Robert L. Eastham Jr. and his family have sold gas and worked on cars at their service station on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda for almost 80 years, making it one of the best-known businesses in the area. His business card calls Eastham's Exxon Service Center "the oldest business in Bethesda."
But a local developer is working on a deal that could force Eastham out and turn the station and a lot next door into yet another new condominium complex.
Charlie Nulsen, a former executive at Atlantic Realty and president of Washington Property Co. of Bethesda, said his company represents the buyers of the land. He said he has it under contract for three buyers but declined to name the investors or the sale price because the deal won't close for another month or so. Real estate brokers close to the deal estimate it is worth $4 million.
"Condos are the big thing today," Nulsen said. "It might be worth doing something like that."
The deal for the land on Wisconsin Avenue between Woodmont and Miller avenues is not a sure thing. Exxon Mobil Corp. has a long-term lease with the landowners for the garage and gas station that Eastham operates as a franchisee, and the oil giant has the right of first refusal to buy the property. The landowners could not be reached for comment.
Patty Delaney, an Exxon spokeswoman, said the company wouldn't "discuss what our future business is" at the Eastham site. And a condo project would require approval from the county's planning board.
To Eastham, though, the gas station's days seem numbered.
"I've been a cash cow for Exxon all my life," said Eastham, who is 67. He said his station sells about 3 million gallons of gas a year -- roughly three times the amount of a typical station. But, he said of his prime location, "I guess I'm the one they want to get their hands on."
Eastham said the landowners offered to sell him the property a year ago, but he turned them down because his wife was ill, he had no heirs and, he said, "I'm not a young man anymore."
Last Thursday, Eastham said, he made a last-minute offer to a lawyer for the landowners to buy the property for $4 million cash. "I told him I could have it to him in three days," Eastham said. But as of late Friday afternoon, Eastham said he had not heard from the lawyer as to whether the landowners were interested. "I'm afraid it's too late," Eastham said.
Many developers have salivated to get their hands on small lots that they consider underdeveloped in downtown Bethesda. At the corner of Woodmont and Bethesda avenues, about two blocks from Eastham's garage, a Bethesda-based developer plans to turn a parking lot into 40,000 square feet of retail space, townhouses, apartments and a 1,300-space underground public parking garage.
Eastham, who was born and raised in Bethesda and lives in Potomac, likes to boast of his prompt service, high sales volume and clean station, for which he has won several awards from Exxon over the years.
His father, Robert L. Eastham Sr., started the business in 1929 when there was little more on Bethesda's main street than a hardware shop and a few other mom-and-pop shops.
"We've been out here when there was nothing here," said Eastham, who has run the station for the past 48 years and has 29 full- and part-time employees.
"They have families and they're depending on me and I'm depending on them," Eastham said of his staff of mechanics and other auto specialists. Eastham has long been involved in the community, serving on several business and community groups.
"We know our customers by name and they know us," Eastham said. "I know this might not be the highest and best use anymore for the real estate here, but it's the best use for me and my family.
"I want to keep on working," he said. "I don't want some developer to tell me when to stop doing that."
* The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency renewed its lease for about 320,000 square feet at One Independence Square at 250 E St. SW.
* CarrAmerica Realty Corp. of the District paid $61.7 million for Park Place, a 13-story office building at 1655 N. Fort Myer Dr. in Rosslyn.
* Asset Capital Corp. of the District paid $23.7 million for four medical office buildings, totaling about 220,000 square feet, in Columbia, Frederick and Timonium.
* Glenborough Realty Trust of San Mateo, Calif., paid $70 million for Capitol Place III, a 12-story office building on Capitol Hill.
Dana Hedgpeth writes about commercial real estate and economic development. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.