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DC Denies Raze Permit for Gas Station in Petworth

Readers will recall our extensive report last April about the problem of disappearing gas stations in the city. As a kind of follow up (though with no InTowner connection other than effectively updating and adding new information to our earlier report), is the just recently published Washington Business Journal report by Katie Arcieri who covers economic development, reprinted below and which we commend to your attention.

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A Petworth gas station must remain a gas station unless a D.C. law is changed

[Wasshinton Business Journal]

A local real estate developer who wants to convert a D.C. gas station into a 57-unit residential project in Petworth filed a lawsuit this month against city officials over legislation that prohibits stations from being redeveloped into other uses.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for D.C., intensifies a conflict between Petworth businesses that want more residential development in an area short on housing and city officials who want to prevent a dearth of full-service gas stations.

Developer John Formant owns the full-service Shell gas station at 4140 Georgia Ave. NW, near the popular strip of restaurants on Upshur Street. He wants his residential project to include amenities such as a restaurant, fitness center and bank. Formant said he tried to get an exemption from the city’s gas station advisory board and other council members over the past three years, but “all we got was the runaround,” he said. “This was our last resort — to sue in federal court.”

Formant and his company, Petworth Holdings LLC, name D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and Tommy Wells, director of D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment, in the lawsuit. The District’s gas station advisory board, which does not have any appointed members and is effectively defunct, is also listed as a defendant.

The mayor’s spokeswoman, LaToya Foster, and the attorney general’s spokesman, Rob Marus, declined to comment for this story.

Ben Chew, a partner with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLC who represents Formant, said he expects the defendants to file a response or a motion to dismiss within the next week. He said he doesn’t believe the lawsuit will go to trial, adding that the judge will decide the case. “No factual issues are in dispute, and we will seek a prompt hearing on a motion for judgment on the pleadings or motion for summary judgment at the earliest possible juncture,” Chew said.

At issue is an amendment to a decades-old law that prohibits gas stations from being converted into stations that don’t provide any mechanical services, said Ward 3 D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh. She said she and other council members, including Chairman Phil Mendelson, amended the law in 2014 to prevent gas stations from being redeveloped into anything else. The goal was to prevent gas station owners from selling off their land for developments.

“The law tried to put the brakes on that by saying, if you have a gas station, the use of the station has to be maintained,” Cheh said. “The fear was that you would be left with relatively few gas stations. It’s an attraction to say, ‘I could make a whole lot of money selling it as a development than operating it as a gas station.'”

Cheh said the city’s gas station advisory board was supposed to be an “escape hatch” to allow developers like Formant to receive an exemption. But no members have been appointed to that board, she said. “It was our aim to have that [advisory board as a] way out, I would like to see that way out be real,” Cheh said.

Formant has filed the lawsuit a dozen years after buying the 13,800-square-foot gas station property. He initially planned to develop a residential project there, but he put those plans on hold during the Great Recession. “The market had changed, money was tight so we just kept it rented out” to a gas station, he said.

He said he decided to sell the property to an undisclosed developer about three years ago. But that developer backed out of the deal due to the city’s gas station law. “The deal is not financeable with that law,” he said. “They didn’t want to be stuck with a property they could not develop.”

Now Formant is hoping to redevelop the gas station himself or try selling the land to another party that could build homes there.

Formant has the support of other local business, including Justin Logan, owner of the Ruta del Vino Latin American restaurant, as well as owners of Timber Pizza, Capitol Cider House and Annie’s Ace Hardware, who all recently filed a petition to council members asking them to reconsider the law. It also says there is no shortage of gas stations in the Petworth area and cited stations located two blocks to the south at Georgia Avenue and Shepherd Street and another six blocks to the southwest at 3501 14th St. NW.

Logan told WBJ that Petworth is an “up-and-coming” area that could benefit from residential development, which would generate more foot traffic for Ruta Del Vino and other restaurants. If the gas station remains in place, “the pressure on commercial development in the area would continue,” he said.

“This is a great candidate for relieving some of that pressure on residential development and doing something positive,” he said.

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