O’FALLON – The BP gas station at 4126 West Florissant Ave. is taking its fight to stay open to the courts.
After a lengthy battle with neighborhood residents citing everything from robberies and shootings to drug deals gone bad, the gas station lost its privilege to operate.
But on Feb. 9, station owner Mazen Owydat filed a lawsuit against the city of St. Louis and the Board of Adjustment. That means that, pending litigation, the station can remain open.
On Jan. 29, during an appeal hearing, the city’s Board of Adjustment denied Owydat an occupancy permit and a continuance, finding that his business was a “detriment to public health, safety, morals or general welfare.”
The appeal and final ruling on Jan. 29 came after two previous hearings, on Oct. 9 and Jan. 15. Erin Godwin, Zoning Plan Examiner, testified at both of the earlier hearings that the station’s proposed occupancy permit had been denied by the Board of Public Service.
Twenty-First Ward Alderman John Collins Muhammad agreed with the board’s decision.
“This station needs to close,” he said.
The alderman’s position is in line with that of many neighborhood residents who have attended the hearings regarding safety concerns at the gas station, which is on a corner where West Florissant intersects with Adelaide Avenue.
The board found testimonies from both sides to be credible.
Melinda Long, a longtime resident and former alderwoman in the ward, had gathered 150 signatures in opposition to the station’s continuance by Oct. 9. She testified at that hearing that several emergency police calls had been made regarding disturbances at the station.
Long also told the Board of Adjustment that there was a lot of crime at the station and that it needed go.
In an interview this month, Long told The NorthSider, “There was always something going on there – it’s just not safe.”
Sharie Taylor told the board at the first hearing that over the years, residents had met with the owner about their concerns but that nothing had changed.
Barbara Holmes testified that the gas station was “nasty-looking and unkempt.”
One resident who lives across the street from the gas station testified that “people use the bathroom outside” and that “from her porch you can see the prostitution and drug deals.” She said that “there’s a lot of traffic” and that “a lot of people hang out around there after 11 p.m.”
Although the hearings drew critics of the gas station, others spoke on behalf and in favor of the station and its owner, whom some call “Josh.”
In Owydat’s own argument, he said he had been in the neighborhood for the past 20 years and was trying to do all that he could to stay open. He said he had begun closing the station at 11 p.m., earlier than its former closing time, because 11 p.m. was the time that some residents recommended. He also had had security cameras installed.
A woman identified as Sondra P. stated at the first hearing that things had changed for the better after a group of neighbors had met with the station owner.
“Since they’ve been closing at 11 p.m., traffic has died down,” she said, adding that it was safe and had new security and that people were no longer gathering at the station.
She also said that closure of the station would hurt the neighborhood.
Neighbor Karla Jensen agreed. “It would become a trap [drug] house” if closed, she asserted. She also said that crime had gone elsewhere since cameras had been installed.
Katherine Davis said Owydat had helped her when her son died, and another woman said the community needed the store and gas station. A man said Owydat helped him with work.
“The crimes are not because of the gas station,” said Samuel Jackson, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1966.
“Crime is everywhere,” Yvette Peebles agreed.
Longtime resident Jimmy Tate said, “It’s not the store itself; it’s the gang members who are the problem,” adding that the store was an asset. Another person said there would be crime there even if the BP left; and yet another said other businesses had already left the neighborhood.
The closure would also leave another vacant building, and the nearest gas stations would be 1.1 to 1.2 miles away, or 3 to 4 minutes’ driving.
One station, Broadway Mart, is north of the West Florissant BP in the 6000 block of N. Broadway, on the other side of O’Fallon Park. Another, Midwest Petroleum-ZX, is to the south in the 4200 block of Natural Bridge Boulevard.
A station is currently under construction in the 4300 block of Natural Bridge at Newstead Avenue.
“Another gas station is the last thing we need,” Long told The NorthSider. “We’re on life support over here; we need resources.”
If the BP station closes, other uses could be found for the site.
Repurposing a gas station isn’t as expensive as some people think, area real estate enthusiast Darla Moore explained in an interview on Tuesday.
She estimated the cost at $1,000 to $3,000 for removal of underground gas tanks, if they maintained regular EPA (Environment Protection Agency) inspections. With repaving and remediation (removing any contamination), the cost could nudge $10,000.
“It isn’t hard at all – other properties like paint stores, firehouses, cleaners and auto repair shops sometimes have toxins or fumes,” Moore explained, adding that sometimes federal funds were available to curb the price of remediation.
“That work and the amount of money isn’t a lot for a business acquisition at all, so a property doesn’t just have to sit there.”