Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Running on Empty

A couple of gas stations near my house have closed in the past few months, victims of the economy and low gas prices.


Even the graffiti writers can't resist rubbing it in:
I say good riddance. You could argue that gas stations contribute to global warming twice--once when people fuel up, and again when people choose not to walk because they don't want to go past an ugly gas station. They're like holes in the city's fabric, ruining the visual definition and symmetry of a street. Not surprisingly, people will sometimes go to great lengths to avoid walking past them. It amazes me that with as much zoning and regulatory control the city exerts over land use, gas stations still end up on pedestrian-friendly streets, next to historic buildings, and so on.

I was hoping to do a post on the "trend" of gas stations closing, but it takes three things to make a trend, and I only know of two. Keep hope alive, though! There are plenty of other gas stations that I have my fingers crossed about.

This one on Lakeshore at the intersection of Lake Park is awful. On a street that's great for retail and where space is precious, this blots up the landscape. I actually think a parking lot would be a step up from this. Although I suppose it's good for business on the other side of the street, since everybody crosses over to get where they're going.

This one on Piedmont Avenue is another winner:

I can't capture the whole street in a picture, but this station sits between the Landmark Piedmont movie theater, L'Amyx teahouse, and a beautiful old church. Pedestrian-friendly streets are still scarce enough in Oakland that they deserve some sort of protection from this kind of blight.

My unscientific analysis indicates that there are just too damn many gas stations in Oakland. Many, even most, of them seem to have a pretty low volume of business--probably because people tend to shop around for the cheapest gas, and you're not going to find it on Lakeshore. Everybody in my neighborhood goes to the Arco station on Park Blvd, not the half-dozen other stations nearby.


I don't know what sort of cleanup or other costs are associated with converting gas stations into storefronts--somebody fill me in on this--but here's hoping that change can happen. After all, the market has spoken.

23 comments:

Gene said...

Clean up is pretty substantial. A few years ago a bunch of stations had to get their tanks upgraded, and that change-over put more than a few out of business. It's not surprising that it's an expensive proposition, especially if they had an actual garage (remember when they were called "service stations" because they provided service?). You're taking all the pollutants that cars produce and concentrating them into a small area.

Crimson said...

Thanks for the info. (The internets worked!) That being the case, I wonder what the options are for reuse. Or are we just stuck with the current number of gas stations in perpetuity?

Peter VT said...

Hey, those gas stations were BUILT because the market dictated! Some have been there for much longer than other stores and things in the neighborhoods! All supplied important blue collar jobs in a blue collar town. If no other operator steps up to open them, eventually someone will move in... but face astronomical costs in cleaning the site of hazardous chemicals (especially if the station has been there for a while!)

greigite said...

Anyone know what happened to the 76 station at the corner of Broadway and Broadway Terrace? It's been closed for >1yr now. Are the cleanup costs preventing any other use of the land?

Crimson said...

Peter, I understand that at one point there was a market demand for these stations that have closed. I'm puzzled that you're so moved to defend gas stations, though.

oaklandliving said...

Great post, and I agree that there are some gas stations in Oakland that need to go. Luckily, we'll soon be rid of one of the gas stations on Claremont and College, once Safeway expands.

Crimson said...

That's great, Becks. Of course College is another pedestrian-friendly street that doesn't really need gas stations.

Crimson said...

How timely:

"If one city is 10 times as populous as another one, does it need 10 times as many gas stations? No. Bigger cities have more gas stations than smaller ones (of course), but not nearly in direct proportion to their size. The number of gas stations grows only in proportion to the 0.77 power of population. The crucial thing is that 0.77 is less than 1. This implies that the bigger a city is, the fewer gas stations it has per person. Put simply, bigger cities enjoy economies of scale. In this sense, bigger is greener."

http://judson.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/19/math-and-the-city/

dbackman said...

Definitely noticed the trend as well. Especially since the independent gas station at the end of my block @ 4th Ave. & 12th went out of business. After 6 months or so of closure the property is now totally blighted. Its covered in litter, the pumps have been removed, a gutted van is the centerpiece. Yet, in a way this is an improvement over when the gas station was in operation and kids dealt drugs in the parking lot. It may be hideous now, but there's a lot less traffic and the street is a lot safer.
Nevertheless, something has to be done with this site, as well as all the other closed station sites. We may be better off without them, these sites cannot remain as abandoned gas stations for long. Unless they are going to reopen as gas stations in the near future, they need to be cleaned up. Pushing the costs of cleanup down the road is not the answer. Given the prime locations of many of these sites, hopefully they will take on a better function soon.

Pedestrianist said...

"Everybody in my neighborhood goes to the Arco station on Park Blvd, not the half-dozen other stations nearby."

Are you near a freeway (or a 'street' that is pretty much a freeway)? If so your neighborhood is just a pit stop for those passing through. Wouldn't it be great if they stayed a while at a store or cafe in a building that replaced one of those gas stations?

Chris Kidd said...

These same stations destroy sidewalk continuity through their often-enormous curb cuts that blur the line between pedestrian space and vehicle space. That combined with the higher amount of exhuast in the air and engine runoff on the ground make them hurldes to successful neighborhood vibrancy.

Another thing that these shuttered gas stations are a strong example of: the accumulation of unpaid costs in our economy. The reason they aren't being torn down and redeveloped is because of prohibitively expensive cleanup costs from the toxic contamination in the ground. If mitigation costs had been taken into accounts when these stations were first built, (1) we wouldn't be facing these problems now and (2) the higher (and true) cost of buidling these stations in the first place would have led to less gas stations (and thus, less gas stations now closed). Granted, a lot of these stations were built before stronger environmental protection laws; but what other kinds of hidden costs are lurking out there, waiting to surface only after the fact?

Crimson said...

Chris, dammit, you keep murdering me on my own shit. That's a good point, the externalities of gas stations were not factored in when so many were built. Apparently there is some federal money for gas station cleanup. I wonder if that's something Oakland could take advantage of.

Pedestrianist, I am indeed near a freeway, but who in Oakland isn't?

Russell said...

The Shell station was recently remodeled with the companies latest design. A mild Googie with the company's colors front and center. It's a great-looking station. I lived a block away from it for years until recently. The AM/PM down the block is one of the worst stations in the country. Customers vie for spots from 2 directions. Fewer stations just means gas prices go higher which impacts poorer people most.

Crimson said...

Russell,
1) I agree that the Shell station is more attractive than some other gas stations, but come on. It's still a gas station.

2) If I'm not mistaken, customers at most gas stations can enter and exit from both directions. At any rate, I don't know how I ended up in the position of defending the Arco gas station. You're right, it's ugly. Worst in the country? I wouldn't know, I've only been to like 10 states.

3) Would fewer stations really mean higher gas prices? I'm not sure if I buy that argument, but if it's true, bonus!

Russell said...

A gas station is a business that pays taxes. Oakland suffers from far too few of them. Our city discourages businesses from even desiring to do business here. We barely have enough money to provide crucial services. I don't understand what's so terrible about an attractive well-run station. Cars aren't going away any time soon. Stations compete with one-another. Fewer stations means higher prices. It's why gas is relatively cheaper out in places like Concord and Fremont, more stations. The Chevron stations on Telegraph at 55th St. and Castro at 18th St. (next to I-980) are suburban style stations that are very pleasant to use. BTW, that empty lot at Park Blvd., and Hampel, across from the church used to be a gas station.

Gene said...

Quite the hot topic. Like a lot of things, it's a question of balance. Cars and trucks aren't going away any time soon, and at best gas stations would be replaced with electric charging stations or battery swapping stations or Mr. Fusion refueling stations or whatever we power vehicles with. And competition does help keep prices down (though demand and speculation have a lot to do with price fluctuations.) Unfortunately, high prices tend to mean higher profits for the oil companies, and not higher subsidizing of road maintenance and mass transit like in much of Europe.

So if they're going to be around, what to do? One is make sure they're sited in reasonable locations. All things considered, the 76 station on Lakeshore isn't too bad, location-wise. It's right near a freeway exit and several major streets, and while there's a great retail district nearby (which will hopefully get some gas customers from off the freeway), it's not right in the middle of it.

However, it does present an unsightly blob compared with a store or restaurant, and is not pedestrian- or bike-friendly because cars can enter or exit almost anywhere. The picture of the station on Piedmont suggests one step to take -- green margins to separate the cars from the pedestrians. That clearly delineates where cars can enter and exit, and hides a bit of the expanse of concrete.

Crimson said...

Got an email from my mom: "Yes, there are ugly stations, and duplications, but on the other hand......we need to get gas! A necessary evil that we don't want to have to drive miles to get. And remember when I ran out of gas on the way to the movie and 2 gas stations were closed? And it took 2 AAA trucks to get us going?? What a nightmare that was!"

Thanks, mom.

Because it seems to be getting misconstrued, my point is that gas stations are not very pedestrian-friendly, and there are too many of them in Oakland, especially on streets that are otherwise very pleasant to walk on. And if the gas stations are repurposed into another kind of retail, and there are more pedestrian-friendly streets in Oakland, people will walk more and drive less. So it becomes a positive feedback loop.

It's different in places like Anaheim, where my mom lives. Those places are not built for walking, and the presence or absence of a gas station won't change that fact.

Georgia said...

You beat me to this topic. Was hoping to write an entry about the closing of several stations in Berkeley. Great observations as usual.

As to your question about remediation, the process is probably fairly standardized - and thus less expensive - for "normal" gas stations than say twenty years ago. The City of Emeryville has a model brownfield remediation program and might provide information via its website.

- Georgia (localecology.org)

Crimson said...

Georgia, you should totally do a Berkeley edition of this phenomenon. My research was not exactly extensive.

Michael Caton said...

Abandoned car lots at the present moment are a much bigger problem for most cities than gas stations. In San Lorenzo there are two adjacent on Mission Street. Recently there has been some discussion about what to do with them. Employment centers? Parks, playgrounds or green space? Worth thinking about, because there will be more.

Georgia said...

Unfortunately I never photographed the vacated gas stations in Berkeley and now am in NY. The most interesting one is at Telegraph = Dwight; there is a proposal to redevelop the lot as mixed-use retail and apartments.

- localecology.org

Crimson said...

Telegraph and Dwight would be a great area for some new mixed use development.

Peddler on the Hoof said...

Lots of good material here, hope to see you come back someday Crimson.

Ken