Monday, March 10, 2014

An urban gas station in Centretown

The Petro Canada at Bronson and Somerset quietly reopened this past Friday after about six months of construction, which started shortly after the reopening of newly reconstructed Bronson Avenue. It comes complete with a convenience store at the corner, seen best at night in HDR.

Even though about three-quarters of Centretown residents walk, bus and bike as part of their regular commute to work and school, the car ownership rate in Centretown is about 1.3 cars per household. So when residents of Centretown, Chinatown and Dalhousie eventually have to fill their tanks, they have to go somewhere. After the closure of the Shell station at Gloucester, this station just on the far side of Centretown's Bronson border is one of the closest to downtown. (I'm not saying I regret the closure of the gas stations that used to pepper Centretown much more heavily!)

But just because a gas station is a car-oriented business, it doesn't mean it can't also fit into the fabric of a walkable urban neighbourhood. Before the construction photos, let's look at how the station used to look:

As you can see in these shot from last May, it was a blocky, utilitarian design little more than a skeleton. Asphalt and gas pumps, mostly. At the end of the canopy was a small gas bar with an ice machine and payphone.

In the back of the lot were the underground storage tank accesses and an office:

Along both Somerset and Bronson (shown here at nighttime in April 2011), two wide entranceways invited motorists to re-enter traffic perilously close to the intersection. In the '90s, it took quite a community struggle to close just one of the four accesses of the Petro Canada station just a few blocks south at Bronson and Gladstone. We tried to do the same on this station as part of the Rescue Bronson initiative, but as with everything else in the reconstruction project, the engineers and consultants would never allow cars to lose out.

As Eric Darwin pointed out in a West Side Action blog post last May, the station creates a big hole at the southwest corner of the intersection. This is a disadvantage both from an urban planning perspective (which sees a continuous streetfront as an important component of thriving urban mainstreets), but also from a traffic safety perspective (because the absence of buildings near the road reduces visual cues that discourage speeding).

The corner of the intersection was left unfinished by the Bronson reconstruction project since the Petro Canada crews would just have to dig it up and reinstate it anyway. By the end of June 2013 the road crews had asphalted over the sidewalks, although they finished the tactile concrete crosswalk cues at the corner. You can see how far set back the canopy is from the street, and how it creates a huge gap in the Somerset Street pedestrian experience. The concrete-and-rock garden around the price sign is a paltry piece of 'landscaping'.

Near the end of September, construction began with fencing off of the site. You can see how ripe this structure was for replacement, as the end of the canopy had fallen off and was replaced with red-painted plywood. I had never noticed the metal frame surrounding the canopy, which would have contained the lights:

The four pumps were also removed

Work progressed quickly. By the second week of October, the entire site had been levelled.

On October 29, I took some photos of the newly-built store structure. When I asked a worker when the store was expected to reopen, a worker told me "all I know is we are here to deliver the store."

I didn't understand this comment until Eric posted his photos the next day: the entire store had been delivered and assembled that day in just three pre-fabricated pieces!

A few days later, the underground work at the west end of the site was visible.

Work seemed to slow after that. Siding and finishing on the store was assembled slowly, still unfinished in early December:

This worker appeared to be installing the last piece of siding in mid-December, with just some blue protective wrap left to be peeled off. Before the canopy was installed, the nearby Chinatown Gateway Arch could be seen through the site from Bronson.

Fast-forward to February, where the two gas-price signs were installed. Because they are technically freestanding, a sign permit was required from the City. Like the old one, these are relatively small and unobtrusive, and they fit well into the building.

In the last two weeks of February, the canopy was built, the pumps were installed, and the site was paved.

And finally this past Friday, it was open!

It's no crown jewel, but it helps fill in the gap at the corner, and it does more than just pay lip service to pedestrians. Two of the four vehicle accesses are closed, a sitting wall/bench is to be installed at the corner along with bike racks, and there are entrances connected from the sidewalks along both Bronson and Somerset:

There's still some landscaping to be done in the spring, including sidewalks (which I hope will be built as Toronto-style sidewalks rather than the asphalt car-paths shown in the rendering above). The Bronson crews also need to finish their work on the traffic signals, replacing the temporary wooden spanwire posts:

It's also no mom-and-pop confectionery, but it does provide a place to get essentials in the middle of the night, as well as propane for your BBQ.

Chinese characters were included in the signage to reflect its anchor location in Chinatown, though they declined Eric's suggestion for further Chinese-style embellishments in the architecture. Also reflected in the store—literally, in its windows—is the Yang Sheng restaurant, above which the Somerset Chinatown BIA has its offices.

Eric Darwin and I met with the regional Vice-President of Petro Canada's parent company in May 2013 (other members of the DCA's Planning Committee were invited). This was prior to their submission of the various City development applications. It was refreshing that a developer came to the community not only with an open mind, but also with a development that already had in place much of what we would ask of it.

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