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Why Delaware has so much suburban sprawl.

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I wrote this article for Reddit just for the hell of it.


Someone posted earlier about the annoying amount of over-development and suburban sprawl in Delaware. I thought it would be interesting to go a little bit over the reasons why the system is set up like the way it is, and how the forces of suburbanization have made Delaware into the bedroom community it is today.


Wilmington developed at a steady pace throughout the 1800's- especially during the Civil War, which the du Pont Company really flourished as at the time they were known for gun powder. In 1864, a horse railcar line was developed around Delaware Avenue, which allowed for Wilmington residential development to expand out towards the "country", and leafy residential neighborhoods began to sprout. Note that this would be a continuing pattern for Wilmington's elite- building pretty "country" houses and pushing north of Wilmington.


Soon, the railroad came, as well as the trolley car. This allowed for Wilmington's first official suburb, Elsmere, which was developed in 1886 by Joshua Heald for working middle-class families. Though there were talks for Wilmington annexing Elsmere into their city boundaries, Elsmere had incorporated as its own town by 1909. Wilmington couldn't really do much about it, because they had a weak city charter and New Castle County government would thwart them time after time whenever they tried to expand their borders.


World War I and World War II brought continued prosperity to Wilmington, which reached 112k in population by 1940. Again, given that Wilmington had a weak city charter that made it hard for them to annex surrounding land into their city, a lot of residential development began to spill out of the borders of Wilmington, which was made even easier by the car. It was around this time that the prosperous North Wilmington suburbs were developed, originally for the du Pont company chemists and their families. (Think Alapocas, Greenville, Talleyville, etc.)

Meanwhile, the more solidly middle-class suburban development continued out from Elsemere along the newly built Kirkwood Highway. Newark, which had been a relatively small town throughout most of its history, also exploded in population, going from just 6k people in 1950 to over 20k by 1970. The first wave of suburban sprawl began to hit the Newark area as areas such as Brookside were developed.


As the 1950's continued and gave way to the 1960's, suburban development and flight from Wilmington continued. There are a couple of factors for this. The first is that the building of I-95 required demolition of several city neighborhoods, which destabilized the entire area and also made it even easier for people who worked in Wilmington to commute from the suburbs. The second is that the G.I. Bill, which returning WWII vets were using to buy homes, strongly favored new construction in the suburbs as opposed to the older housing stock. Third, the returning G.I.'s and their wives would give birth to what is known as the Baby Boomer Generation. This cohort was so large that entire children-consumer industries sprang up. These G.I.'s preferred to raise their kids in their suburbs, continuing the suburban flight from Wilmington. Finally, the perception of Wilmington being unsafe stemmed from the Wilmington riots of 1968, which led to most of suburban Delaware turning their backs on Wilmington and never looking back. From the 1950's through the 1980's, Wilmington's population would drop from 95k in 1950, down to about 70k by 1990, which is more or less where the population has stabilized.


In the late 1970's, Christiana Mall began to be developed, which drove more development. The success of that mall meant that developers have clamored to build retail in the areas surrounding the mall since, hoping to capture that success as well- you see that today with the new Christiana Fashion Center. The building of nearby Christiana Hospital in 1984-1985 would also be a major driver of development in that region. Another biggie would be MBNA, which was founded in 1982 and became a massive behomoth of a suburban office complex in Ogletown.


Ah, yes, we can't forget about banks, which began a boom in Delaware in the 1980's due to laws passed in 1981 that were favorable to banks. This did in fact led to a lot of office development in Wilmington, but the Baby Boomer bankers preferred living in the suburbs to living in the city. I mean, there were some city neighborhoods that got revived (think 40 Acres/Trolley Square) but by and large the affluence that was being driven by the banking boom of the 80's/90's was going out into the suburbs instead of being invested into the city. At least, beyond the gleaming office towers.

The next round of suburban development (the 1980's-1990's) would take place around the Bear/Glasgow area. Originally cheap farmland (this area was big on horses), it became known for townhomes and cookie cutter housing developments. On the more upscale side, the affluent developments around Hockessin began to pop up as well. Both of these areas were not incorporated, which meant that developers did not need to go through city laws/city councils in order to get their developments approved- just having to deal with the city. I grew up in Bear during the 2000's, and I remember my jaw dropping when someone told me that Bear had largely been the "country" back in the 80's. You can still see some remnants of its past (I remember seeing some horse farms close to Old Porter Road) but man.


Anyway, another really, really huge factor in the suburban sprawl deal in Delaware comes up in the 1990's. That would be the construction of Route 1. Originally built to bypass Route 13 and create a faster route to the beach, this would help the MOT area (Middletown, Odessa, Townsend) explode in population, as it was now a more convenient area to commute from. Middletown had 3k people in 1990, now it's up to over 20k, and that's just within the city limits. One difference in the suburban sprawl story of Middletown is that the mayor of the 1990's actually set this in motion on purpose, because Middletown was a dying farming town. The town began to aggressively annex surrounding areas so they would benefit from the building of the housing developments and strip malls. This would led to Middletown's population growing by 206 percent between 2000 to 2010. Not that there hasn't been some pushback- in 1999 Middletown residents rejected a school referendum purely as an attempt to stop the suburban development, but of course, it didn't really work.


Route 1 has been a major driver of suburban development all across the state for the past 20 years. I lived in Dover from 2005-2006, and I remember there was a lot of suburbs getting built around the former farmland. Downstate also saw a lot of this growth, particularly with the beach areas, although that growth hasn't extended out to the western part of Sussex County.

One thing that began to happen, especially during that 2000's real estate boom, is that developers in New Castle County started talking about "re-developing" golf courses, nature preserves, and former office complexes, particularly in the more crowded part above the canal. One particularly nasty fight occurred when the Stoltz Company wanted to build a 13-story tower in Greenville at the former Barley Mill Office complex, and basically the residents banded together to sue them 'til kingdom come until those plans were dropped. Another really controversial move has been talk abut re-developing the Newark Country Club, which has been bandied about for at least the past 15 years but it keeps getting thwarted. I also remember there were some whispers about developing in Bellevue Park around this area, although I don't know if that came to fruition.


The Great Recession did put a damper for a while for suburban development in Delaware. Development has come back, but if you notice, a lot of what's getting built currently are townhomes aimed at seniors as well as apartment buildings. (Notably, the Newark student apartment buildings that everyone likes to bitch about.) You're not seeing as many plans for McMansion developments the way you would have back in the 90's and the 2000's.



1.) Delaware has always been a really convenient place to travel through when it comes to go to Philly, D.C./Baltimore, or New York City. This convenience has only increased with the building of roads like I-95 and Route 1. (Probably the new 301 is really going to jumpstart some new suburban sprawl as well.)

2.) Delaware has historically stayed away from compact urban development. Newark was originally a sleepy town that had a small college. Dover was small town until the 1970's. A lot of Delaware was rural for most of our history. (Still shocked at the thought of Bear being a sleepy little farming community as recently as the 80's.) Our only "big" city is Wilmington, and even when they had 100k residents, they weren't building tall apartment buildings- note the row-homes and townhomes.

3.) Developers like building on flat, open spaces, which Delaware had/has a lot of because we had so many farms. And we are largely on the Atlantic Coastal plain.

4.) Wilmington lost 40k people in the course of about 50 years, and been unable to entice people to come back. One interesting fact- in 1940, Wilmington had 112k people. Delaware itself only had 266k people. That means that over 40 percent of the entire state of Delaware lived in Wilmington in 1940. Now that percentage is down to about 7 percent!

5.) Government, especially in New Castle County, has a really, really hard time saying no to developers. There's also this mindset of not thinking ahead. I've learned in the Memories of Newark group that in the 1960's, the Newark City Council was floating the idea of building a by-pass that would have gone around the Main Street area. Sort of similar to what's going on right now with the 301, which is going to by-pass the current 301 that goes through Middletown. It was floated because at the time, Newark was booming, and the traffic problems we see today started to appear. However, the city council voted it down because they thought it was unnecessary. Today, the proposed bypass would be impossible because most of that land got developed, so Newarkers today basically have to pay for the mistakes that were made 50 years ago. And you see similar stories to that again and again- developers getting their way and our government not making them put in the infrastructure needed because they don't want to lose the development deals.


So yeah, there you have it. It's basically almost inevitable that Delaware basically is the way it is. We're basically just reaping what Elsmere sowed back in the early 1900's when they refused to become part of Wilmington because they didn't want to pay city taxes.

TL;DR: Delaware's life as a suburban bedroom community is the result of forces that were set in motion as early as the 19th century.

Edited...looks like people want some sources so here's a couple:

"Corporate Capital- Wilmington in the 20th Century" by Carol Hoffecker, Temple University Press, 1983.

Wilmington DE population

Newark DE Population

Dover DE Historical Population

Delaware population figures

Middletown DE Wikpedia Page

Save Our County- Website for the group that fought the Stoltz Company tooth and nail over the proposed Greenville development

Push for country park on former orphanage site remains strong, Newark Post Online 2017

West Main Street Residents Want By-pass, Newark Post Achives September 2,1994

Christiana Fashion Center's first phase on target, Delaware Business Times March 2015

Northern Delaware's Christiana Mall remains resistant to retail's rough patch, BisNow 2018

Banking Haven- Washington Post 1983

Middletown, Delaware Annexing Farmland- New York Times 1990

Market Street Renaissance- Out & About, October 2015

Developers Target Delaware Golf Courses January 2016


Growing up as suburban kid...I wouldn't have it any other way. I fucking LOVED hanging out at the mall growing up. I don't know if I would have liked being a city kid, or being in some small cow town or something.

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