No matter the use, it is really all about the form. Gas stations are a car oriented use that will continue to appear in even the most walkable communities. However, a gas station does not have to destroy main street if it meets the form.
Palm City in Martin County Florida is a traditionally planned community that has seen it most growth through the automotive dominate building boom. The community’s vision is for their main street to become a walkable community street. Parcel by parcel, sidewalks have begun to emerge and buildings are being built towards the street with parking to the rear.
This vision became challenged with a development application for a Sunoco Gas Station proposed on a Main Street. This particular application for a gas station was replacing a gas station that had been destroyed during the 2004 hurricanes. This use was protected, which required the community to engage the developer to develop a form consistent with the community vision.
A development application was in a development review spiral for over 3 years. In a battle of wills, the county and the property owner battled over allowable uses, property rights, and design regulations. After three years, it was clear that this station was permitted, but the proposed plan did not fit into the community vision.
This is were an urban designer can create the bridge between form and the use. On one side, the property owner has rights to a specific use, even if the use is not consistent with the emerging community vision. On the other side, the Community has a clear vision which results in a predicable form. The urban designer must work with the development to illustrate how the development of this site, regardless of use, could fit into the community vision.
Codes may be very limited, or clumsy in how it regulations form or architectural character, and all the development team is seeking is the approval to move forward. The bridging of vision and use requires numerous design sessions in person and over the phone with the development team. It takes a long time for the developer to understand how important is was to the community to have a building on the street with a front door.
This Sunoco was the first new development on this street, and several amazing things happened. First, the manager of the station bought seats for the front porch. The porch became the official morning coffee shop in the community. I also had several calls to my office for people looking to build a home in the neighborhood that looks like Sunoco.
This project illustrates the importance of form when developing in an established neighborhood. The business owner is also reporting greater then expected sales, and higher then normal walk-in customers.