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Disappearing Gas Stations in DC Raising Concern

Accompanying images can be viewed in the April 2017 issue pdf

 By Larry Ray*

 What is happening with the Dupont Circle’s iconic, historic landmarked gas station building at 22nd and P Streets, N.W? Built in 1936, its limestone-clad neoclassical design was intended to reflect the aesthetic of the Church of the Pilgrims located opposite, on the rise on the north side of P Street.

One year ago, a developer Marx Realty purchased the site and engaged the services of  DC-based architect Shalom Baranes, who produced three plans. Each involved relocating the historic gas station building closer to P Street and constructing behind it a nine-story, 34-unit residential building facing on 22nd Street with two levels of underground parking, including 3,000 square feet of retail, some of which would be located in the former gas station building.

The Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), along with the Dupont Circle ANC, let it be known that they did not like any of the three plans. Further, the Office of Planning’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO) Historic Planning Office (HPO) had recommended against the plans, finding them to be incompatible with the surrounding streetscape and view shed.  At the request of the applicant following the publication of the HPO staff report, the scheduled November 17, 2016 hearing before the HPRB was deferred; since then further planning has been on hold.

Hamood Abutaa, who was the manager of that Sunoco station, was surprised by the closing on January 1st; a month earlier, on December 3rd when he was informed about the planned closing, he had the impression that it would continue operating for at least several more months if not a year.

This story is complex because not only is there a national trend of dwindling gas stations, but there is a pronounced in the District of gas station closings.

The Dupont Circle ANC, in stating its irritation with the gas station’s closing, claimed that before a gas station can close, the DC Gas Station Advisory Board must review and acquiesce. The problem, however, is not only has that board not met in seven years but at present has no members.

This assertion by the ANC does raise the question of whether it is time to review of other laws and regulations effecting gas stations.

For example, in the Fall  of 2014, the Council passed a law prohibiting the sale of property containing a gas station for “any other use,” or even the conversion of a full service operation to a gas-and-go, without prior approval of the Gas Station Advisory Board — seemingly unaware that at that time it had already been dormant for about four years. Former Mayor Vincent Gray wanted to abolish the Board but Council Chair Phil Mendelson moved to strengthen it.

DC Gas Station Monopoly?

A few years ago, around 2011, led by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, there was a belief that DC gas station ownership was a monopoly, especially that of Eyob “Joe” Mamo whose company owns, operates or supplies 164 stations in the DC area. He nets possibly $778 million in revenue annually. So Cheh sponsored antitrust legislation but failed to get enough support. Mamo has donated much money to political campaigns, possibly $40,000 over the past decade. Mamo called the legislation unfair and over-reaching government interference. Some Council Members believed that this bill was targeting a successful African-American business person.

As part of this effort, an antitrust lawsuit was filed in federal court by 27 independent gas station owners against a group of wholesale distributors, but to no avail; the court sided with the distributors. Subsequently, on July 22, 2013, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the suit. It is estimated that most of the DC stations are still owned by just four owners.

Stations That Are Gone or Have Adjusted to Survive

There appear to be many reasons for the disappearance of gas stations in DC. Primary among them is the increasing number of residents who do not own cars. About forty percent now. Neighbors such as Ane report that even if they own cars, they don’t use them much. Further, when they need gas, they drive to cheaper stations in Maryland or Virginia. Finally, the real estate upon which gas stations set has become increasingly expensive or valuable. Fortunately, there are gas stations that have been able to continue in operation as a result of introducing new services or making positive changes that may ensure survivability.

Uptown / Park View

3619 Georgia Avenue, NW: One neighborhood resident remembers the 1930s-era gas station at this address which these days is a nail salon. Now, co-developers The Warrenton Group and Elmira Gwynn have planned a six-story, 27-unit residential building that will include bicycle parking and a bicycle repair center along with 2,400 square feet of retail space.

Adams Morgan

2900 18th Street, NW: Another example of a disappearing gas station. In its place will be Alfresco, a two-story, Mexican restaurant being planned by Cindy and Jaime Sanchez who also own Cactus Cantina and Lauriol Plaza.

Adams Mill Road & Lanier Place, NW: This is an example of another disappearing gas station replaced by The Adamo, a boutique condo building. The Adamo opened in 2015 with 36 one and two bedroom condos, 8600 square feet of retail, 25 underground parking and 20 bike slots. [Ed. Note: for background on the change that was to come to this site, see report in the March 2013 issue of The InTowner, “Contemporary-Styled Low-Rise, Mixed-Use Residential/Retail Building Proposed for Venerable Adams Morgan Exxon Station Site.”]

Columbia Heights

3540 14th Street, NW: This 24-hour Exxon station was rebuilt and opened in 2013 by owner Liaqat Masood. He has been the CEO of U.S. Fuel and Maryland Petroleum Group since 1998. Nearby neighbors are concerned about the high crime around this area and the constant gathering of homeless persons. Managers declare that they call the police but no solution is in sight.

2600 14th Street, NW: This is a popular neighborhood BP gas station with a convenience store. Users rate the gas “reasonably priced.” But there are issues here. Recently, there was a spate of theft from cars. The store had become a nuisance hangout spot for teenagers for awhile. In 2010, protestors had demonstrated — quite unfairly — at this station for contributing to the Gulf Oil spill. Directly behind this station is a new $11.5 million, 37-unit apartment buildings designed for low income residents (that is, those who make 30-60 percent of the Area Median Income.)

U Street Area

14th and W Streets, NW: This Valero gas Station recently completed a remodeling. Locally famous for the Fast Gourmet store that adjoins the station, the food has received rave reviews.

Dupont Circle

18th & S Streets, NW: Opened in 1977, this 24-hour 4,500 square-foot station includes the small, 120 square-foot W Express convenience store. Neighbors love this station. Whenever their business license comes up to be affirmed, neighbors implore the ANC not to impede the renewal process. They find this station to be well lighted, clean and safe.

West End & Georgetown

22nd & M Streets, NW: This Exxon station is an example of the national trend of incorporating gas stations into development projects — in this instance, the $120 million project built by Georgetown-based East Banc, Inc. in 2008. One user expressed surprise that this gas station’s store offers halal meals at lunch and dinner.

Pennsylvania Avenue & 28th Street, NW: Why did Valero Gas close, what happened? Most observers speculate that the real estate became too expensive for a gas station. Now, this wedge shaped, 7,413 square-foot lot at the entrance into Georgetown will be transformed by East Banc into a 60-foot tall, red brick-faced residential building with eight apartments and an 1,845 square-foot restaurant with outdoor seating.

National Trends

The decrease in DC gas stations appears be a part of a national trend. National Petroleum News estimates that there may be 168,000 retail locations that sell gas to the public, down from 200,000 a decade ago. Three major reasons are cited: increased competition, stricter environmental regulations, and shrinking profit margins.

What, then, will be the future of gas stations? Surely, there is a decline in revenues from the sale of gas, cigarettes, sundries, etc. The Valero at the corner of 14th and W Streets highlights a trend of including fresh food along with the gas at its adjoining Fast Gourmet featuring fish tacos, meatloaf sandwiches, as well as Uruguayan and Argentinean specialties. It is estimated that approximately 1,500 both independent and chain gas stations are incorporating food services, even including roaming food trucks

Another national trend is for the gas station to be incorporated into a development and to be environmentally friendly. The gas station at the southeast corner of M Street, NW and 22nd is a prime example.

Another national trend that may be affecting the decrease in gas stations is the growing acceptance and purchase of electric vehicles. Presently, only one percent are electric, though some experts are anticipating that will increase to 30 percent by 2035 as purchase costs decrease. (Already, for example, the new Tesla model 3 may cost as low as $30,000, unless the federal government eliminates the purchase tax credit that had been enacted to encourage switching from using fossil fuels.)

The Electric Vehicle Association of Greater DC battery charging every 1,000 miles driven will add approximately $40 per month to the home electric bill. Already, some condo associations are installing charging stations in their garages.

[Note: Sources in addition to those cited above include the Independent and Franchise Gas Station Owners Newsletter and the National Association of Convenience Stores.]

*Larry Ray, a resident of Columbia Heights and former ANC commissioner for Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights, and who also served as President of the North Columbia Heights Civic Association, is a member and writer for TASA (Technical Advisor Service for Attorneys).

Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.