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A Clean New Life for Grimy Gas Stations

  
  
  
  

HIGH FALLS, N.Y. — The gas station in this Hudson Valley hamlet sat empty for years, leaching petroleum into the soil and well water. But a renovation that will transform the abandoned station into a yoga studio, wellness center and a charging station for electric carshas turned the eyesore into a symbol of this struggling community’s revival.

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The station’s decline mirrors that of many others across the country.

Thousands of gas stations have closed in the last two decades, leaving many communities saddled with vacant or abandoned properties. Because gas stations are often built on busy street corners, boarded-up stations have marred the entrances to many bustling business districts in American towns and cities.

More than 50,000 stations have closed since 1991 when there were nearly 200,000 nationwide, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.

The high cost of oil has made it hard to turn a profit selling gas, pushing station owners into selling snacks and soda at their convenience stores. With big-box retailers like Walmart and Costco now in the gas business, attracting customers has become even harder. Simply put, mom and pop stations that once thrived just by selling gas and fixing cars in the repair shop can no longer compete.

No numbers are available on how many closed stations remain vacant, but despite problems, the properties can be attractive to developers, especially if they are at desirable intersections.

“If you own the real estate, there’s no better time to get out — everybody wants that convenient location,” said Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the convenience store association. “You could be sitting on a gold mine.”

But converting these sites can be challenging. They often are on small lots and may be contaminated by petroleum leaking from underground storage tanks, as was the case in High Falls.

Petroleum brownfields — ground contaminated or thought to be contaminated by fuel — make up half of the 450,000 brownfields in the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. As gas stations close, towns must grapple with what to do with this land. If fuel has migrated into groundwater or a neighboring lot, costs can balloon.

State and federal money available to municipalities to clean abandoned sites is limited. Federal regulations require private owners and operators to clean any spills on their property. Still, some developers are reluctant to buy old stations because of the risk that contamination could be found later and they would be stuck with the cleanup bill.

“Gas stations are the gateway to a community,” said Robert Colangelo executive director of the National Brownfield Association. “So it’s very important to get these things cleaned up.”

In High Falls, a $300,000 renovation is changing a derelict structure to a colonial-style strip of yellow storefronts with white trim that will be completed this summer. Then, charging pumps for electric cars will be installed where two gas pumps once stood. The quick-charge pumps will offer free charging to store customers and anyone else. A wind turbine affixed to a 30-foot ledge behind the station and solar panels atop the ledge will generate the electricity.

The five service bays have been converted to shops, and the garage doors replaced with storefront windows. The second floor has been turned into 2,200 square feet of office space offering views of the nearby falls. “People who come to a town like this, they’re looking for a memory to take home with them,” said Mark Robinson, who owns the property with Ronald F. Faia. “I’ve always loved old gas stations,” he added. “It’s a view into American history.”

In a village that once was home to Marc Chagall and the setting for some scenes in “Splendor in the Grass” a former neighborhood blight has become a new downtown center.

“It’s so nice. It’s part of the revitalization of High Falls,” said Michael Warren, town supervisor for Marbletown, which encompasses the hamlet.

But it is not always easy to persuade developers to invest in a property that may need costly environmental cleanup. The High Falls station cost the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation more than $100,000 to clean up in 2001, seven years before Mr. Robinson bought it.

“Whenever you see a for sale sign, it never says ‘brownfields for sale,’ ” Mr. Colangelo said.

While rural communities struggle to fill empty stations, New York City has a different problem. Property values are so high that stations are being converted to more profitable uses, like high-rise buildings, giving drivers fewer places to fill their tanks. The city had 809 gas stations in 2011, down from 872 in 2006, according to the Department of Consumer Affairs. Of the remaining gas stations, only 44 are in Manhattan.

In 2009, Eyal Shuster, a developer, spent $1 million to convert a defunct Long Island City service station into the Breadbox Cafe, which his wife, Tal, manages. A Getty gas station next door, however, is still operating. Mr. Shuster and his development partner, Moshe Mizrahi, hope to eventually build a high-rise building above the restaurant and demolish the Getty gas station.

On a rainy afternoon in June, the 48-seat restaurant was full of customers. From the street, the boxy single-story building still resembles a service station, despite the quirky addition of 1,600 rolling pins on the facade. New garage doors with large glass panes roll back, opening out onto a wooden patio. Inside, zinc countertops and mahogany paneling give the space a modern look.

“The main challenge is changing people’s perception,” said the restaurant’s architect, Eran Chen, a principal at ODA-Architecture. “How do you create an attractive food space in a place that used to service cars?”

While gas stations might be an eyesore in some communities, in others they are treasured slices of Americana. A St. Louis developer met fierce resistance when he considered demolishing a 1968 Phillips 66 station. The building has an enormous flying saucer-shaped roof. Although it has not been a gas station since the 1980s — its latest incarnation was as a Del Taco restaurant that closed in 2011 — residents saw the building as a piece of the city’s architectural history.

Rather than build anew, the developer Richard K. Yackey will begin a $1 million renovation this month on the property, which has 3,200 square feet of usable space. The roof, which is 12,000 square feet, will cost $100,000 to replace. When construction is complete next year, the station will house a Chipotle restaurant and a Starbucks and have a 1,300 square feet addition.

“If you do the math, it doesn’t make a lot of sense economically,” Mr. Yackey said, adding that constructing a building on the property would have provided him with more space to lease.

Because many old gas stations sit on small, three-quarter-acre lots, they often have to be expanded to be marketable. Buyers of old stations often angle to get the neighboring lot. But that, too, can be fraught with complications.

“Any time you’re putting multiple parcels together it becomes more difficult because you’re dealing with another seller,” said Joseph S. Botta, president of Pineville Properties, which has redeveloped several gas stations in the Philadelphia area.

In Roxborough, a section of northwest Philadelphia, developers drew the ire of local residents when they knocked down two houses next to a former Mobil gas station to make way for a TD Bank that opened last November.

“Neighbors get very concerned when you’re knocking down residential houses for commercial uses,” said Michael J. Cooley, vice president of real estate for the Provco Group, which built the bank.

But developers who cannot expand can be left with a property they cannot use. Mr. Botta said he bought eight gas stations from Lehigh Gas Corporation for $11.5 million in 2008. By June 2011, unable to expand the lots, he sold four back to Lehigh.

Mr. Botta said, “When you have a small parcel and you can’t acquire any ground, you can only build so much.”

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