Gas stations are vanishing from Washington’s inner suburbs

April 28, 2013

In Bethesda, in the middle of car-loving suburbia, gas stations are going the way of the drive-in movie.

Along busy Wisconsin Avenue, two Exxons and a BP have stopped selling gas or have closed completely, making way for a high-rise apartment building and a new bank. A Sunoco, the area’s last Wisconsin Avenue station, is being sold to a developer with plans for a six-floor office building.

On nearby Old Georgetown Road, the owner of a BP station at Fairmont Avenue had the pumps removed in March in hopes of building a 17-story condo building. A Shell station just across Old Georgetown at Woodmont Avenue also is being eyed for redevelopment.

“The properties are just worth too much money,” said R. Steven Embrey, general manager at Eastham’s Auto Service Center, which stopped selling Exxon gas in September after being in business since 1929. It has a short-term lease to remain as an auto repair shop before a developer that bought the land builds an apartment building.

The dwindling number of stations reflects a transformation underway in some of Washington’s innersuburbs as they continue to evolve from car-centric sprawl into more densely developed hubs built around walking, cycling and public transit. It also underscores recent changes in the gas station industry that have made it more difficult for stations on smaller parcels to make money, leaving owners more eager to sell.

Where are Bethesda’s gas stations?

In Arlington County, four gas stations have given way to taller buildings in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor over the past decade, and last year, a Shell station closed on Columbia Pike, where the county is planning a streetcar line.

In the District, a Georgetown developer plans to seek approval for a five-story residential building with waterfront views of the Potomac River to replace an Exxon station at the foot of the Key Bridge.

“In Georgetown, we have three gas stations,” said Anthony M. Lanier, president of the development company, EastBanc. “I think every one of those will be built on in the foreseeable future because of land values.”

For motorists, the loss of places to fuel up has been noticeable — and a little worrisome.

Kaitlin McGrath, 26, said only two gas stations remain on her commute to Georgetown. McGrath, who lives in downtown Bethesda, said she likes being able to walk many places, but she still needs her car — and gas — to get to work.

“This one’s going?” McGrath said with dismay as she filled up at the Sunoco at Wisconsin and Battery Lane one recent morning.

Of course, gas stations have been vanishing in cities like New York and downtown Washington for 20 years, as flourishing real estate values outstripped gas profits. But industry experts say more recent changes in the retail gas business have added to station owners’ willingness to sell.

As wholesale fuel prices have risen, station owners have cut their own gas profit margins to keep customers, industry experts said. That has left them relying more on revenue from convenience stores, carwashes and repair bays — moneymakers that stations on smaller parcels in cities and inner suburbs often can’t accommodate.

The number of gas stations also has declined nationwide as sales have dropped because of more fuel-efficient vehicles, the economic slump, and demographic trends among young adults and aging baby boomers who are driving less, industry experts say.

Nationwide, the number of gas stations has dropped from about 170,000 in 2002 to 156,065 in 2012, according to National Petroleum News. The District had 87 last year, compared with 119 a decade earlier, and Virginia lost about 1,000 stations — a drop from 4,981 to 3,939 — in that time. Last year, Maryland had 1,990 stations, almost 400 fewer than a decade earlier.

George Kavadoy said rising costs for taxes, labor and environmental compliance took a toll on his BP station, which he had owned at Wisconsin and Highland Avenue for 21 years, some of that time as an Amoco. Meanwhile, he said, gas sales dropped while his land value skyrocketed. Property tax records for 2012 listed the assessed value of the gas station property at $2.2 million, up from $582,000 in 1999.

The station closed in August, and Kavadoy said he recently signed a 20-year lease with TD Bank to build on the site.

“It’s hard to give up a business after 21 years — my mechanics and the community were all like a family — but when the company is losing money, it’s a no-brainer,” Kavadoy said.

Motorists passing through Bethesda will still have options, just not as many and not as centrally located in the downtown office and entertainment district.

Moreover, local officials say making more efficient use of land near Metrorail stations jibes with long-term plans to allow areas like Bethesda and Arlington to accommodate population and economic growth without adding to traffic congestion.

“When you’re trying to promote walkability and an urban environment, I don’t think gas stations are really viewed as an urban amenity,” said Robert Kronenberg, the Montgomery County planning department’s acting area chief for Bethesda and Silver Spring inside the Capital Beltway.

In fact, the gas station issue made news in Montgomery most recently when Wheaton residents successfully fought plans for a 16-pump gas station at a newly opened Costco.

Montgomery Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said he hasn’t heard any complaints about a lack of options.

“Do I think there are better uses for those properties than gas stations? Yes, I do,” Berliner said. “. . . I don’t perceive gas stations to be something you want on your main commercial street.”

Tabitha Cleveland, 31, of Silver Spring doesn’t share that view. She said many people who rely on downtown Bethesda gas stations won’t be able to afford to live in the new high-rises that will replace them.

“On days when I didn’t fill up and I need gas on the way home, I have to go out of my way,” said Cleveland, who works at the National Institutes of Health, just up the street from the Sunoco. “This is the only station on this strip.”

Industry experts say stations won’t dry up completely in Bethesda, where plenty of demand for gas will remain. But motorists might have to get used to filling up when they pass a station, rather than when the low-fuel light comes on.

Don Fogel, 68, said his Sunoco on Wisconsin at Battery would have folded years ago if not for its convenience store, carwash and auto repair shop. When Donohoe Development Co. approached him through a broker six years ago, Fogel said he realized that he could make enough off the sale to retire.

Donohoe is set to buy the land for a six-story office building, Fogel and a Donohoe official said. Once the Sunoco closes, there will be no gas pumps on Bethesda’s stretch of Wisconsin.

“We’re well aware of that,” Fogel said, “but you can’t stay open just because people want you to be convenient to them.”

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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