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Published: Sunday, 8/5/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

Old gas stations pumped with new life

Developers reuse vacant properties

NEW YORK TIMES

HIGH FALLS, N.Y. -- The gas station in High Falls, a 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 cars has turned the eyesore into a symbol of the struggling community's revival.

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

Thousands of gas stations have folded in the last two decades, leaving many communities saddled with 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 soft drinks at their convenience stores to increase profit margins. With big box retailers like Wal-Mart 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 are 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. 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 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, 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 neighborhood blight has become a new downtown center.

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

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?"



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