The Corner Gas Station

If there's something I really know very little about, it's the ins-and-outs of the gasoline station business; so Christine MacDonald's cover story in last week's City Paper was pretty eye-opening. I would have never known, for example, that half of the gas stations in DC, and a quarter of them in the metro area, are owned and operated by a single company.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)

When it comes to city-design and urban form, gasoline stations aren't very friendly. By their nature, they can't exhibit the attributes that fit into a walkable neighborhood. They leave sidewalks facing fuel pumps, rather than homes, stores or businesses. And because of the high turnover of cars coming in and out, they can be challenging places for pedestrians to maneuver around vehicles.

At the same time, gasoline stations are an essential infrastructure that every city needs. The challenge is figuring out how to make them accessible to neighborhoods without interrupting the urban fabric. The truth is that every motorist wants to have a gasoline station convenient to where they live, the just don't want it to be too convenient.

Toward the end of the piece, MacDonald shares an interesting tidbit about the future of gasoline stations in DC.
Stacy Milford operates Circle Exxon, a station and garage near Chevy Chase Circle that one of Mamo’s companies purchased as part of the multi-station deal in June 2009. Milford says it’s unsettling to know that once his lease runs out in a couple of years, Mamo may find it more lucrative to sell the property for condos rather leave it as a gas station...

“We are really a real estate company,” he says. “We’re in it for the real estate.” Mamo considers the coming transition inevitable, given the high cost of D.C. real estate and predictions about “peak oil,” alternative fuels, and electric cars that might eventually make gas stations obsolete. “Long term, the real estate is where the value is,” he says.
I'm not sure the situation is quite so simple. Without being an expert on DC's zoning code, I imagine that converting a gas station into a condo building requires, at the least, an act of City Hall. But assuming it could happen, is it really the worst thing in the world? Off the top of my head, I can identify a number of stations in the District that, if they went away and never came back, I and many people would take no issue with it.

In a walkable city, if demand is for development that further supports walkability, then allowing that change to happen isn't such a terrible thing.


    On February 24, 2011 rg said...

    A number of gas stations have disappeared in the 17 years I have lived in the District. The example that first comes to mind is at 11th Street & Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Until around 2004(ish), the northwest corner of that intersection was occupied by a gas station. It was horribly ugly. Whatever your opinion of the condo building that replaced it, it is a huge improvement over what use to be there.

    I look forward to the day when the equally ugly gas stations at 12th & Pennsylvania SE, 13th & Pennsylvania SE and 9th & Pennsylvania SE are replaced by something better. I appreciate that we need some gas stations, but those 3 are really ugly and detract much more from the neighborhood than they add to it.

    (Indeed, it would be great if organizations that claim to have such strong devotion to preserving L'Enfant's vision (ahem: Committee of 100 and CHRS) would get half as upset about these scars on Pennsylvania Avenue's streetscape as they do about a single overhead wire to power a streetcar on H Street.)

    Another closed gas station: the Exxon at 11th & M Streets SE, which is now an empty lot and will probably become something other than a gas station at some point.

    There are other locations that I can't remember right now that people would be surprised to learn hosted a gas station until recently.


    A change in use would not necessarily require an act of city hall. It would depend on the zoning classification, though.

    For instance, if the zone where the station is located permits both residential and commercial uses, a change in use would not require a zoning change, and would likely me a matter of right.

    However, in the other direction (converting housing to a gas station in a zone where it is permitted), gas stations typically require getting "special exceptions", which usually means a round of public hearings, followed by a permit if the station is to be allowed.

    Gas stations typically require environmental cleanup when they close, however, so it's not always as simple as just building condos.

    On March 13, 2011 DK said...

    Store on the street. Pumps in the back.

    Simple inversion is how you make pedestrian friendly gas stations that fit into the urban fabric.

    On March 14, 2011 Anonymous said...

    The gas station in the photo is at the bottom of the Exorcist stairs in Georgetown. There's a plan to turn it into condos. Wondering if you knew that or if you picked the photo for another reason? If so, interesting coincidence.