Fueling our appetite to push away from the center.

I have up to this point generally shied away from the topic of urban sprawl because I see it as a hydra with no easy or politically viable solution. Then it occurred to me that few of my blog topics merit a quick fix, and, even though my own views on suburban growth no doubt differ from most planners or recognized theorists, I can still identify precise scenarios where human settlement patterns are eliciting indisputably negative results.

Take this example in the generally suburban outskirts of Indianapolis city limits. At the intersection of U.S. Highway 31 and Epler Avenue (about 5.5 miles from downtown), a developer demolished a recently vacated quickie auto repair/oil change shop to build a new gas station. The gas station is nearing completion at the time of this post; it appears to be a British Petroleum.

Nothing particularly remarkable about this. I suppose one could carp on whether it was necessary to redevelop a site that had not been vacant long and should easily find a new tenant. Instead, we witness a demolition and reconstruction on-site, which by any conventional estimate is a waste of what was a perfectly functional building. But this is a small patch of land that most likely did not require a change in zoning or a variance; to obstruct this change of use in a suburban location where available land is plentiful would only seem like bureaucratic meddling with the owner’s property rights. The demolition and new use suggests complete transfer of title rather than a simple lease; only a new owner is likely to invest in the fuel storage infrastructure necessary for a new gas station. And at least British Petroleum branches are usually well maintained.

The real frustration of the scenario is this: just one half mile closer to the Indianapolis city center, at the intersection of U.S. 31 and Thompson Road, is a real eyesore:

It’s an old Shell station, I believe, vacant for at least two years. And the well-known Broken Windows Theory is beginning to apply: a property that sits vacant this long inevitably attracts graffiti artists. But why couldn’t the owner of the British Petroleum franchise locate here, thereby removing the neighborhood of this blight and no doubt reaching just as large of a consumer population, if not more so? (This latter site has the added advantage of sitting less than 500 feet from the exit ramp to Interstate 465, the city’s beltway.) It should be easy for a new gas station to move in. After all, the infrastructure, the shell of a building, and the underground fuel storage tanks all remain on location.

No doubt the site selection here involves a number of extenuating circumstances. It’s possible that an investigation of the infrastructure would reveal that the underground fuel storage tankards were deteriorating and would need repairs or replacement for the facility to be useable again. Perhaps thieves had pillaged valuable materials such as copper from the premises. It is very possible that the developer of that new BP engaged in a financial analysis that determined that the cost of remediating the abandoned gas station was less than tearing down and a different site and buying anew.

But it is equally possible that the developer failed to consider the blighted site at Thompson and U.S. 31 altogether. Petroleum brownfields such as these, which comprise nearly half of the nation’s brownfield sites, often sit vacant and deteriorating for years longer than any other site because the cost of redevelopment is so high. We’ve all witnessed this. If a developer plans a new use for the site, it will prove costly but essential to remove the underground storage tanks, creating a disincentive for any other use on the land beyond a gas station. This leaves the site at Thompson and U.S. 31 in limbo. It’s just one more manifestation of the forces pulling American settlement away from the commercial and industrial core. I hate the world “sprawl” because it’s clearly a pejorative that isn’t always appropriate—some outward development is inevitable and not all of it is bad. I prefer “decentralization” as a term not only because it is neutral but in this case it has a more flexible denotation. The gas station culture didn’t “sprawl” in this case: one closed, and a new developer decided to locate a half mile further out rather than repairing the old one. Other industries have for decades applied this same approach at much larger capacity: the sprawling brownfields, rusted wrecks of our nation’s industrial heritage that largely collapsed over the past forty years, dominate the area around downtowns and inner cities. (The only difference, of course, is that these shuttered factories didn’t usually re-open down the road in the suburbs; they operate thousands of miles away, in developing countries where the labor is cheaper.) It’s hard enough to revitalize when reinvestment puts a developer at odds with market forces that indicate a low demand in a depopulating urban area, but infrastructure removal considerations only throw another barrier into the mix—a new disincentive for working at an old industrial site.

Unfortunately, the very conditions that make abandoned gas stations difficult to re-develop also only exacerbate the problem, because as these tanks corrode they can easily contaminate groundwater in the area. Not only are they an obstruction to any excavation, they’re a public health and environmental concern. Thus, abandoned gas stations with deteriorated storage tanks typically depend on the public sector for remediation, as is the case with most brownfields. EPA has a separate Office of Underground Storage Tanks (OUST) devoted specifically to promoting the clean-up of the 482,000 storage tank sites, and the Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) Trust Fund—financed by a one cent federal tax on all motor fuel sold nationwide—awards over $50 million to states and tribal lands to administer and clean up these sites. These federal interventions offer hope to tiny gas stations and hulking paper mills that would otherwise continue to decay and pollute the landscape, aesthetically and environmentally. Downtowns such as Pittsburgh depended brownfield remediation if they were to remain viable after the sunset of the steel era. Indiana has the added benefit of being one of only a few states in the immediate region with an approved UST removal program—all of its neighbors lack the ability to administer tank removal on their own and must suffer the onus of additional regulations.

Indianapolis has benefited fairly recently from a UST redevelopment that, at least locally, was relatively high profile, and it’s been covered before in this blog. The new Douglas Pointe Lofts in the Fall Creek Place neighborhood hosts Goose the Market as one of its premier tenants (mentioned in Part II of my post on the Indianapolis City Market) , and for years prior the site hosted two decayed gas station with 7 USTs. Clean-up was funded through a combination of USTFields grants and Community Development Block Grants.

While this redevelopment is a boon for a gentrifying urban neighborhood such as Fall Creek Place, a suburban location such as Thompson and U.S. 31, with housing stock that largely dates from the 1950s, can hardly expect such a fashionable turnaround. The area around here, though hardly distressed, is showing signs of fatigue as measured by the persistently high levels of retail vacancy, including an attractive new strip mall across the street that remains over 60% unoccupied after approximately three years. A former chain hotel downgraded to mom-and-pop status next door to this blighted Shell station now offers rooms by the week, most likely to refugees of the foreclosure crisis. All the state and the federal oversight in the world can’t necessarily keep track of new brownfields popping up on an almost daily basis when a new gas station closes—it often depends on enterprising developers or active neighborhood groups. I’m not confident the Thompson Road site can claim either of these.

Thus, it would be specious to assert as some do that brownfields are a pure example of market failure, of a lack of will for the private sector to rectify its own negative externalities. Indeed, most brownfield remediation requires public dollars, but those EPA grants are usually steered in the direction of sites for which there is already a market demand for redevelopment, and, in this day and age, factories close to downtowns or potentially trendy inner-city urban neighborhoods will nearly always emerge as the winners. The tiny parcel and Thompson won’t be reincarnated as a trendy live-work townhome development; it’ll probably become another gas station if it gets rehabbed at all. Rural abandoned gas stations often suffer a bleaker fate, such as this one a few miles north of New Albany in far southern Indiana:

Though the condition of the building and blacktop suggests it was only recently vacated, its semirural setting almost insures that its only other option is a new gas station. Land is cheap out there, and any developer will simply skip to the next major intersection to build anew rather than deal with the clean-up. Without the density among the surrounding community to mobilize and advocate for redevelopment, the station, if it can’t find a new gas station tenant, will most likely be left to sit and rot. Rural America is profuse with littered wrecks of decades-old gas stations.

Even though tens of thousands of cars will drive past that new BP in Indianapolis each day, just as many will approach the eyesore down the road two minutes later (or before). The momentum that pushes cites outward sometimes manifests itself in mundane gestures, but the minefield of vacant gas stations in the inner ring suburbs offers proof that, however much our downtowns have revitalized, the overwhelming momentum remains centrifugal—all the more ironic when some of telltale indicators of decentralization induced by automobiles are the same facilities we depend upon to keep those machines running.

6 thoughts on “Fueling our appetite to push away from the center.

  1. Jibreel Riley

    its not about the fuel, people pay money to go to Disney to walk the “Main Street.” If we can drop the myth of ramped crime and get city governments to not be so machine like maybe more would look to returning to the center city. In Buffalo I live in a area with great suburbs however the City proper is a burden on the region due to its 1950 public policy. Someone will lead the way for change and the irony of it all its going to come down to energy, like it or not.

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  2. sullymama

    I applaud your spotlight on the USTs and cleanup as a significant factor in decentralization-development tendencies. Its also important to consider the effect that requirements for above-ground storage tank facilities might have on an area. Possibly uglier, but it keeps thee problem fresh in everyone’s mind and probably doesn’t let tanks deteriorate as much. Involve public artists and the eyesore factor can be fixed.

    There are an enormous number of old leaking USTs that are not even documented – I spent years in a job where we were attempting to locate old USTs based on past land-uses, ownership, etc. for potential developers. Its not easy, and we always met with surprises when we started digging. However, for developers, the costs of removing an old UST that we encountered were NEVER as high as everyone thought they would be – petroleum is not high on anyone’s list of feared pollutants so gov agencies are usually willing to work out a brownfield-type solution for re-development.

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  3. cdc guy

    Above-ground gasoline storage tanks are just a no-go in the post-9/11 world.

    We’re talking about thousands of gallons…it’s not merely unsightly. It’s a grave hazard in a place where a car or truck could careen into it at high speed and cause a fire and explosion.

    Cost to secure above-ground tanks would be incredibly high, plus it would take up land surface. Your typical gas station would have to be two or three times as big to accommodate both the secure tank farm and the pump area.

    Environmental remediation of gasoline sites is well-understood and among the cheapest types of remediation, as petroleum products typically don’t travel far underground after leaking. THAT is why we keep putting USTs in…plus the fact that they’re now double-walled composite/fiberglass instead of steel that rusts.

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  4. American Dirt

    Thanks as always for your comments. I personally would never recommend above-ground storage tanks for precisely the reason cdc guy mentions, among others. Remediation is an inevitable intervention for long-vacant gas stations–the cost for a single gas station averages about $100,000. Not much, really, but enough often to deter a developer from re-using a site if vacant land exists down the street.

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  5. cdc guy

    Since the internal-combustion engine isn’t going away anytime soon, I’m all for re-using petroleum sites for petroleum. So changing a Jiffy-Lube to a gas station would fit my bill. Plus, the Jiffy-Lube might have itself been an adaptive re-use of a prior gas station…many of them are.

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  6. AmericanDirt

    CDC Guy–

    The site in question where the BP is being constructed was a Grease Monkey for many years; prior to 1990 or so, it was a vacant lot.

    Taking the vacated Shell station a half mile north (which operated there for many years) would have been an unambiguous re-use of a petroleum station for petroleum. I’m sure the franchise owner had his/her reasons for choosing the location farther out, but I still would call to question whether those justifications are superior to building at the existing site just a little further away.

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