Bluff City or Pump City? Memphis Gas Station Zoning

Leave it to Memphis to be a city where gas stations are a frequent topic for cocktail party conversations. Ask twelve people their thoughts about gas stations, and you will likely get thirteen opinions – none of them flattering. Yet pumps can be seen on seemingly every corner.  From other sources, we know Memphis has more gas stations per capita than almost all other cities our size, yet nobody really seems to want them. Certainly, gas stations perform an essential function as fuel for cars, but the sheer number of them suggests they do a whole lot more than that. Why do we have so many? And why do we dislike them so much? 

The aversion to the “c-stores with pumps” is fairly intuitive to understand. Put simply: they are ugly and bad for the environment. Gas station design is shaped largely by their business model, which involves selling you just about anything other than fuel for your car. The fuel is what brings you in, but up to 70% of profits actually come from the chips, sugary drinks, beauty products, and all the other stuff that they sell you (Consumer Behavior at the Pump. National Association of Convenience Stores, March 2019). The gasoline is a type of product economists call a loss leader – it may not make any money, but it reels you in and gets you to open your wallet for the higher margin items. 

To maximize the effectiveness of gasoline as the lure, the layout of a gas station is oriented around cars, and like most auto-centric design, the result is generally uninviting to people. Although there is something to be said about convenience, economic efficiency, and frequent consumer turnaround, people generally don’t want the pursuit of such things to dominate the architecture in their communities. 

Beautiful architecture is more than just something pretty to look at. The design of the built environment reflects the values held by the culture that created it, and it has the ability to give substance and dignity to an otherwise routine activity. If that is too esoteric to swallow, try this: high quality urban design that encourages walking instead of driving produces significantly more economic output and promotes greater social equity and cohesion. One recent study published by a research partnership including George Washington University and The Center For Real Estate and Urban Analysis shows highly walkable cities in the U.S. produce a “49% GDP per capita premium” over the least walkable cities. Because communities designed for walking do not require massive automobile infrastructure, land can be used more effectively. Tax revenues are significantly higher per acre, and fiscal costs for providing infrastructure and basic services are much lower. 

One of the first steps in bringing about quality design is aligning policy to encourage it.  Unfortunately, current prevailing policies related to zoning and transportation guide development in our city in a way that is bad for the economy, bad for the environment, bad for public health, and bad for society. These same policies are also primarily responsible for the large number of gas stations in Memphis, but perhaps not in the way you might think. 

Zoning policy that segregates retail, residential, office, and other land uses requires large parking facilities and roads that makes the distances between things insurmountable to walking. The economies of scale necessary to pay for all that overhead naturally leads to homogenous, big-box development. Other confusing land use controls like subdivision regulations (yawn) can make problems worse. In order to link this to the proliferation of gas stations, let’s take a look at the evolution of my Memphis neighborhood.  

For the first 40 or so years after my house in Highland Heights was built in 1912, I could have walked 5 minutes and reached a movie theater, bank, dentist’s office, doctor’s office, dry cleaners, multiple retail stores, and more than a half-dozen grocery stores – not to mention a streetcar that could carry me virtually anywhere else in the city quickly and affordably. It’s also more than likely that while making one of those trips I would have had multiple human interactions with several neighbors doing the same thing. I could have driven a car, but I didn’t have to, and it didn’t make much sense to. To reach all of those things now however, I have to spend more than twice that much time in my car, where the nearest grocery store, for example, is more than 1 mile away. In steps the gas station. Instead of “driving all over creation” (as my mom likes to say) just to get something to drink, I’ll head to a nearby gas station, of which I have nearly 10 to choose from within 1-mile.  

We can require gas stations to build better looking buildings, and we can even have them flip flop the site plan, so that pumps are in the back and the convenience store is up front facing the street. The so-called “gas backwards” policy could encourage more human-friendly gas stations, and if designed properly could contribute to a more pedestrian friendly and active street. In this case, the devil is in the details, and if the guidelines are not crafted carefully, the result could be gas station developments that check off all the boxes needed to comply, with no real intent of ever using the street-facing storefront as a viable entrance.  

Whatever the strategy, careful consideration should be given to pursuing a cure, instead of just treating the symptoms. As long as prevailing policy encourages the segmented, automobile focused pattern to city-building, we will likely be stuck not only with more than our fair share of gas stations, but also an impoverished public realm generally. There are a few examples of local planning officials pushing for better quality development, particularly around high-profile community centers that the Memphis 3.0 Comprehensive Plan calls “anchors.” But overcoming decades of bad habits in city planning is difficult, and there continue to be many citizens that fear the uncertainty that comes from making space for a life outside the car. Increasingly volatile gas prices may help ease some anxiety for higher quality development. Either way, never fear . . . less time at the gas station (or in the car) is not as scary as you might think. It might be difficult to imagine that now, since walking in Memphis is often an unsafe and unpleasant experience. But as research and first-hand experience have shown, create more balanced and human-centered public spaces, and the people (and money) will come.

Feature image is the Skovshoved Filling Station, in operation since 1935, in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photograph by Arne Jacobsen benzintank Moerke (wikicommons, public domain).

Dane Forlines is the Director of Special Projects for the Heights CDC and lives in Highland Heights. Dane has written city-focused columns for StoryBoard Memphis since 2019.

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