San Francisco, a frequent champion of the underdog, has adopted another endangered species: the neighborhood gas station.
City officials, alarmed by the rapid disappearance of stations across the city, are considering legislation that would make it extremely difficult for oil companies to close service stations.
The city already has imposed an 18-month moratorium on station closings, considered the strictest such measure in the country. Supervisor Terence Hallinan said it was needed to protect neighborhoods from the march of "coldblooded economics."
Since 1982, the number of stations in the city has dropped from 300 to 182.
"At one point you can't do anything about it," he said. "But then it reaches a point where it affects the health and safety of a community, and we're close to reaching that point."
San Francisco is not alone. In many parts of the country, the 1980s spelled the end of the neighborhood gas station.
Small service stations that once seemed to dot every street corner were torn down at a dizzying rate. Where once there were four stations pumping gas, changing tires and providing a range of other services, today there is one super-station providing little more than gasoline and junk food.
In San Francisco, the trend was so pronounced that the proposed closing of a single Chevron station in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood made front-page news last year.
"All the companies think about is the bottom line," said Margaret Garvin, a neighborhood resident who fought the closing. "They want to put in super-stations that pump a lot of gas and don't require a lot of manpower. It's a declining part of American life."
Residents flooded Chevron with letters and petitions. Local politicians, including Mayor Art Agnos, urged the oil giant to change its mind. The company did but not before public sentiment was inflamed.
In September, the board of supervisors approved a moratorium on future station closings and formed a task force to consider permanent restrictions. Hallinan said he would propose legislation to make it difficult for companies to rezone gas station property.
To major oil companies, the falling number of stations is a matter of simple economics. In many cases, it is no longer cost efficient to operate several small stations, often old and in need of expensive upgrading, on land that has become more valuable for other uses.
Chevron Corp., San Francisco's home-grown oil giant and the fourth-largest oil company in the nation, closed more than 1,300 stations between October, 1988, and October, 1989, more than 10% of its total outlets.
John Garber, regional manager of Chevron U.S.A., estimates that the company has closed between 30% and 50% of the stations it operated 10 years ago.
"The amount of volume needed for a Chevron dealer to make a living keeps increasing," he said. In addition, many stations, which cost less than $50,000 to build 25 years ago, now require up to $200,000 in upgrading just to replace their underground tanks, he said.
Chevron is adamantly opposed to restrictions on what it can do with its stations. The company does not want to see San Francisco's attempt to keep small stations open spread to other cities across the country.
"You have a situation where property just becomes too valuable," he said. "We don't feel people should be mandated what they can do with their property."