Uncovering Former Gas Station Land

Why are there 244 fewer gas stations in Vancouver today than in 1970 and what's happening with the land?

Old gas station land | BCBusiness
Site of a former Shell station at Burrard and Davie streets.

Why are there 244 fewer gas stations in Vancouver today than in 1970 and what’s happening with the land?

Canada’s first gas station opened at the corner of Cambie and Smithe streets “in or before 1907,” according to the plaque that Imperial Oil installed at the site in 1955, to commemorate the company’s 75th anniversary. The first gas-powered car had appeared in Vancouver in 1904, and once there were seven or eight on the streets, a decision was made to attach a length of rubber garden hose to a 59-litre kitchen hot water tank, kicking off a century of petroleum distribution infrastructure that would feature prominently in Vancouver’s urban landscape. Now that era appears to be coming to a close.

Today there are 84 service stations in Vancouver, 244 fewer than in 1970. The city has changed a lot in 40 years, but the loss of urban gas stations is particularly noticeable. Every motorist knows the feeling of pulling up to a familiar Shell or Esso location with the dial on empty, only to discover a barren concrete pad surrounded by a freshly erected chain-link fence. For better or worse, the bright, two-storey signs in primary colours that once dominated almost every major intersection are vanishing, replaced by everything from condos to community gardens, and sometimes by nothing at all.

The disappearing act might partially be blamed on the fact that fewer people are driving to and from their downtown office jobs; vehicle traffic into and out of the downtown core fell five per cent between 1996 and 2011. But the real explanation for the disappearance of Vancouver’s gas stations is simpler: they’re not profitable enough. According to Industry Canada, in 2008 most small and medium-sized gas stations were hovering around the break-even point, on an average of $1.2 million in revenue, and 28.5 per cent were losing money. So while the price at the pump may be high, that doesn’t mean the retail business is lucrative; there are sometimes better ways to leverage pricey urban land than pushing petrol.

The value proposition associated with redeveloping an old Vancouver gas station for a mixed-use building or condos is obvious. What’s less obvious, though, is why former service stations are being replaced with less profitable land uses, such as community gardens. Take the former Shell station at the corner of Davie and Burrard streets. Prima Properties Ltd. bought the lot in 2004 with a plan to redevelop it as a mixed-use highrise project. In November 2008, the temporary Davie Village Community Garden was installed to limit the developer’s tax burden while regulatory hurdles are cleared. Development manager David Buddle says the owners plan to break ground “as soon as possible.”

But that’s not likely to be soon. In April, the city began a new West End community planning process that will take between 18 and 21 months, and Buddle says the rezoning required to develop the property won’t happen until that process is complete.

The usual municipal hurdles, such as rezoning applications (which require public consultation) and development permits, are among many layers of headaches that developers looking to build on former gas-station sites face. The first is provincial: if a site is contaminated, as many are, the owner must obtain a certificate of compliance from the Ministry of Environment, showing that the site has been cleaned up before doing anything else.

“It’s kind of like a can of worms,” says Chris Reid, executive director and co-founder of Shifting Growth, a non-profit that was founded in 2011 to build temporary community gardens on vacant lots. “What we do is take the Class-6 land, which is just classified as business, and bring it into Class-8 land, which is community benefit,” he explains. Shifting Growth gets a fee, the property owner gets about two-thirds savings on property tax and the community gets a garden.

Reid has his eye on 20 former service station sites in Vancouver, all in different stages of redevelopment or remediation. Most are still owned by petroleum companies (Imperial Oil has the most) that are either preparing to open the can of worms or, since liability rests primarily with polluters, cleaning up to sell.

Tami Fur, who manages the B.C. Brownfield Renewal Strategy, explains that the multiple layers of regulatory challenges add up to a potentially very long redevelopment process. First comes costly and time-consuming cleanup, she says, “then we have to go into development permits and applying for all the approvals through the municipalities. So, now you’ve got maybe two years. And you might rezone; that’s more time.”

It’s the change of land use that leads to the regulatory hoop-jumping marathon that developers face, as it “triggers the need to first manage or remediate the soil based on regulatory requirements,” Fur says. So if Prima Properties hadn’t seen so much profit potential in the Burrard and Davie property, the Shell station would still be there leaching hydrocarbons into the soil. Paradoxically, it’s the high cost of land in downtown Vancouver that turns marginally profitable gas stations into non-profit community gardens, at least temporarily.