After a 50-year population explosion, a South Jersey suburb appears to be shrinking | Kevin Riordan

Homes line Whitman Drive in the Whitman Square development in Washington Township, N.J. Much of the area was developed during the post-World War II building boom. But in recent years growth seems to have ceased.

Mary Duffield remembers real estate salespeople showing up unannounced in the driveway, urging her to sell the family farm.

That was in the 1980s, when population growth was Washington Township’s bumper crop, and before competition arose from nearby new suburbs like Harrison and Woolwich and older ones like Collingswood or Pitman.

Duffield’s Farm still cultivates sweet corn, strawberries, and peaches on 300 magnificent acres along Chapel Heights Road.  “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” said Mary, who at 84 still works in the market there.

But after a half-century-long population explosion, the Gloucester County suburb some call “Little South Philly” is getting smaller.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates  the township’s population fell from 48,871 to 47,848, a 2.1 percent drop,  between 2010 and 2017. The same period saw enrollment in the township school district decline  from 8,427 to 7,247, or 14 percent, according to the state Department of Education.

“Washington Township is a postcard version of the car-dependent suburb,” said Tim Evans, research director for New Jersey Future, which advocates smart-growth policies statewide. “Today’s young generation doesn’t want to live in places like that.”

The latest census data also show population gains, especially among millennials, in many of New Jersey’s urban and prewar suburban communities, Evans said. These places tend to have dense, mixed-use, walkable downtowns and an abundance of mass transit — which Washington Township doesn’t have.

“I grew up in [adjacent] Gloucester Township, and Washington Township evolved similarly, with a ton of just-residential neighborhoods around a big highway,” said Joseph Russell, an active member of the South Jersey Urbanists group.

Russell, of Collingswood, said he and many of his fellow millennials “are looking for more interesting places to live. And even if you want to live in a place like Washington Township, you’ve got all this college debt, and you can’t afford it.”

Sprawling across a lovely, 21.6-square-mile landscape of gentle  hills and fertile fields, Washington Township was a sparsely populated farming community for most of its history.

The Atlantic City Expressway and the 42 freeway changed all that in the 1960s; for the next 50 years, subdivisions sprouted, schools opened, and shopping strips proliferated all over the place.

“They gobbled it all up,” recalled Mary Duffield’s daughter-in-law Tracy.

“It was booming along the Black Horse Pike,” said David Benyak, a friend of mine who has lived in the Valley Green development for more than three decades.

“But in the last four or five years, stores just keep pulling out.”

Camera icon MAGGIE LOESCH / Staff Photographer
The vacant parking lot sits along NJ 42 / Black Horse Pike. The strip boomed decades ago but in recent years has been eclipsed by newer commercial strips on nearby highways.

While the local stretch of Route 42 — the township’s de facto main street — has any number of apparently thriving businesses, the congested highway also is marked by vacant lots, former fast-food joints, and “for sale” signs.

The township may not seem as upscale “as some individuals thought it would be when they moved in,” said Aaron Carter, publisher of the glossy monthly magazine Washington Township Neighbors.

Said Mark Matthews, who runs the lively 42Freeway.com blog about retail and restaurant development along the corridor: “Whole Foods and Wegmans and Trader Joe’s are just not in this area.”

Indeed, Benyak and other residents still lament how tantalizingly close “Township” — the single-word moniker by which many refer to the community — came to landing Wegmans in the early 2000s.

Mayor Joann Gattinelli was not available to chat. But her office did provide a two-page statement in which the mayor, a longtime local businesswoman, extolled the township and her administration’s efforts to make it better.

Families move there “to experience our top-rated school system, our sense of community, and our proximity to major highways and cities,” the mayor said in the statement.

Gattinelli also cited Washington Lake Park — a wonderful amenity, to be sure — and the recent groundbreaking for a $205 million expansion project at Jefferson Washington Township Hospital.

Camera icon MAGGIE LOESCH / Staff Photographer
Rob (left) and Kris Mellen enjoy the 330-acre Washington Lake Park. Described as the largest municipal park in New Jersey, Washington Lake was dedicated in 1992.

“There’s a lot of growth potential here, and in the surrounding communities,”  Joe Devine, president of Jefferson Health New Jersey, told me.

Devine has lived in the township for 32 years and was an active volunteer on an  economic development committee during an earlier mayoral administration. The committee sought to encourage downtown-style redevelopment and improvements to the Route 42 gateways to the township.

“Washington Township needs to create something unique, something that will be an attraction,” said Devine.

I agree.

I like cities and walkable towns as much as anyone. But not everyone wants to live in the Collingswoods and Northern Liberties of the world.

So, with its easy access to the Shore and to the main campuses of Rowan and Stockton Universities, its pretty landscapes, and its great park, Washington Township might well continue to be a desirable place to live.

And the slowdown or even reversal of growth could be a chance for the town to catch its breath and make some savvy big-picture plans.

Camera icon MAGGIE LOESCH / Staff Photographer
A vacant building — a former chain sandwich shop — is among a number of such properties along the Black Horse Pike.

Dysfunctional as it is, Route 42 offers some creative possibilities. Moribund or vacant commercial parcels could be redeveloped for residential as well as retail use, as has been successfully done at the CooperTowne Center in Somerdale. Express bus service — perhaps by replacing the median with bus-only lanes —  could help make the highway get people where they’re going more efficiently.

“I love this community,” said retiree Stephen Smith, who resides in the leafy, well-tended Whitman Square neighborhood. “It’s very family-oriented. Very sports-oriented. It’s all-around convenient. It’s great.”

At Washington Lake Park, Alec Bird, 18, paused during a hoop-shooting session with a friend and said he’s “definitely getting out of” the township.

“I’m probably going to move to Philly,” he said. “I like how close everything is there. You don’t need to drive.

“You can walk everywhere you want to go.”