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Web www.startsandfits.com
Friday, April 14, 2006
See Ya!
The New York Sun had an interesting story yesterday about gas stations that are closing on the West Side, in part because of the Department of City Planning's recent upzoning of West Chelsea. The article mentions four* gas stations that have closed recently, and included in its print edition a photograph of a fifth, all shown in red on the clickable map at right. The article notes:
The far West Side has more gas stations than most parts of Manhattan, but the neighborhood's ongoing transformation into an upscale residential enclave is in part possible because gas stations — with their unused air space, relatively large square footage, and prime locations — are seen increasingly as weak business enterprises.
Here's the list of closed stations from north to south: Whenever neighborhood change is afoot, people familiar with the existing environment will be saddened to some degree about the loss of what exists, even if its the lowly gas station. As the Sun article made its way through the blogosphere yesterday, it called forth a touch of what is probably equal parts mock angst and real wistfulness about the loss of the gas stations. Gawker noted:
OK, it's not the disappearance of gas stations that bothers us, per se. (As long as the cabbies know where to find it, we're good.) But it's the general, wanton, Curbed-y condo-ification of Manhattan that's really starting to get to us. Isn’t part of the whole point of living here that there's a bodega on the corner where you can get a quart of milk and a ham-and-egg sandwich at 3 in the morning? Seven different dry cleaners to chose from within a few blocks? A quick subway ride to mini-storage warehouses and parking lots-cum-sprawling flea markets? And, yeah, a place to buy gas?
And Curbed seemed to agree with Gawker's "sad tune."

Gawker's point is well taken. The new buildings evoke a different city with a different feel from the run-down West Side that almost became known as TunJav. But the sterile, you-might-as-well-be-in-Tyson's Corner minimarts associated with gas stations compete with the best New York bodegas, which tend to be in the ground floors of hundred-year-old brick walkups. As for being able to buy gas, there are still plenty of places for that. The gas stations still in business along Tenth and Eleventh Avenues from 23rd to 53rd Streets are mapped in green above (click to enlarge). Here's the list, from north to south, with Thursday evening prices of regular unleaded noted:
  • Mobil - 51st & Eleventh ($2.979)
  • Sunoco - 47th & Eleventh ($2.979)
  • Hess - 44th/45th & Tenth ($2.939)
  • BP - 36th & Tenth ($2.939)
  • Mobil - 30th & Eleventh ($2.999)
  • Lukoil - 24th & Tenth ($2.939) (pictured below)
Lukoil at 24th and Tenth, with an office tower under construction beyond.
I guess it's safe to say that if there's one business enterprise that Starts & Fits doesn't mind seeing forced out of the city, it's gas stations. In fact, I'm downright psyched about the trend. First, you take your life in your hands walking past one of those things. If you're not run down by a driver, you've still got to wend your way around cars waiting in the sidewalk for an entry into traffic. The fumes are pretty noxious, too. But the most important aspect of these property sales is the effect the land use transformation might have on how people choose to move through the city and enjoy its public spaces. At base, gas stations attract cars, and apartment building attract people, who (even if they're rich yuppies) enliven a neighborhood with the kind of world famous level of activity that makes New York New York. By living in the city they will automatically drive less than they would if they lived out in the suburbs, which will take a tiny incremental step toward saving humanity from more greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

Congestion pricing seems to be at least a few years away, despite its obvious enormous benefit to the city. New York City is already known as a hard place to buy gas, but if an even greater lack of gas stations helps discourage people from driving in the city and creating congestion, we'll have less pollution and aggravation and a healthier mass transit system (and healthier people too as people choose to walk and bicycle more).

For two years I lived on 36th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. The neighborhood was and is a patchwork of low-rise offices and warehouses, auto service shops, horse stables, Lincoln Tunnel approach ramps, parking lots, and the remaining hardy tenements that survived the 20th century's demolition derby. These tenements have become desirable places to live again for many people find charm in them. Now they're called prewar walkups.

Shuttered Gulf station, Tenth Avenue between 27th and 28th Streets.
When I lived among them, these gas stations and parking lots always evoked a sad local history. A century ago and more, when the fastest thing New Yorkers had going was the horse-and-carriage, real estate developers filled the West Side with tenements. Then along came the automobile, which promised an exodus from the city but also demanded a lot of space. In service of the auto, the Lincoln Tunnel and its spaghetti of approach ramps were rammed into the neighborhood. Property values tumbled and tenements lost their value. In place, the best thing to put in there was a parking lot or a gas station to serve those cars the tunnel brought in and out.

Were it not for a number of lucky factors including New York's great mass transit system, Manhattan's island geography and a world economy that chose New York as a global command center for directing the flow of capital, the exodus may have continued. If you replace enough apartment buildings with parking lots, your "city" has been replaced by suburbia. That happened to cities all across the northeast United States where buildings became less valuable than parking spaces and downtowns were gutted as sururbs grew. A lot of once bustling cities are lucky now even to have gas stations. It is a sign of New York's continued magnetism that land is more valuable here for housing. Real estate developers, if you're out there, get rid of these gas stations and build the neighborhood back!

*Note: One of the four "gas stations" was one listed at 53rd and Tenth. As far as I can remember, and looking at a bird's eye view image on local.live.com, that was not a place to buy gas, but a place to have your car fixed. I've included it in my map anyway.

- Gasoline Stations Are Disappearing From Manhattan Landscape [NY Sun 4/13/06]
- West Chelsea Zoning Proposal - Approved [NYC Dept. of City Planning]
- The Decline of Manhattan: Wherein Gas Stations Make Us Sad [Gawker 4/13/06]
- Curbed Trendwatch Update: More Gas to Go [Curbed 4/13/06]
- Development Du Matin: The Atelier [Curbed 4/13/06]
- West Chelsea Exxon Station XX'd Out [Curbed 9/6/05]
- Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950 [B&N]
- The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo [B&N]
- Posted at 12:46 AM | Permalink | Comments: 10 | Post a Comment |  

screw Gawker, build away

By Anonymous, at 4/14/2006 1:34 AM  

The problem isn't the disappearance of the gas stations per se, but what's replacing them. If you're going to pull a quote from Gawker, how about this one?

"[D]oesn’t anyone worry that very soon, while there’ll be more spaces for people to live here, it’ll become deeply unpleasant to actually, you know, live here?

Guess not, so long as there are new condos. Shiny!"

That's the point--which you neglected to call out--of the Gawker post, and it's a legitimate one.

By Anonymous, at 4/14/2006 12:08 PM  

12:08 -
Re gentrification: The Sun notes that the rezoning requires at least 27% of all new units be affordable housing, which I take to mean apartments reserved for low- and middle-income people. So I think this is a win-win. A gas station has zero apartments for low- and middle-income people, but a 100-unit market-rate tower would have 27. I don't see a downside.

Added to that is the the idea I find somewhat convincing that Manhattan apartments are so expensive because the supply is so low. Increase the supply (even at the high end) and hopefully the price will come down for everybody - meaning less of a need for "affordable housing" being somehow different from market-rate housing. I'm a bit suspect of that argument because it sounds too much like "trickle-down economics of apartments," but I think there is truth to it.

By AD, at 4/14/2006 12:53 PM  

Sure, sure, more housing's good, especially if it's affordable. I shouldn't be quite so dismissive of that fact, for I agree with you on that point

There's a quality of life issue, though. Whether correctly or not, one gets the impression that all of New York City is being filled by housing developments. While, obviously, that's a--if not the--major purpose of a city, a city as a massive dormitory doesn't work.

Let's shift the discussion from gas stations, because, really, those are distracting from the point that I'm trying to make (ditto, I believe, Gawker). (The loss of gas stations, while arguably beneficial on its own, forebodes or, in the Sun article, stands in for the lose of a slew of other activities and uses--mixed use. Their loss may not be as welcome.) Take, for instance, other "underutilized" spaces--underbuilt sites, small stores, light manufacturing. When those types of uses are destroyed, it's hard to argue that the city doesn't suffer. (Far be it from me, however, to say that nothing should ever change.)

It's about diversity, as you say here. And diversity often coincides with underexploited sites, but, right now, the marginal sites seem to be being snapped up and converted into huge projects. Gas stations--which aren't the "best" use of space, but are a necessary use now--exemplify this.

By Anonymous, at 4/14/2006 3:18 PM  

Fair enough. Yes, a healthy city needs a diversity of uses and a mixture of people with different incomes. You're absolutely right. Adam Friedman of the New York Industrial Retention Network makes that point all the time. The city can't and shouldn't be only about the highest-margin business (i.e., Wall Street), or the wealthiest residents. Yes, that was Gawker's main point, while I was trying to focus my post mainly on the transportation effects of fewer gas stations.

Since we agree about the gas stations and about diversity of uses generally, I suppose our differences come down to a comfort level. I'm comfortable that the city can handle some more upscale housing in Chelsea without losing the light manufacturing citywide. There are plenty of places in the Bronx and Brooklyn that could house the light manufacturing that the city needs.

As for small stores, most of the bigger apartment buildings going up these days include retail space on the ground floor. So there is space for retail. As Jane Jacobs noted, the newer buildings tend to attract high-margin type shops like bank branches or larger stores. But the new buildings will pull in demand for those services, leaving older buildings more free to house the small shopes that make a diverse neighborhood. The mixture of new and old buildings is exactly what she praised in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, when she wrote, "A successful city district becomes a kind of ever-normal granary so far as consttruction is concerned. ... Over the years there is, therefore, constantly a mixture of buildings of many ages and types." I'd say that's what's happening now in Chelsea. New building aren't replacing the old homes for small stores, they're complimenting them and drawing new people to them. (I'm not in favor of tearing down those great old tenements or light manufacturing shops. Just the gas stations and parking lots.)

By AD, at 4/14/2006 6:05 PM  

Just to be clear re my comment on the Bronx and Brooklyn: That's as a backup! The best case would be to encourage light manufacturing to co-exist with the densified housing on the West Side, not force it out to the Bronx and Brooklyn. (But that could serve to keep them in the city, and light manufacturing districts there should be encouraged regardless.)

When I lived on 36th Street my building was adjacent to some kind of box manufacturer. There were always a lot of forklift operators out in front on the sidewalk. It was fine. It actually improved an otherwise dreary block.

Lets not forget that despite recent, so far relatively short-lived trends, there is still a lot more wealth in the suburbs per capita than in the city. This creates social stratification and tends to inflate taxes in the city while pushing down municipal services in all urban neighborhoods, rich and poor alike.

By AD, at 4/14/2006 6:16 PM  

Many of us forget that the recent housing boom in NYC is actually quite an anomaly. When the economy turns down again (this time it might be: stock market crash + real estate bubble burst + high energy costs), it might be worse than the 1970s and there might not be new building starts for years. It's all part of the process of boom and bust, deterioration and renewal. The idea is to maintain a neighborhood's flexibility to adapt to new situations.

By peakguy, at 4/15/2006 9:53 AM  


Dead on--you're right. It's a question of comfort level and emphasis. I should remember that your focus here is on transportation (and a closer rereading of your post, bearing in mind your comments, makes it clear that you definitely have the diversity issue in mind, as well).

I think you and Peakguy are also right about the housing boom/bubble/whatever.

By Anonymous, at 4/15/2006 11:46 AM  

A clarification: I think you and Peakguy are right on a macro, citywide level about housing and wealth. But looking at it on a neighborhood level, the changes it brings are rather more permanent, and, in places, I'm not convinced that they're necessarily for the best.

By Anonymous, at 4/15/2006 11:49 AM  

Well, we're probably largely in agreement on most of this, even if not with regards to the Tenth and Eleventh Avenues corridor. (Maybe we'll have to agree to disagree?)

I try to take a region-wide view to these kinds of questions.

When we boil it down, your strongest point, I think, is about the light manufacturing.

Regarding gas stations in particular, the best thing that can be said about the gas stations is that they provide jobs. Of course, residential high rises do too.

By AD, at 4/16/2006 11:17 PM  

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