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Vacant Gas Stations: What If?

Restaurant + Patio from Repurposed Gas Station

If you’ve taken a drive out of Downtown Lansing, MI on Michigan Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, or south Cedar Street lately, you may have noticed the half dozen vacated gas stations. These streets represent a fraction of the area's many out-of-business gas stations; plenty more sit in the areas beyond Downtown.

Most of them are at key intersections, so they have a market on prime real estate. But no one’s doing anything with them.

“Because those businesses are no longer viable, the owner or whoever owned the property is never around, so they become kind of a problem — an orphan issue,” says local developer and owner of the Old Town redevelopment firm Triterra, Alan Hooper. “It would be a great thing if we could find a use for those old sites.”


Repurposing gas stations isn’t easy, largely because they come with serious environmental problems. Hooper is skilled in redeveloping contaminated sites, a classification that pertains to gas station properties. They have underground fuel tanks, which can contaminate the site. Not only is it difficult to mediate these environmental issues, it’s also costly.

Gas stations also tend to be built on smaller lots that can’t host a larger redevelopment project, like a high density building or parking space, limiting the uses that can be placed on them. For example, many of these sites are too small to host even a small lunch spot such as a Blimpie sandwich shop.


Though these sites have their issues, they’re usually built at high-volume intersections, creating the kind of foot traffic and visibility needed for any retail business. Developers can also get state and federal money to redevelop these sites, which helps defray some of the cost.

The possibilities are endless for these sites; we just need one person with a big idea who’s ready to take on the challenge. We thought we'd jump start the conversation with a few ideas.

Green Transportation

One of the easiest and most cost effective ways to reuse these sites would be to tweak their original use by turning them into alternative transportation fueling sites.

“The ideal thing would be that our society would identify a renewable fuel source that those buildings could be repurposed for,” Hooper says.

This could mean developing bio diesel fueling stations, recharging stations for hydrogen fuel cells or electrical hookups to recharge electrical cars.

Historically, these sites reflect the transportation trends of the time. Before gas stations popped up on these corners, blacksmith shops and liveries dominated them, using the prime real estate to give customers easy access to horses and buggies.

“It seems like we’re at a point where we’re changing the way we do things and one thing that would be interesting to me would be to see if those buildings could be usable again for whatever the next generation of transportation becomes,” Hooper says.

Internet Hook Up

Ten or 15 years ago, video chains started popping up on old gas station lots. The lots were vacant, large enough to hold the stores and perfect for a business that doesn’t have to adhere to food production standards.

But now that Netflix and Blockbuster have found a way to get people the videos they want without having to leave their house, video stores are going out of style and this is no longer a viable rehab option.

For 21st century needs, wireless Internet cafes could do for abandoned gas station sites that video stores did in the 20th. The cafes would likely be small, but they would be helpful for those without home Internet access.

Many of these gas stations are on heavily traveled bus routes, so users could check email while waiting for a bus.

“This might be a good idea, especially if the public started using public transportation more often,” Hooper says. “As the pressure and the need for more public transportation and less fuel use grows, that might be one way to make public transportation more productive. People will be able to work while they wait for a ride.”

Community Spaces

Location is a big attraction in repurposing these gas stations. Just like the ones near bus stops would make for good Internet cafes, those in neighborhoods could service the community both directly and indirectly.

“If they’re in the middle of a neighborhood, they might make a great location for neighborhood organizations like the Old Town Commercial Association,” Hooper says.

It wouldn’t take much redevelopment to repurpose these stations into community green spaces. On Saginaw, near Chestnut Street, a local woman turned a portion of a large piece of asphalt near to a gas station into a beautiful flower garden. It can be done.

“Any time you add green space to an urban environment, it’s pleasant,” Hooper says. “Turning them into green space wouldn’t produce commercial activity, but it might be a great way to visually clean up the site while not investing a lot of money in buildings and things.”

Demolishing the old buildings and replacing them with public art is another community-based option.

“Sometimes bohemian communities spring up in areas that are impoverished and this seems like a good, positive use of space that wouldn’t otherwise be used.”

A Cup of Joe

Since we’re accustomed to swooping into gas stations to get fuel and coffee, why not turn the abandoned ones into coffee shops?

“That would be a good use," says Hooper, "because it wouldn’t require a lot of parking and most of the corners were located where they’re at originally because they're in areas where there’s a lot of traffic,” he says. “Instead of fueling your car, you could fuel yourself.”

Entrepreneurs in other cities have done it. According to a article, one family of entrepreneurs in San Jose, Calif., has already done this.

“Each site has to have its own risk assessment to make sure its safe,” Hooper says. “Generally speaking, a coffee shop would be an easy way to reuse one of the sites.”

Whatever the use, something needs to be done with these eyesores, especially the ones in highly visible areas, like the one next to the Stadium District on Larch in Downtown Lansing.

“This is an issue that needs to be addressed in a smart way, a way that’s smart with thoughts of future use and not just what’s best for right now,” Hooper says. “I think if we do this in a smart way and address it in a lasting and meaningful way now, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will not have to deal with it.”

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