You know how you never really notice something until it happens to you? That's how I first started noticing the thing with the gas stations.
There used to be two gas stations near my house in the University District. The Chevron (cleaner and newer) was my top choice. The 76 was only to be used when the Chevron was crowded—or after the Chevron was mysteriously shuttered one day, devastatingly, surrounded by a chain-link fence and do not enter signs.
I didn't think much of it. After all, I still had the 76. Having two gas stations so close was the height of luxury. But we all need to be taken down a peg at some point. As a car owner in Seattle, I was already contributing to an out-of-hand problem. According to the Seattle Times, there are 435,000 cars in a city of slightly more than 700,000 people (or 637 cars per 1,000 humans). I could take this hit, I thought.
Then the 76 closed. Was every small convenience of mine destined for the slaughterhouse?
A sign went up at the now-abandoned Chevron, explaining things: A new apartment building would be springing up there. It would be 24 stories tall and house 300 units. The parcel of land sold for $5.8 million, according to a 2015 report by the King County Assessor's Office.
Michael Buhr, CEO of Filld, a gas delivery start-up (a burgeoning industry that we need to delve into another time), said the number of gas stations within Seattle city limits is down 20 percent.
But the Bureau of Labor Statistics quarterly census shows a slight uptick from 2015 to 2017 in the number of gas stations in King County (which also includes cities like Bellevue, Issaquah, Burien, and Federal Way). In 2015, there were 435 gas stations in King County; as of 2017, there were 481.
They're just not in Seattle.
"Some gas stations are attractive to developers because they sit on land that has been upzoned for six to eight stories, making them good sites for apartments," said Al Dams, chief deputy assessor for the county.
With the citywide upzone that's in the works—which will impact 27 neighborhoods and commercial districts in Seattle—gas stations occupy space that's about to become even more valuable. They're situated in areas zoned for buildings many stories higher than a slanted Chevron roof dares to go.
"Essentially, the land in some places is worth so much," Dams said, "that a gas station is not the highest and best use of the land."
In Ballard, the northeast corner of 15th Avenue Northwest and Market Street was once a Shell station. It's going to be a six-story apartment building. In the Central District, a 76 station across from Uncle Ike's pot shop got torn down and is becoming a four-story building. Currently, there are nine other King County gas stations listed for sale on BizBuySell.com.
The fact of the matter is that land in the Seattle area has gotten too expensive for gas stations to thrive, so they are being pushed out of the city. Just like many residents.
"While downtown Seattle land has gotten too expensive for gas stations," Dams said, "they continue to flourish in outlying areas. Most new ones are adjuncts to big-box stores such as Costco, Fred Meyer, and Safeway."
The architecture firm NBBJ bought the Chevron lot. New zoning lets them build higher and doesn't mandate including parking. That's because a light rail station is opening two blocks away in a few years.
As our city continues to expand upward, and Sound Transit works toward making points A and B closer together, gas stations are going to be fewer and farther between in the city. That's not a bad thing. I should get rid of my car eventually. And so should you.