Wawa Is Planning Even More Center City Expansion

Wawa announced its latest Center City store, at 19th and Market, at a Wawa Day event. CEO Chris Gheysens says the company is planning more locations downtown.

Wawa - 19th and Market - rendering

Rendering courtesy Wawa

Reversing an old trend, Wawa is making a big push into Center City.

Today is Wawa Day, celebrating the anniversary of the first Wawa convenience store’s opening on April 16th, 1964, in Folsom. Free cups of coffee are given to patrons chain-wide. As such, a line of corporate heads — as well as Mayor Jim Kenney and sports media personality Howard Eskin — were on hand at the Wawa flagship store at Broad and Walnut to pour the ceremonial “first cup of free coffee” and make some major announcements.

On the charitable side, Wawa CEO Chris Gheysens announced the Wawa Foundation was well on its way to giving away $50 million over five years; it had donated $22 million over the past two years. The foundation also produced a large ceremonial check for $500,000 to No More Fire Deaths.

The pilot campaign, a joint production of the Philadelphia Fire Department and the Philadelphia chapter of the American Red Cross, used a targeted approach to educate residents about fire escape plans and give away smoke alarms. Outgoing Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said three families in Southwest Philly were able to escape fires thanks to the plan. There were 12 fire deaths last year, the lowest in the city’s recorded history.

Wawa - rendering 1900 Market store

Rendering courtesy Wawa

Then came the big retail announcement: As Philadelphia magazine reported yesterday, Wawa is opening a new store at 1900 Market Street. It will actually be situated at 20th and Market streets, and at 7,000 square feet will be the company’s largest. (The flagship store at Broad and Walnut is 5,380 square feet.) It will have 25 “bar seats” for customers to sit at, the most at any Wawa location. The company is aiming to have it open by the end of the year.

It was a quick turnaround for Wawa; Gheysens said the company signed a lease for the space just a few weeks ago. A suburban Wawa takes about three or four years of planning in order to open, partially due to having gas pumps. A store without gas can open much more quickly.

Gheysens had even bigger news than the new Market Street location: More Wawa locations are on the way in Center City.

Gheysens told Philadelphia magazine he hopes to be able to announce “a few” more Center City locations by the end of the year — including one to replace the location at 11th and Arch that closed last year.

“We closed the store last year over in the Chinatown area at 11th and Arch, I think you’ll see something come to replace that — a bigger, better location,” Gheysens said. “You think about Philadelphia, we’ve come to the South side of City Hall. We are coming now to the west side. As you look where people and traffic are, we’re really looking right around Center City right now.”

The move is a shift for Wawa, which several years ago closed two locations (20th & Locust and 20th & Chestnut) — that led to “WawaTF” protests in Center City. But after the “test” flagship store — the first with indoor seating — in the old Robinson Luggage location at Broad and Walnut was successful, it paved the way for a broader expansion downtown.

The 19th and Market location, in a building owned by Brandywine Realty Trust, was chosen due to the expanding apartment/condo market in the Market Street West corridor (or Penn Center, Commerce Square, central business district, whatever you want to call it). Brandywine is also finishing off an apartment building across the street from the new Wawa.

“We firmly believe that Philadelphia is in the ascendancy,” Brandywine CEO Jerry Sweeney said. “This city will be more exciting five years from now that it is today, and we’re betting a lot of our future on that. It’s certainly comforting that Wawa is expanding its retail operation in the city because it’s a real validation of all the great progress Philadelphia is making and will continue to make.

“In terms of this location, for us it’s a great validation of the maturity of the Market Street West corridor. It’s historically been just a group of office buildings, but … it’s becoming a full, integrated mixed-use neighborhood. It will have residents, thousands of office workers, great access to retail.”

Wawa - 19th and market rendering

Rendering courtesy Wawa

Asked what had changed in the eight years since Wawa closed several downtown locations, Gheysens said both Center City and Wawa had changed.

“We closed some stores here in Center City, which people talk about today still,” Gheysens says, adding that the company will soon have six stores open downtown (that includes the one at 21st and Hamilton). “What’s changed for Wawa is, believe it or not, we believe that we can open up a non-gas store with our food offerings to meet the needs of today’s consumer. This [Broad and Walnut] store, which was a test, showed us that’s true.

“And the city, under Mayor Nutter and now under Mayor Kenney, the growth of the Center City business district is just phenomenal. … there are some beautiful, wonderful things happening here. The vibrancy of the city is alive and well.”

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