According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, more than 50,000 gas stations have closed their doors since 1991, which accounts for nearly 25% of the 200,000 gas stations nationwide. With the advent of hybrid cars and a greater penchant for transit, gas stations are on the decline, with busy street corners being replaced by boarded-up stations and vacant pumps. Per the New York Times, many of these abandoned gas stations serve as entryways to business districts; thus, the redevelopment potential of these properties can be attractive to developers. Underutilized gas stations present a unique opportunity for towns and developers alike, particularly if they are at desirable intersections. However, these gas stations also present unique challenges, such as environmental remediation and small lot size, that must be planned for and managed appropriately.
In the past, the CED blog has explored the basics of brownfields programs in North Carolina, how they are administered and implemented, their role in revitalizing communities, and flexible opportunities in North Carolina’s Brownfield’s Program. Brownfield redevelopment is certainly a complicated process, but there are a variety of federal, state, and private funding mechanisms that make these projects more feasible. Previous brownfield projects in North Carolina have centered around historic manufacturing and mill sites, but gas stations could well be the new frontier of downtown redevelopment and revitalization.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), petroleum brownfields, ground contaminated or thought to be contaminated by fuel, make up half of the 450,000 documented brownfields in the U.S. When gas stations close, local government must often contend with time-consuming and cost-prohibitive clean-up, which can migrate into groundwater or a neighboring site. The EPA has consulted on several gas station redevelopment planning efforts and credits successful redevelopment of these sites with preserving the integrity of older neighborhoods and serving as a model that could be repeated at thousands of other sites across the country.
In December 2013, the EPA provided technical assistance to the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC) to support redevelopment planning for three abandoned gas stations located south and southwest of downtown St. Louis. The EPA and SLDC collected input from community members, conducted an environmental conditions analysis, examined market data and infrastructure evaluations, and developed conceptual site designs, which served as educational and marketing tools to promote site development to public and private investors. While providing technical assistance, the EPA developed the following lessons learned that could be applicable for other communities considering gas station redevelopment:
- Engage area residents in discussions early in the process to help refine developer requests for proposals (RFPs);
- Utilize data and expert analysis to help local stakeholders better understand diverse options and opportunities;
- Recognize unique reuse opportunities based on site location, site layout, reuse of the current building, and community market inputs; and
- Leverage technical and financial assistance from public agencies (e.g., EPA) to make sites more attractive for reuse to private developers.
The city of Durham has capitalized on these lessons learned and the potential of gas station redevelopment in recent years. Notable examples in downtown Durham include Geer Street Garden restaurant and bar, Grub restaurant, Local Yogurt frozen yogurt shop, and Joe Van Gogh coffee shop. The redevelopment of abandoned gas stations has helped to revitalize the West End Neighborhood of Durham, where Grub, Local Yogurt, and Joe Van Gogh are located; real estate prices have risen significantly in the last few years. Joe Van Gogh owner Robbie Roberts saw a unique opportunity in the former Gulf Service Station saying, “As soon as I saw the space, I knew it would make sense to be there. And re-using a gas station is something I’ve always thought of as a great fit for a coffeehouse.” Roberts’ eye for opportunity was not lost on the City of Durham. Joe Van Gogh is one of three redevelopment projects that the City of Durham has recently helped to finance. The city contributed $49,000 to the developer Seminary Avenue Redux to redevelop the former gas station into the commercial space currently occupied by Local Yogurt and Joe Van Gogh. In addition, the City contributed $100,000 for the redevelopment of a former gas station which is now home to Grub.
Other North Carolina municipalities should look to Durham’s recent successes and the potential of their own abandoned gas station sites. As noted by Open Durham, gas station architecture has considerable potential to be redeveloped into a number of different uses: restaurant, coffee shop, bike store, or even a comic book store. The charm of these gas stations, “obvious even in [an] advanced state of disrepair,” can prove to be invaluable to towns looking to revitalize their downtowns.
Kaley Huston is a Master’s candidate in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of City and Regional Planning specializing in Land Use and Environmental Planning and a Community Revitalization Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative. She is also pursuing a Natural Hazards Resilience Certificate in partnership with the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence at UNC.