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Falling back into favor: How Grand Rapids' abandoned gas stations got their groove back

Keen Studios

Business owners throughout Grand Rapids are increasingly turning to old and abandoned gas stations to open restaurants, shops and firms in growing business districts. 
Adam Mikrut, co-owner of the creative services firm Keen Studios, says when he and his business partner first set out to find office space in downtown Grand Rapids, he never envisioned winding up with an old auto service station.

“[We] were looking at all kinds of different office locations downtown, spaces that were around 2,400 square feet or so,” says Mikrut, who shifted gears after receiving an email from his cousin, James, about a vacant property he had on the market for remodel.

“…[James] happens to own this little gas station we’re in, and a little while back he emailed me and said, ‘You sure you don’t want a 1,200-square-foot gas station? I got this crappy building on my property, and no one is doing anything with it right now.’”

Mikrut had to replace the roof of the old auto garage, alongside all of the boarded-up windows, degraded overhead door fixtures, and electrical infrastructure at 500 Stocking Ave. NW. However, now just just a few short months away from completing renovations on the space, Mikrut says he couldn’t be happier with how things turned out.
Keen StudiosHe says he sees a lot of potential in the unique layout of the building, which lends itself to a creative use of indoor-outdoor space made possible by the two big garage doors that open up all of the way to the outside.

“We’ve basically created a studio with an event space, so we have a whole two-thirds of the area that is just for that,” he says, crediting the two, large retractable garage doors with allowing for the office space to take on a more multifaceted role in its surrounding community.

“We’ll have special events, private parties, bring in some industry speakers and stuff like that,” Mikrut says.

Falling back into favor

Although Keen Studios may be one of the earlier adopters of the whole gas station re-use concept in its Stockbridge neighborhood, business owners in other areas throughout Grand Rapids, as well as entrepreneurs across the country, are increasingly turning to old and abandoned gas stations for new retail opportunities in growing business districts.

Just this year, the city's economic development department updated its count of vacant gas stations throughout downtown Grand Rapids, reporting that of the 28 total recorded in 2010, only 12 remain vacant or unused today.

Kara Wood, director of economic development in the city of Grand Rapids, says the other 16 locations have either been redeveloped into new commercial spaces or fully restored for their original use as gas stations.

One of the biggest reasons business owners are increasingly turning to these abandoned spaces? The location.

Since the dawn of our car-dependent culture, gas stations have occupied prime real estate on neighborhood roads for decades: they often sat on highly visible corners meant to garner drivers’ attention.

Johnny B's“They are one of America’s most common commercial building types and are emblematic of the 20th century,” the National Park Service writes in a preservation brief addressing the transformation of old gas stations. “Surviving historic stations are physical reminders of the transportation revolution and the influence of increased mobility on the landscape.”

However, about 100 years after the country’s first-ever gas station — a Gulf station in Pittsburgh — opened, these once sought-after commercial locales are increasingly shuttering, in Grand Rapids and across the nation, as America’s fuel consumption drops. While some have long been abandoned, other deteriorating venues are being brought back to life by developers who see the crucial role these spaces are beginning to play in cities like Grand Rapids, giving entrepreneurs a chance to find interesting, unused and often affordable commercial space.

“Once spurned as out of place incursions or eyesores, historic stations are increasingly appreciated for their contribution to the character of a neighborhood, and the way they are easily adapted for new uses,” the National Park Service writes.

In Grand Rapids, those new uses span the commercial gamut, from the creative services firm to clothing retail and taco shops. Among the businesses that call a former gas station their commercial home include Lee & Birch on Wealthy Street; Donkey Taqueria, also on Wealthy; Jonny B'z Dogs and More (which will be moving into a 1960s gas station on Wealthy); Kathryn Chaplow on Cherry Street; Kantor & Wassink on Market Avenue; Reagan Marketing on Wealthy; and the new Madcap Coffee on East Fulton; among others.

Best bang for business owners’ buck

For Nikki Gillette, owner of the women’s clothing store Lee & Birch, relocating her downtown boutique to the 1,200-square-foot former service station at 759 Wealthy St. SE was a no-brainer, especially once she saw what the space could offer.

Lee & Birch“When we found the old service station/Ron's Car Wash building, we fell in love with the building — and the fact there was on-site parking — and knew we had to make it work,” says Gillette, who opened Lee & Birch’s first Grand Rapids location in 2010 on the first floor of the Trade Center Building at 50 Louis NW.

She says she loved the idea of having a big, retractable glass garage door for the warmer months to expand her space from indoor to outdoor and the kind of possibilities it afforded her to host special events and public fashion shows.

“The fact that we could be in a unique space on a prominent corner with parking and a garage door to open in the summers, are the main reasons we decided to move, and the reason we have been more than happy with that decision,” says Gillette, whose business now enjoys its own corner slice of an increasingly high-trafficked intersection.

For Gillette, when unique aesthetic is combined with practical advantage, it creates the kind of opportunity a smart business owner just can’t pass up.

“I would choose this space over and over again,” she says. “We are currently in talks to open another location, and we could only dream of finding a building like this in another city.”

Location, location

Since opening The Winchester on Wealthy Street — where several old gas stations have been transformed to new commercial spaces — in 2008, restaurateur Paul Lee has been privy to the strategic sensibility of converting the old service stations.

“I think one of the attractions is really going to be location,” Lee says. “Typically those old gas stations — and also new gas stations now, too — are located on a corner where there is going to be high automobile and foot traffic with lots of visibility, which is great from a retail or restaurant standpoint.”

Kantor & WassinkIn 2012, Lee converted a nearby former gas station at 665 Wealthy St. SE into the now-thriving Donkey Taqueria, building an additional 1,200 square feet on to the building’s original 800.

Most recently, Lee became partial owner of the former Wealthy Station at 1157 Wealthy St. SE — another former service station site — and says efforts to convert the space into a Nashville-style fried chicken joint are currently underway, with expected completion falling around sometime in spring 2017.

And although Lee says he’s a huge fan of the unique aesthetic elements converted service stations can offer to outdoor restaurants and retail spaces, he’s not after these spaces because they used to be gas stations — that part feels more coincidental from where he’s standing.

He’s after these spots because they’re virtually designed to be noticed, and as a community-driven business owner loyal to a district where affordable rental space for new businesses is beginning to stretch thin, he’s aware that they might be some of the last retail opportunities available for awhile in the neighborhood he’s grown to understand so well over the past few years.

“We’ve had opportunities to go to other parts of the city, but for us, if we can find property along Wealthy Street, that’s what we want,” Lee says. “We really love it there and want to be active within the neighborhood we work and also live in.”

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor

Photography by Adam Bird
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