Three Strategies for Refueling Abandoned Gas Stations

gas station

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Depending who you ask, America’s first gas station opened in either St. Louis or Seattle only a handful of years following the turn of the 20th century. The automobile was young, but already well on its way to driving straight into the heart of American culture. It didn’t take long for gas stations to flood across the country, popping up along major arterial roads, prime hard corner locations, and highway off ramps—wherever traffic and auto access optimized a retailer’s pro-forma. No city, no citizen was immune. In his pastoral quest to sketch the future of a dispersed and auto-centric society, even Frank Lloyd Wright engaged in gas station design.  The gas station thus became an aesthetically regrettable but compulsory compound in the refinement of modern urban development.

Some stations have stood the test of time. Reighard’s in Atloona, Pennsylvania has been selling gasoline since 1909, making it the oldest American gas station still in operation. But others haven’t always fared so well. Aggressive expansion during the U.S’s post-war suburban boom effectively over positioned low-volume, small square footage stations throughout the country. Now the United States find itself in the midst of a multi-decade decline in the number of gas station retailers open for business across the country. And this trend persists despite metronomic increases in both the nation’s population and urban footprint over the same time period.

There’s a volatile mix of trends behind the steady evaporation of American gas stations—everything from market consolidation to tightening margins on retail sales. The forces at work are economically epic, structurally complex beasts beyond the remedy of any singular shift in market behavior or regulatory policy. In general, gas stations tend to play only a tangential role in broader discussions about the sustainability of automobile use and fossil fuels, but in terms of the sustainable city’s built environment and local land use decisions, gas stations couldn’t play a more central role. There are already local governments grappling with how to reclaim abandoned gas stations, many of which are identified by the EPA as petroleum brownfields that require costly and time-consuming remediation. To a developer, a gas station’s highly specialized site layout and environmental risks make for an undesirable and needlessly complicated investment. As a result, many sit along the street boarded up and in disrepair. Forgotten, they are striking, even artistic, in what they symbolize: an old way of life in decline, but a decline that presents a possibility for change in values, purpose, and use.

gas station 2

Drawing upon a handful of North America case studies, here’s three strategies for refueling abandoned gas stations:

1. Reuse

There are a number of projects that have thoughtfully reused the footprint of former gas stations. Copper Star Coffee in Phoenix, Arizona is a noteworthy example. Once a small gas station, Copper Star still fuels city residents, but now it’s by the cup, not the gallon. The unique architecture, signage, and often prime location of gas stations make them an intriguing adaptive reuse prospect for those with the creative wherewithal. Some have even gone so far as to turn them to private residences. Various states or programs tie targeted funding to gas station reuse, and a full quarter of the EPA’s federal brownfield allocation is intended for petroleum brownfield sites.

2. Redevelop

Scraped and remediated, parcels formerly home to fueling stations are experiencing radical changes in land use across the world. These redevelopments mark a significant opportunity to transition prime real estate towards a better and higher use. In Vancouver, city officials and SoleFood have partnered to turn a former gas station lot into a 500 tree urban orchard that will produce fruits like apples, pears, and lemons. There’s something particularly inspiring about turning a cog in the wheel of the carbon economy back into an urban greenspace.

3. Reposition

With recent growth in the use of electric and alternative fuel vehicles, as well as car sharing and burgeoning support for bike/ped options, some see gas stations of the future not as a radically different land uses but as multi-modal support stations that offer a little something for everyone. Imagine pulling up in your car or bike and being presented with a menu of fuels and services: gasoline, ethanol, propane, electric charge, biodesiel, tire pumps, bike tune-ups, and car sharing. Now imagine this place is also a stop along a transit line, bus rapid lane, rail line, or even streetcar system. It’s not as crazy as you might think. In fact, Propel Fuels has already attracted both private and public funding to experiment with just this model in California.

Abandoned gas stations make for a serious land use dilemma, but when reused, redeveloped, or repositioned creatively they are not always an intractable urban problem.

Lucas Lindsey is Co-Editor of This Big City on Tumblr and is based in Tallahassee, USA. He is an urbanist, futurist, and blogger.

Images via Wikimedia

  • US 71

    I’ve seen muffler shops, beauty salons, used car dealers…also a few refurbished as Historic Gas station Museums.

  • Reba

    Gas stations generally come with a host of environmental issues due to leaking underground fuel storage tanks. Restoration efforts can cost thousands of dollars – can you comment on how some of these ideas – the orchard/greenspace idea in particular – financed the environmental investigation and remediation?

    • Lucas Lindsey

      Financing restoration is often one reason why we see these sites sit vacant to begin with–you’ve hit the nail on the head by bringing up the cost involved. In everything that I read about these projects there was no specific discussion of cost, but I’d be willing to bet that many offset some of it with brownfield redevelopment funds via EPA and State government. In the case of orchard, all growing is being done tactical urbanism style in raised bed planters, containers, and tree boxes. The vacant land itself, which is in fact contaminated, is more a staging ground than anything.

  • me

    You are using an artwork by Eric Tabuchi who is referencing a milestone artist book by Ed Ruscha and you aren’t mentioning or giving credit to either of them. Makes me sad. Please learn good publication manners and research copyright.

    • Lucas Lindsey

      So so sorry I believe this one falls on me as the author! I thought I searched under creative commons. This Big City always aims to give credit where it’s due and attempts to use best copyright practices. TBC’s About page actually speaks to image policies. Thank you for pointing this out.

    • Joe Peach

      Hi me. Thanks for pointing this out. This was not our intention and we always aim to use CC images in our content. The photos have been replaced.

  • Albert MacKrell

    The “… increases in both the nation’s population and urban footprint …” have been persistent, relentless, and many other things, but NOT “metronomic”. Don’t try so hard to be clever.

    • Lucas Lindsey

      Thanks for your word choice suggestions, Albert. When I conjured up metronomic it seemed to speak to the regularity of past increases. I suppose I took a bit of poetic license. Sorry to hear that it distracted you from the broader and more important message of the article.