The former Wawa on Broad and Walnut streets

Center City will soon have five prominent retail locations that used to be Wawa stores, leaving neighbors and passers-by to wonder what might bring those darkened storefronts back to life.

Wawa announced last week it will soon close stores at 12th and Market and 19th and Market. The Delco-based convenience chain cited safety and security concerns. City leadership quickly put out statements downplaying the bad optics, with Mayor Jim Kenney saying “I don’t think it’s a bad omen at all,” and DA Larry Krasner calling it “another opportunity for entrepreneurship.”

Closing any location of a well-known brand can be emotional for neighbors, noted Jacob Cooper, a managing director at retail real estate brokerage MSC who is not involved in the management of the Wawa properties. As for the health of the neighborhood, Cooper said, “A dark store is arguably much worse than an active store with some operational issues.”

He believes Philadelphia is in a strong position to attract new tenants in Center City, including at these former Wawa locations.

“I would caution [people] not to make too many generalizations and extract too much opinion about a single retailer’s choice about coming into or closing in a market,” Cooper told Billy Penn. “It’s not doom and gloom.”

An interesting note about both recent Wawa shutters: they’re in pretty high-end, high-traffic locations.

The 12th Street outpost is part of the huge, mixed-use East Market project, a set of glitzy steel-and-glass towers that’ve been rising next to City Hall over the past few years. At 19th Street, the store was part of a recently renovated mixed-use building with neighboring tenants like Starbucks, as well as a WeWork and other offices.

Business interest in the city is higher than it’s been in 15 years, per Cooper, who said potential tenants cite affordability, culture, entertainment, the restaurant scene, and the growing life sciences space. In the former Wawas, he said, a likely future tenant would be another high-volume food service establishment.

Philadelphians who spoke with area news outlets and posted on social media about the closures expressed frustration — not with Wawa, so much as with city leaders for failing to meaningfully address gun violence and crime in Philly. The Inquirer’s editorial board flatly rejected Kenney’s attempted pep talk, writing “Crime and daily shootings in Philadelphia are major concerns for businesses and residents in every corner of the city.”

The closures, said real estate broker Cooper, could be a “wake-up call for city government to make a more concerted effort to make these businesses that chose to invest here feel safe and make them feel supported.”

Kenney’s office has been in discussions with Wawa about how to support them, spokesperson Kevin Lessard told Billy Penn, and will continue to do so. Lessard also said the mayor’s office is “working to ensure the city attracts more businesses, not just in Center City but throughout all of our neighborhoods,” and said the new night time economy director is embarking on a listening tour to hear from businesses that operate after 5 p.m.

Wawa also closed three other Center City locations recently: 13th and Chestnut in December, 9th and South in September 2021, and Broad and Walnut in August 2020. None of the three stores was open for longer than 5 years, and none of the three addresses have any new business licenses on file with the city.

A North Philadelphia Wawa at 1300 East Erie Ave. closed about a year ago.

The string of closures started after the pandemic took hold, and companies throughout the city shuttered due to the stress of restrictions and staffing shortages.

When the 13th and Chestnut location shut down in December, Wawa leadership said it had no more immediate plans to shrink its footprint in the city. That storyline appears to have changed.

The latest Center City shutdowns come as Wawa locations in Northeast Philadelphia and Roxborough have complained of problems caused by local students during school dismissal time. A video of teenagers ransacking the Northeast store went viral last month.

Councilmember Mike Driscoll, who represents the Northeast district where that happened, foreshadowed the latest closings last week when he said Wawa was considering cutting Philadelphia from its expansion plans because of crime, the Philadelphia Business Journal reported.

“People may view it as Wawa abandoning the city,” said Cooper, of MSC. “But at the same time, this has happened before.”

The Delco-born chain’s relationship with Center City has certainly seen its peaks and valleys.

Wawa opened up a smattering of city stores in the 1980s and 90s, alongside big suburban expansion. But in 2008, the city closed its fifth of 10 Center City stores, and became less of an urban presence.

Less than a decade later, Wawa leadership seized on a renewed city strategy, opening the Broad and Walnut location, its new flagship, just in time for the Pope’s visit in September 2015. By 2019, Wawa was closing in on 7-Eleven in the race to have the most convenience stores in Philly.

Wawa did create some intrigue about the future of the two Market Street locations.

“It is our hope to repurpose these two locations to further benefit Philadelphia. To that end, we have initiated a review of options and are exploring possibilities with our partners, the community and local officials,” the company’s press statement said. It did not respond to a request for clarification.