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Carlisle, Pennsylvania

fig. 1 _ Dickinson College was founded in 1773.

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Carlisle, Pennsylvania was a strategic location in the 18th century. It was the gateway to the south and west for huge migrations of pioneers. It was a trading center, a military staging site for several wars, and a center for Anglo enculturation. Its architecture, urbanism, and institutions signified a new order on the frontier. Since its founding in 1751, Carlisle has continued to be a place of opportunity.

Until the late 20th century, you could live within a quarter mile of downtown Carlisle and do all of your shopping and other business on foot. Local merchants knew you and they provided personal service. In recent decades, Carlisle lost many of its downtown stores to competition from new suburban retailers. The beautiful, historic commercial buildings gradually welcomed new tenants, the majority of which were small boutiques that catered to the sale of inessential goods. Downtown became more of a tourist destination, a place for casual dining and recreational shopping, while the locals who used to be able to walk to shop now needed to drive to the chain stores at the edge of town.

Carlisle sits at the intersection of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 81, the state’s two busiest highways. Because of this still-strategic location, there is a high concentration of new warehouses/distribution centers totaling over 20 million square feet and growing. We see here a collection of immense buildings plopped down in the Pennsylvania countryside whose main purpose is to supply vast regional markets that generally bypass Main Street commerce.

fig. 2 _ Aerial View of New Distribution Centers in Carlisle. Over 20 million square feet and growing.

During the pandemic in the Spring of 2020, we have been able to study the trends in Carlisle with a new eye. Because of state government regulations that deem most of downtown Carlisle’s businesses “non-essential,” the only places locals have been allowed to shop are in big box stores. This has only accelerated an unfortunate trend. Like the nearby Appalachian Trail (which is closed), Carlisle’s two Main Streets, Hanover and High, are mostly devoid of pedestrians. And since there are few pedestrians and almost no cars parked along the street, tractor trailers breeze through town at an even faster pace than usual. High Street has become more like an open high-speed highway.

The virus du jour is not the only invisible enemy of towns like Carlisle. The growing concentration of electromagnetic fields in urban areas has added a new danger to Main Street. As you walk through downtown Carlisle, you are in an area with a high concentration of EMFs. Within 2 miles of the courthouse, there are at least 20 cellular towers and over 90 antennas which transmit EMFs. With the advent of 5G technology, health issues will become increasingly serious. How can we protect our towns from these assaults from high-speed traffic, contagious viruses, EMFs, and many other emerging problems? Citizen advocacy is needed to monitor traffic, EMF proliferation, suburban sprawl, and government regulations that are restrictive to Main Street commerce.

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The current scamdemic/epidemic/pandemic — call it what you will — has boosted the digital economy at the expense of the traditional Main Street economy. The digital transformation of the economy, which has been developing for several decades, is changing how businesses are structured, and how consumers obtain services, information, and goods. The houses of worship in Carlisle have been closed because of state government mandate. Many of the churches offer online services, and we saw a drive-in movie site south of town being repurposed for church services. Where there is a will, there is a way!

Churches, temples, and theaters are places where fellow citizens can congregate, imagine the world as a better place, share creative ways to grow, learn, and improve themselves, and learn about others. Like places of worship, theaters have been closed, along with libraries and schools. These important institutions will reopen but while we have been without them, we are gaining renewed appreciation for the value they bring to our lives. In addition to the commercial establishments, religious and cultural places are heavily concentrated in the downtown area. There is the potential for a better cooperation of all of the residents, institutions, and businesses to strengthen downtown to make it the great place it once was.

Crises can lead to opportunities and new clarity; Or they can kill the spirit of a people. When High and Hanover streets reopen for business, it will be interesting to see what businesses are still open and who is still shopping here. After being cooped up in our homes, will we have become so accustomed to exclusively ordering online and shopping in the big box retail outlets that we just forget about returning to Main Street to shop in the few remaining stores? In addition, the economy may or may not be vibrant enough for shoppers to have much disposable income.

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Like most places on Planet Earth, Carlisle has survived many disasters and economic downturns. Carlisle has beautiful and varied housing stock, good public schools, and one of Pennsylvania’s most handsome courthouse squares from which radiates exquisite streets lined with well-preserved historic structures. Dickinson College and the Army War College are within walking distance of downtown.

Hopefully, newly empowered citizens will reevaluate this special place and help to write the next chapter of Carlisle’s history. With renewed appreciation for Carlisle’s assets and increased awareness of the forces that threaten them, they can restart one of the most beautiful and historic boroughs in South Central Pennsylvania.

 

fig. 3 _ The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in Carlisle in 1940.
fig. 4 _ The US Army War College was established in Carlisle in 1901.
fig. 5 _ The Old Cumberland County Courthouse (1846) anchors downtown Carlisle.

West Reading, Pennsylvania

fig. 1 _ West Reading Borough Hall, 1927.

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The most vibrant, walkable, and cohesive community in Berks County, Pennsylvania is the small borough of West Reading, population 4,000.

Penn Avenue is West Reading’s Main Street. This bustling thoroughfare is undergoing a renaissance in which old businesses are thriving and old buildings are being reinvented to house new businesses. Creativity abounds here. The borough supports a number of initiatives that both preserve and enhance the unique historic fabric of its commercial and residential precincts. West Reading participates in both the National Trust’s Main Street Program (for its commercial district) and Pennsylvania’s Elm Street Program (for its residential neighborhoods). And the borough has invented and reinvented a number of other programs that support the arts and other disciplines that enhance the quality of life here.

Progressive West Reading stands in stark contrast to the suburban sprawl and urban decay that surrounds it. West Reading’s re-birth is especially dramatic when seen in the context of the history of the adjacent City of Reading. Reading’s dramatic rise and fall over the past 150 years should be fully documented, though perhaps only Tolstoy could do justice to this story. In 2011 it was cited as the poorest city in the United States — a major achievement in that just 100 years ago it was one of the richest cities in the country. Becoming so degraded does not happen overnight. It takes huge cooperation over several generations, on the part of many people as well as inept local, state and Federal government policies.

To the west of West Reading sits Wyomissing, a borough that has embraced every suburban trend that has come along since its inception in 1906. Wyomissing can be studied as an example of the success and failure of suburban thinking. Its early residential neighborhoods are well-known for their visionary planning. Some of the most renowned urban planners in the country worked on the first plans for Wyomissing. But the borough did not incorporate a vision for how to address the commercial side of a community. Without such guidance, 20th century shopping malls and other sprawl developments have overshadowed the original intent of the borough founders to create an idyllic park-like suburban escape from the city and its chaos.

Since its founding in 1907, West Reading has benefitted from a series of initiatives that have embraced traditional pedestrian-oriented town planning. The eminent town planners, Hegemann & Peets were one of the many talented design firms that have contributed to the mosaic of West Reading over the years.

West Reading can be studied as an example of getting it right. And it is still evolving. In recent years, West Reading decided to take a different path from the urban decay to the east and the suburban sprawl to its west: to preserve its traditional urbanism and at the same time to encourage creative, out-of-the-box thinking. This momentum is attracting responsible new citizens and patrons. The fact that West Reading is thriving is proof that citizens of Berks County are looking for a walkable place in which to live, work, and play.

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Most suburban neighborhoods are designed to be accessed primarily by car and walking is often dangerous. The typical suburban house turns its back on the public realm and discourages interaction among neighbors. It has a garage bumping out in the front, difficult access to the front door, and instead of a front porch it has a private patio in the rear. We are not aware of any houses in West Reading that are designed this way. West Reading’s streets are lined with beautifully-designed houses that are street-friendly with welcoming front porches. And tree-lined streets with sidewalks encourage pleasant and safe walking. Most of these houses have alleys in the rear for service and car parking. In suburban America it is countercultural to be a pedestrian. But in West Reading you can live on a beautiful street and walk everywhere. No house or apartment in West Reading is more than a 10-minute walk to the Penn Avenue business district and public transportation corridor.

West Reading is densely packed with a high percentage of row houses, most of which were built between 1875 and 1930. Each block of houses is meshed beautifully with its adjacent blocks creating a magnificent tapestry of great architecture and urbanism. Mixed-use zoning allows for corner grocery stores and other commercial and institutional buildings that are integrated beautifully with the houses.

With over 5,000 employees — and growing — Reading Hospital (which is in West Reading) is one of the largest employers in Berks County. This bastion of traditional healing practices is balanced by a growing number of non-traditional wellness practitioners and purveyors of natural food and healthcare products who are living and working in the vicinity. The Penn Avenue corridor is becoming a mecca for practitioners of the healing arts, both traditional and non-traditional. This trend — coupled with its walkability — makes West Reading attractive for those seeking a healthy lifestyle.

There are a number of cultural, economic, and spiritual revivals beginning in the city of Reading and throughout the region. Could Reading be the next Detroit? If so, West Reading is generating momentum for the entire metropolitan area. The ideas coming out of West Reading might begin to cross the bridge and inspire Reading itself and the entire region. If once-great Berks County is to be born again, it is possible that this process is centered in West Reading. Wellness, creativity, and healthy urbanism abound in this special place. Come here to study an almost perfect town. But you must walk around West Reading. If you drive, you will miss what is special.

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West Reading’s Delights

  • Diverse and attractive housing options are seen throughout the borough — all walkable to shopping and public transportation.
  • Creativity abounds here. The mural program is amazing. The wayfinding graphics are fabulous. Unique businesses are opening up and thriving. Alternative wellness venues are attracting more and more practitioners and customers.
  • Mixed use building types are seen throughout the borough. Churches are next door to row houses. Laundromats and shops are seamlessly integrated with residential blocks, all contributing to a convenient walkable place to live.
  • West Reading has one of the best weekly farmer’s markets in the regions — with a strong presence of organic growers.
  • West Reading has all the ingredients that a growing number of people are seeking in the 21st century: small, beautifully-designed historic houses, a serious street tree program, 100% walkability, a vibrant Main Street (and getting better), good schools, and a growing number of enlightened citizens and borough officials who recognize what a gem they have in West Reading.

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West Reading’s Opportunities

  • Vehicular traffic on Penn Avenue (which is also a state highway) needs to be calmed. West Reading might look at nearby Lititz in which a bump-out crosswalk is used to slow traffic on another state highway.
  • West Reading’s sign code should be modified to allow overhanging signs and neon signs. And electronic moving message signs (one of which one has recently been installed on Penn Avenue) should be prohibited. NOTHING distracts and diminishes the quality and safety of a traditional shopping district like electronic moving message signs.
  • Mixed use zoning should be encouraged.
  • The old Penn Theatre needs to have its neon marquee sign re-installed. What a great focal point this would contribute to the streetscape!
  • Absentee landlords must be held accountable to borough ordinances. Pride of ownership should be encouraged. Historic houses are not just housing (and income if you are a lessor) but are also part of an important historic context that needs to be preserved for future generations. Current property owners should see themselves as stewards of valuable resources.
  • There appears to be no existing inventory of historic buildings for West Reading. Since most of the borough’s structures qualify as historic, we need to get to work on this. In conjunction with this a solid historic preservation ordinance might be in order.
  • The traffic roundabout (Delaney Circle) on the northern edge of the borough might be redesigned as a beautiful entry way into the borough. Large-scale elements are called-for here as this is primarily a vehicular corridor. However, the neighborhoods adjacent to it deserve safer pedestrian crosswalks too.
  • The few voids in the urban fabric along Penn Avenue can easily be incorporated in a new master plan that reinforces Penn Avenue as an urban corridor and lessens the impression of a series suburban strips. In particular, the parking lot/shopping center on the north side of the 500 block of Penn Avenue lends itself to be reconfigured as a town square surrounded by shops. One possible prototype for this might be the historic town square of Lititz (fig. 2) which was also situated alongside of a Main Street rather than being at the intersection of two major arteries as are most Pennsylvania town squares.

 

fig. 2 _ I875 map of Lititz, Pennsylvania showing the town square as laid out in the the 18th century.

Why West Reading

Most of West Reading is an example of civic art — not just urban planning. West Reading was planned and built out primarily between 1875 and 1930 — a period in which town planning and residential architecture were seen as art forms. Many talented town planners and architects worked to create a sound, commodious, and delightful place in which to live. West Reading has matured into a thriving, walkable community with large trees shading residential streets. On the southern edge of the borough, the Reading Public Museum overlooks West Reading’s parkland. The eastern edge of the borough overlooks the scenic Schuylkill River adjacent to which are a series of bike/hiking paths that lead into the countryside. Penn Avenue is the commercial core of West Reading and it is becoming a regional destination for a Main Street experience — something few towns in the area can offer any more.

West Reading is offering a gift to its citizens and its visitors — a gift that should not be squandered. It is offering us a place to be real human beings who participate in a thriving community, not merely operators of automobiles. This is a place to settle down and build positive relationships with fellow citizens. Hopefully, everyone in the borough can have an equal voice in the conversation about what West Reading can become.

fig. 3 _ 1920s aerial view of Wyomissing and West Reading showing the portions of both boroughs that were laid out by the Milwaukee town planners/landscape architects Hegemann & Peets.
fig. 4 _ Reading Public Museum. This venerable institution overlooks the Wyomissing Creek and West Reading’s parkland on the southern edge of the borough.

Wayne, Pennsylvania

fig. 1 _ Wayne Presbyterian Church, 1892.

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Chestnut Hill, Doylestown, and Lititz have some of the most beautiful, walkable historic Main Streets in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Their narrow tree-lined commercial corridors encourage safe and leisurely shopping. Vehicular traffic is forced to slow down – a factor that greatly contributes to a relaxing, safe environment in which pedestrians can take their time wandering in and out of shops and restaurants. And people who live nearby can walk to Main Street without being flattened by aggressive drivers when they try to cross the street.

Wayne could be on par with the most livable and walkable communities in the region. From its inception in the nineteenth century Wayne was was set apart as a unique and beautiful place to live. It was developed and promoted as a utopian commuter suburb in which people could walk to the village and to the train station and go to work in Philadelphia 15 miles away. Today, a few key problems — mostly traffic control issues – need to be addressed for Wayne to restore its idyllic identity. Safe and delightful walkability is essential for citizens to thrive in community and be socially and physically healthy.

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Wayne’s Delights

  • Wayne’s shopping district contains all the businesses necessary to support the daily needs of the resident who lives within a walkable distance of the downtown. Wayne even has an independent book store, a movie theatre, and a boutique hotel — rare amenities to be seen in any small town these days.
  • A wide range of housing types is located within a quarter-mile of Wayne’s downtown shopping district. In the late 19th century some of Philadelphia’s most talented architects designed these houses and apartments. Few towns in the US have such a large number of architecturally significant residences adjacent to Main Street. Most of the houses of old Wayne have large front porches — a feature that is conducive to neighborly discourse. The front porch provides a zone that transitions between public and private space, thereby encouraging civic awareness. It is a place that nurtures fellowship. As one early Wayne promotional brochure stated: “A generous spirit pervades the whole place, and encourages each one to do his best.”
  • A train station (restored in 2010) in the center of town connects Wayne to Center City Philadelphia, New York and beyond. Wayne was established in the 19th century as a rail commuter town so the plan of the town is oriented around the idea of walkability to shopping, community services, and public transportation.
  • Top-rated schools, vibrant houses of worship, a post office, and a big new library are all located in the center of town. Civic and cultural organizations abound in Wayne and contribute to intellectual discourse and a high quality of life.
  • The people of Wayne appear to be especially gracious. There is a small-town friendliness and politeness here that gives the visitor the impression of a nurturing, welcoming environment. There appears to be a strong tradition of civility here. Kindness and respect are conducive to productive conversation. A town cannot prosper and grow without conversation that leads to collaboration. A spirit of cooperation is apparent in Wayne.

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Wayne’s Weaknesses

  • Lancaster and Wayne avenues intersect in the heart of downtown Wayne and here we see one of the problems. Lancaster Avenue is also a state highway (Route 30) that runs between Philadelphia and points west across the state. This traffic needs to be calmed down if Wayne is to be pedestrian-friendly. Part of the problem is that Lancaster Avenue — leading into town from both directions — is a straightaway lined with strip malls, so drivers arrive in Wayne as if they are driving on a freeway. There are countless ways in which other cities have handled traffic calming in situations like this. It is the responsibility of Radnor Township to acknowledge the uniqueness of Wayne and to protect this with proper planning initiatives. Downtown Wayne is not just another strip mall along Route 30. It is a revered town center with huge potential for safer walkability.
  • Even though all the side streets are narrow, drivers in and around Wayne are very aggressive. Lancaster Avenue is not the only dangerous roadway. Speed bumps are located in several locations. Perhaps this could be expanded. Despite the fact that Wayne is very picturesque, one seldom sees bicyclists anywhere-. Because of out of control drivers, Wayne is not as safe as it should be for cyclists or walkers.
  • A sensitive skilled urban designer should be brought in to address the serious traffic issues in Wayne and to help the town plan for smart growth. This plan might incorporate street trees and other plant material, new parking configurations, and additional protected crosswalks. Signage could also play a part in notifying drivers that they are entering a traditional shopping and residential district in which pedestrians are present in high numbers. So slow down!
  • There are a number of important historic buildings in the commercial core of Wayne. Downtown Wayne is a National Register Historic District, but no local historic preservation ordinance is in place to protect it.
  • New chain stores are popping up along Lancaster Avenue. The high volume of car traffic here supports this kind of development. In this process, existing buildings are demolished and parking lots appear along the street with the business set at the back of the site. The growing expanse of voids between buildings along Lancaster Avenue contributes to the appearance of a strip mall landscape instead of a traditional, walkable Main Street. This style of suburbanism undermines the cohesiveness of a traditional walkable community and channels citizens off the sidewalks and into their cars. When it is unsafe or unpleasant to walk or cycle, People tend to drive even when the distance is short.
  • Wayne is not an incorporated community, but merely a zip code that straddles three counties and four townships. Downtown Wayne, however, sits exclusively in Radnor Township, Delaware County. Though Wayne has a distinctive identity because of its historic town center surrounded by cohesive residential neighborhoods, planning initiatives may be hindered because it is an unincorporated entity.

Wayne is already a fine place to live, shop, and work. Because of its intelligent, cooperative citizens the problems we cite can be addressed with style and dignity. A better defined and preserved downtown will reinforce the unique identity of the place, and with calmer vehicular traffic walkability will be enhanced. When Wayne implements the few new planning measures we suggest, it will stand as an example of a brilliant original town plan that has evolved over time, a plan that has been enhanced — and not undermined — by new planning initiatives.

 

fig. 2 _ 1795 view of the Spread Eagle Tavern, the location of which was less than one mile west of what is now downtown Wayne. Lancaster Pike was later known as Lancaster Avenue / Route 30.
fig. 3 _ St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 1889. Wilson Brothers & Co., architects
fig. 4 _ Many fine multi-use commercial buildings are seen in downtown Wayne.
fig. 5 _ Anthony Wayne Theatre, 1928. William Harold Lee, architect.
fig. 6 _ Wayne Hotel, ca. 1906, David K. Boyd, architect.
fig. 7 _ Wayne Train Station, 1882-84. Washington Bleddyn Powell, architect.
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