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:
- Service garage – 53rd & Tenth
- Former Mobil – 42nd & Eleventh (Two doors down from The Atelier, which has plenty of supporters and detractors on the other side of that link.)
- Former gas station – 34th & Tenth
- Former Gulf – Tenth near 28th (pictured below)
- Former Exxon – 23rd & Tenth (“Boymelgreen, the Brooklyn developers who community activists love to hate” is building a 145-foot tall tower expected to be a rental.)
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]