Big problems come in small packages—gas stations are often located in prime locations vital to local prosperity
by Steve Dwyer
From a size standpoint, retail properties like gas stations, even dry cleaners, are dwarfed by the overall civic magnitude of such sites as former auto plants and steel mills.
As most brownfield and smart-growth practitioners know, big trouble lurks in small packages. Conversely, big opportunity is nestled in smaller footprints like gasoline units, which have more local-commerce impact than many think.
We see it all the time. A local gas station and its aligned convenience store is beset by some degree of environmental exposure—starting with the incidence of underground storage tank leaking—leaks that wreak havoc slowly over time. Owners that scrimp on investing in the proper environmental controls—from interstitial monitoring to double-wall tank containment—are living dangerously.
But out of bad comes some good. Having worked in the downstream petroleum industry for several decades, I’ve witnessed a slew of former modest-size petroleum sites—be it company owned and operated or independent marketer-owned—that sit idle for years, in abeyance while legal hassles ensue and other environmental complications need to be ironed out.
Or, they go the other route and get back on the tax roll quickly thanks to private-public cohesion. Consider the community of Chicopee, MA, and a former fueling stations owned by Racing Oil. This small “infill property” is viewed by city stewards as a “gateway or entrance” to the city.
Good impressions are vital in every community, synonymous with curb appeal with a home on the real estate market. The home must stand out and shine to attract buyers, and that gateway holds the key.
The longer a former gas station sits in limbo, the more city coffers suffer form a dearth of tax income streams.
The vacant former gasoline station in Chicopee appears to be accelerating a redevelopment timetable nicely to get back into productive use, a positive development. The city calls it “a linchpin in the continued efforts to improve quality of life for all residents, businesses and stakeholders in the neighborhood.”
Work continues to clean up hazardous waste on a small piece of land identified as a vital link in the efforts to redevelop the West End of Chicopee Center in Chicopee, MA.
The property had housed a gas station dating back to the 1920s and sits abandoned since 2004, when pumps and three underground tanks were removed. The city foreclosed on the property, owned by Racing Oil LLC, in 2009 for a lack of payment of taxes.
Since acquiring the property the city received USEPA grants to hire an environmental firm to evaluate the 0.28-acre parcel. The study showed it is contaminated by gasoline and oil spills and found an additional underground tank that had not been removed, resulting in soil and groundwater contamination.
That’s the problem, and it’s an insidious one. But thanks to the USEPA grants, an infusion of Community Development Block Grant funds, the costs of the cleanup are in place—and a prime civic “gateway” can get an accelerated timetable. After the cleanup is finished the city will request proposals from developers interested in building on the land. And “curb appeal” can be bolstered significantly.
Don’t sleep on the cache of the smallest-sized abandoned properties in your town. They often serve as the crown jewels to moving your civic fortunes northward.