The number of gas stations in the United States has fallen by nearly 30 percent in the last two decade and the DC government says it is determined to arrest that decline, at least in this jurisdiction. Why it feels this way is a complete mystery, and that it has taken action on this front is absurd.
It is easy to surmise why we have fewer gas stations: more stringent regulations on underground gas tanks increased the cost of operating a station and spurred many operators to close their doors in the late 1990s. Also, many gas station operators these days see selling gas as primarily a way to attract a lot of shoppers to their store and are willing to cut their margin to the bone to get those ancillary sales. As a result, the average fuel sales (and non-fuel sales) of gas stations has been growing steadily. The days of a mom and pop station selling gas, fixing cars, and selling a little candy by the cashier are long gone.
In Washington DC, the number of gas stations has been further reduced by the sharp increase in real estate prices. The opportunity cost of operating a station jumps when the land would be much more profitable with a multi-story building on it instead of gas pumps.
Few people see this economic evolution towards fewer gas stations as a bad thing in and of itself: The economy today looks vastly different than the economy four decades ago–there are many more restaurants, fewer music stores, and a wide variety of entities today that didn’t even exist in the 1970s and 1980s. Few people across the country complain that it is difficult to buy gas–because if there were an excess demand, there would be an incentive for an entrepreneur to build a gas station.
Nevertheless, Washington DC has a Gas Station Advisory Board that must approve all station closings, and there is a good chance it will stand in the way of a developer hoping to convert a gas station into condos in tony Dupont Circle.
That such an entity exists is a wonderful commentary on the priorities of the progressive nomenclatura that govern the Nation’s Capital. For the most part these people oppose driving and the car culture that exists in the rest of the country, but at the same time they are reflexively opposed to all new development for the ironic reason that a new development means more people with cars will be competing against them for scarce on-street parking that the city inexplicably gives away.
it’s easy to surmise who the losers from this insipid policy will be: the middle and lower classes, who are increasingly priced out of the city’s housing market because the city prizes the protection of the elite carred class above all else. The wealthy car owners who park their cars on the street have the juice to delay and diminish all new developments, and the city council can pretend that giving the working class new rent controls will somehow make up for the utter lack of new housing being developed in Northwest DC. And one of the tools to stop development is a board that has to approve all gas station closures.
My suspicion is that the new condo building will eventually get built in a way that preserved the “historic” gas station, albeit three or four or more years from now and in a size that’s much smaller than what they have proposed, and the city councilmen and bureaucrats will congratulate themselves for reducing the “rapacious” profits of a developer.
But no one will ever stop to contemplate that their obstinacy on this project–and literally hundreds just like it across this town–combine to create unaffordable prices for middle-class families in this town. And at the same time they are fighting this condo development they will be pondering elsewhere how to create more affordable housing in this city, completely oblivious to the contradiction in their actions.