KC neighbors take owners of eyesore gas station to task
Typically, when Pat Clarke uses the BP gas station at Indiana Avenue and Linwood Boulevard, he winds up giving the cashier behind the bulletproof window a piece of his mind.
“That place pisses me off,” Clarke says. “And I let them know that.”
The station is a far cry from the BPs on the other side of Troost Avenue, like the station at 87th Street and State Line Road with its adjoining car wash, high-tech pumps and full-service convenience store.
At the station on Linwood, the signs and overhead canopy are dingy and weather-beaten. Landscaping is reduced to untended shrubs and patches of gravel, dirt and malnourished lawn. The pavement is covered in engine oil and trash. Only regular fuel is available. The premium and mid-grade options at each of the eight pumps have been covered with duct tape and plastic.
Kansas City Police say they have received more than 150 calls about incidents at the station’s address since May.
“This might as well be a dope house,” says Clarke, president of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association. “They don’t give a (expletive) about us.”
Clarke’s frustrations highlight the socioeconomic chasm between residents of the East Side and the businessmen from the suburbs who have set up shop in their neighborhoods.
On the East Side, it’s gas stations — not niche shops, restaurants, drugstores or grocery stores — that dominate the landscape. In place of those other storefronts, gas stations, with their convenience stores, have become less a community amenity than a lifeline.
Citing what they believe to be a widespread brand of careless commercial ownership, neighbors lament that these gas stations are hurting areas already at risk when they could be catalysts of community improvement. In a survey of more than a dozen gas stations there, The Star found widespread decay and neglect.
But there is a glimmer of hope.
A new crop of sparkling stations has sprouted along East Side roadways, and with them a new blueprint for collaboration. The only questions: Will other stations follow their lead? And if not, what should East Side neighborhoods do next?
‘Ghetto or gold mine’
As head of his neighborhood association, Clarke keeps a watchful eye over the community that stretches from Linwood south to Emanuel Cleaver Boulevard and from Prospect Avenue east to Cleveland Avenue. He’s built relationships with the residents and the churches, the barbershops and mom-and-pops. When a business opens in the neighborhood, Clarke says he’s there: “I’ve got to know who’s coming in here. I’ve got to know who I’m dealing with.”
But Clarke didn’t know the owners he was dealing with at his neighborhood BP on Linwood. All he knew is that the operating partners don’t live in the area.
“These guys, they come in here, they make their money and they go back to wherever they’re from.”
The Linwood BP is operated by Mid KC Petroleum Inc., and lists Arfan Paroya of Kansas City, North as its president, according to the Missouri secretary of state’s office.
In an email, Paroya said that he has operated Kansas City gas stations and convenience stores since 1999 and that he works his best “to please the community and shall continue to strive and improve it.” He said he is open to any suggestions “for improvements the community may have.”
To Clarke, the statement is just empty words: “You look at the station and you don’t have to wonder how much they care about the community.”
“If you can’t do better, if you can’t treat us better, you need to get up and go,” Clarke says. “Let us find someone who’s willing to work with us.”
An example of the collaboration he’d like to see between a business and its community is flourishing barely a mile away.
The Key Coalition neighborhood association has been working closely with Jamal Farrukh, who owns the Shell Xpress Mart gas station at 31st Street and Brooklyn Avenue, to create an unforeseen source of community pride.
“We couldn’t be happier,” says association president Karen Slaughter.
The Shell station’s lot is nearly three times bigger than the Linwood BP’s and is kept free of trash. Its grounds are lined with manicured trees and shrubs. The pumps are new and fully functional. The convenience store offers hot and cold drink stations and an island for foods like nachos, hot dogs, popcorn and doughnuts. Neighbors work the cash register.
Farrukh doesn’t live nearby but still has made himself an active, participating member of the community since erecting his business there two years ago.
The station is one of the newest on the East Side and an example, Slaughter says, of what happens when businesses and communities work together.
Farrukh could not be reached for comment. But from the onset, Slaughter says, he created a partnership that would make both sides happy.
“Mr. Jamal has been a very good neighbor,” Slaughter says.
Farrukh first approached the neighborhood association three years ago. Already keen on adding economic development, members invited him to a community meeting to present his vision. Farrukh mentioned another Shell he had opened the year before at Swope Parkway and Prospect.
“We decided to stop through unannounced and check it out and were really impressed with how the station was run. The stockroom, the grounds, the bathrooms, everything was immaculate. It just seemed different from what we were used to gas stations in this part of town looking like,” Slaughter says. “We asked Mr. Farrukh if this was something we could expect, and he said yes.”
What they didn’t expect was just how much Farrukh, who lives in the Kansas suburbs, would ingrain himself into their community.
When the neighborhood holds its annual family appreciation event, Farrukh supplies and offers to cook the food. He attends neighborhood meetings to keep an open ear to how he can serve the neighborhood. Meetings that, for instance, led Farrukh to hire employees from the neighborhood — an early concern residents had about the station.
Slaughter mentions the slain civil rights activist Bernard Powell, who was integral to the Key Coalition community.
“He had a motto: ‘Ghetto or gold mine, the choice is yours.’ We decided to work with Mr. Jamal to show that this neighborhood is a gold mine, worth respect and support from people within and outside the community.”
‘An engaged citizen’
Jacob Wagner understands the success that can come when a business and community work together. Wagner is an associate professor of urban studies at University of Missouri-Kansas City and co-directs its Center for Neighborhoods, a research and outreach unit that offers free training to help neighborhood leaders attack issues.
“The key factor to changing a neighborhood is an engaged citizen who knows what the options are,” he says. “Who knows how to put pressure on city hall and how to allocate resources necessary to either get the businesses to clean up their act and be a good neighbor or to go directly to the neighbor like, ‘Hey, I need you to clean up your act.’”
Ike Graham has been president of the Vineyard Neighborhood Association for years, and, like Clarke in Oak Park, had no idea who owned the BP gas station at 45th Street and Cleveland Avenue.
“The owners never reached out to us at the association or came to any community meetings,” Graham said one January afternoon. “I don’t know who owns the station, I just know I don’t like it.”
Says Virginia Flowers, the association’s secretary: “I don’t fuel my car there.”
The station opened in 2005 barely a quarter of a mile from their neighborhood association’s headquarters, but Graham says he’s more likely to drive to a QuikTrip in Raytown for gas. QuikTrip operates 20 stations in the Kansas City area, including a $15 million investment in Lee’s Summit last year, but has none in Kansas City’s East Side.
Graham and Flowers echo the common concerns about the BP station: too much trash, not enough beautification or job creation for people in the community.
This was all news to Azam Mahfooz, one of the station’s owners.
Mahfooz moved to Olathe from New York years ago and opened more than half a dozen stations on the East Side. He thought that building the stations showed goodwill. “I didn’t put my money in the bank, I put it in the community,” Mahfooz says.
In the past few months, he says, he’s refurbished his Cleveland Avenue station’s aging canopy and started selling fresh, inexpensive produce in the convenience store as an alternative to the junk food often found in gas stations. He’s planning a new sign and fueling stations and is hoping to buy the property to the south so he can expand the convenience store and offer more amenities, similar to Farrukh’s Shell Xpress stations.
At The Star’s request, Mahfooz met Graham in February, for the first time, and had Graham walk him around the property and air any concerns.
“It’d be great, too, you know, if you could come to the meetings and meet the people in the community,” Graham told Mahfooz as they walked the aisles of the station’s convenience store. A request Mahfooz said he would commit to, and more:
“How about a community day?” Mahfooz proposed. “I can buy drinks and food and we can invite everyone out and we can all get to know one another.”
Mahfooz continued: “If the community is happy, then they’ll come. And when they come, we make money. We’re all happy.”
The scene is a textbook example, Wagner says, of the cooperation needed between communities and owners to bring about change:
“If owners aren’t being held accountable, they can let their standards slip,” he says. “If no one is saying, ‘Hey come to our neighborhood meeting, your store is a mess, we’re going to start putting pressure on you,’ well, then they can ignore it.”
Collaborate or complain
For years as executive director of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council, Margaret May says she has tried to get the owners of the BP station at 35th Street and Prospect Avenue to collaborate with the community.
Neighbors worry about loitering and worse crimes at the station and surrounding lots. Since May, Kansas City police report receiving 105 calls about incidents at the station’s address.
May, who had helmed the neighborhood association for nearly 16 years before retiring in December, says she had tried numerous times over the years to work with the station but was roundly ignored:
“We would try to contact him by phone, stop by the station. We would have events with food and music on the vacant lot to the north of the station in hopes, partly with the purpose of trying to invite the owners to hang out and come to meetings to make them aware of our concerns and to let them know that we wanted to work together, but that would never work.”
Nailah M’Biti, an Ivanhoe resident who lives blocks from the station and also works with the neighborhood association, echoes the same: “The owner doesn’t care what happens at that station.”
“The people behind that station, they come in, they work, they leave. Nothing else,” she says. “From a standpoint of ownership it would surprise me if he’s actually visited that station.”
The Missouri secretary of state’s office lists Arfan Paroya as the president of AMPK Fueling Inc., Paroya and his attorney, Shahzad Ghafoor, declined further comment about the complaints and would not elaborate on Paroya’s stated plan to improve the stations.
“I think these station owners on the East Side are taking advantage of decades of disinvestment,” says Stephanie Frank, an assistant professor at UMKC who specializes in urban environments.
“There’s a perception also that people around these communities don’t care or that they’re not going to withhold their business,” she says. “So the attitude becomes, ‘I don’t have to invest, because the people there aren’t going to go elsewhere.’”
It’s up to communities, Wagner says, to enlist local government to force subpar owners to be better neighbors.
The city’s neighborhood and housing department can take action on property troubles such as excessive trash, weeds and damaged storefronts — but only if a resident files a complaint. Which, on the East Side, apparently doesn’t happen often.
Despite the high number of criminal complaints, city records show no property violation complaints filed against either the Prospect or Cleveland gas stations. The Linwood station was cited twice in 2015 and 2016 for “rank weeds or unattended growth” and “rubbish on exterior property area.”
“Ours is a complaint-based system,” says John Baccala, the public information officer for the department, which employs 40 code inspectors. “We cover 319 square miles and have about 13,000 open cases at any time.”
Baccala says the complaints are addressed in order of severity (a broken sewage pipe gets their attention quicker than cracked paint) but says his office answers most complaints within 30 days.
May, however, says Ivanhoe is concentrating more on police issues, like loitering and other crimes, than on filing complaints about the way the gas stations are maintained. It’s why M’Biti says her tactic has been to try to work with the station directly.
She would love to see the station take specific measures, like erecting a fence or gate as the Walgreens pharmacy down the street did, to prevent loitering.
“Creating natural barriers to curtail crime, adding more lighting, being conscious about lines of sight,” she says. “These are just the kinds of things you do when you are actually interested in what happens at your property.
“It doesn’t necessarily take a significant amount of effort to change things. But without being present you’re never going to be aware.”
How to help
Want to improve your local gas station? Here’s how to enact change:
▪ Ask your neighborhood association to invite the station’s owner to its next meeting.
▪ Call your city’s code enforcement office. In Kansas City, use the 311 property code violation complaint system to alert code inspectors. Offenses include untended sidewalks, overgrown grass and weeds, damaged building exteriors and excessive signage.