

“Carlisle’s downtown is virtually inundated by volumes of traffic which have neither an origin nor a destination in the Central Business District. This traffic has the effect of preventing CBD oriented traffic from reaching its destination quickly and easily and of impeding pedestrian circulation from store to store.”

Both of these statements accurately describe downtown Carlisle in the present day. However they are actually from 1970, from a study prepared for the Borough by Kendree and Shepherd Planning Consultants. I had an opportunity to review the study at a recent board meeting of the Downtown Carlisle Association where it was shared as part of a presentation by Michael Skelly, Planning/Zoning/Codes Manager for Carlisle Borough.

What is remarkable about the 1970 study is the scale of impact from proposed changes. The plan was to introduce several “semi malls” on both Hanover Street and High Street. The actual Square would be closed to vehicle traffic, as shown in the illustration. Traffic would instead be diverted around the immediate downtown through re-purposing of North, South, East, and West Streets. The alleys in the immediate vicinity of the main square would be used to direct local traffic to back parking lots. And finally, local businesses would be incentivized to establish attractive rear entrances facing these new parking lots, with only minor changes made to the street facades for consistency and visual appeal.

The short street sections between the alleys and the square would have amenities installed such as playground equipment, park benches, walkways, and pathway lighting. Personally the description in the report reminded me of how Inner Harbor was revitalized in Baltimore many years ago.

Obviously, the recommendations in the report were never implemented. While it can be assumed that cost factors played a significant role, a search of The Sentinel using newspaper.com only identified hearings related to the proposal between 1968 and 1973 with no final report of decisions made. General reaction at the time was favorable according to the articles.

It is tempting to consider what Carlisle would be like today in some alternate reality where this was put in place. To begin with, the residents along the perimeter streets would have been profoundly impacted by the influx of through traffic. The roads area already busy today, but with all through traffic diverted there would certainly be long lines of trucks and cars weaving through the town and waiting to make left turns. If zoning permitted, perhaps restaurants and shops would have now exist in buildings adjoining those roads, especially at key intersections.

A vehicle-free main Square would have provided a great venue for concerts, festivals, and other community events. At the same time, it is possible that the reduced traffic to the alleys and rear parking might have indeed encouraged downtown shopping and an influx of residents who preferred the relatively quieter streets and sidewalks in the vicinity of the Square. It would still be necessary to travel into town on the main roads before the through traffic was diverted. I am no traffic engineer, but it’s evident that the benefits might not have outweighed the drawbacks by the present day.

Studies such as the one from 1970 demonstrate that the traffic demands imposed on Carlisle are not new. We can look even further back to when the train line was removed from High Street. At the ceremony ending High Street’s train service on October 16, 1936 (and reported in the Sentinel the next day), Borough Solicitor John D. Faller said:

“The automobiles we see about us on every side constitute another form of modern transportation, the number and speed of which makes it necessary that we remove from this thoroughfare the railroad facilities to make way for motor traffic. Both have grown to such an extent that there is no longer room for both.”

Looking toward the future, let’s work together as a community to “make room” for both a vibrant downtown and a growing region.

Jim Griffith and his family own Create-A-Palooza in downtown Carlisle and he is a member of the Downtown Carlisle Association.

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