West Philly Stops Live-Stop Lot
: Michael T. Regan
Incensed gardeners Weedwack city plans to park confiscated autos in Cedar Hill.
Every garden, no matter how lush and bountiful, can be the victim of annoying pests. At the Warrington Community Garden in Cedar Hill, the most egregious garden pest this summer turned out to be the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
When Operation Live Stop, a program implemented citywide to crack down on unlicensed and unregistered drivers, was launched on July 1, PPA earmarked a few of its lots in residential neighborhoods as temporary drop-off sites for the confiscated vehicles.
The lot it chose in West Philly, nestled between Baltimore and Warrington avenues and 47th and 48th streets and situated alongside a flourishing community garden, quickly became the focus of community opposition.
Sometime around July 1, residents, members of the Cedar Park Neighbors association and the 70 gardeners who have been working this land for nearly 10 years were given assurances by PPA representatives that the use of the lot as a drop-off site would be temporary.
But about a week after the first cars arrived, the city sent in a team of construction workers, and after a few hours of jackhammering, a Cyclone fence in cement was erected smack dab in the middle of the lot.
"All the neighbors were concerned when [PPA] starting towing the cars in, but they told us it would go away," says Steve Pyne, of the 4700 block of Windsor Avenue. "Then they came back and fenced it, and it became more of an impoundment lot than a drop-off site. To us, it didn't seem temporary at all."
Pyne says that when the PPA came to prep the lot for the freshly towed cars, authority workers threatened to cut down the 20-foot grapevine that was growing along a fence on the north side.
"They actually became hostile toward the gardeners," Pyne says. "We weren't happy about them using the lot in the first place, so it was like putting gasoline on an already fuming neighborhood."
With the neighborhood now being subjected to 'round-the-clock tow trucks, flatbeds and noise, Maureen Tate, president of Cedar Park Neighbors, decided to take action.
"There were just so many implications to the city using this as an impoundment lot," Tate explains. "First of all, we have the community garden and the Baltimore Avenue businesses. The community has also been supporting a restaurant project on the grounds next to the parking lot. Anything that would change the use of a previously public facility has to be communicated. But the Parking Authority didn't know all these elements existed. They didn't know because there was no communication with us -- at all."
Tate, who lives on the 4800 block of Florence Avenue, says she received dozens of complaints from the gardeners, her neighbors and some merchants.
"They were installing fences, spraying defoliants along the garden, making noises all through the night because they were dropping off cars 24 hours a day -- and there was so much pollution," she says. "But it was hard to pin down who was responsible for what was happening. I kept having to jump from agency to agency."
Operation Live Stop is onionlike in its bureaucracy. Based on a state law that's been on the books for years, the initial vehicle stop is made by a police officer, who gives the driver a violation. Then the PPA tows the car to a city impoundment lot -- or, sometimes, to a temporary drop-off site. The driver then has to go to traffic court and satisfy the summons to retrieve his or her vehicle. The entire operation is overseen by the Managing Director's Office, which supervises city agencies.
Officials at the PPA say that more than 3,000 cars have been confiscated since last month.
Tate says the residents of Cedar Hill are fully supportive of Operation Live Stop, but the lot had to go.
Barbara Herskowitz, also of the 4700 block of Windsor Avenue, was one of the residents who helped Tate organize the offensive against the PPA.
"The fence went up in the late afternoon on a Monday, but it came down on Wednesday," she says.
Fran Burns, an assistant managing director for the city, says that the lot was never intended to be permanent and that the city was sensitive to the neighborhood's concerns. Burns also said that, according to her records, Cedar Hill was the only neighborhood to grumble about Operation Live Stop.
"When we received complaints from the community, the PPA stopped dropping cars off there immediately," Burns says. "We worked together with Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell's office, and from the point I was brought in, I don't think it was even two days before the fence came down."
Burns says there were never more than 20 cars held in the lot, and those that remained were taken to another lot across town. But Burns attributes the diligence of Tate and her community, the intervention of Blackwell and the cooperation of the PPA with resolving the crisis quickly.
PPA, however, has a different take.
The decision to remove the cars and take down the fence had nothing at all to do with the efforts made by the Cedar Hill community, says Howard Cain, a spokesperson for the PPA.
"That lot was purely temporary," Cain explains. "We always planned to use it no more than two or two-and-a-half weeks. The idea was that we wanted to have spots around the city when we started up [Operation Live Stop] because we had a guaranteed response time of 20 minutes or less. We had it just in case ... but it became apparent after the second week that we didn't need it, so we're not using it anymore. It's as simple as that. If Jannie Blackwell spoke to someone in the PPA, I have no knowledge of it."
Cain says that the city has six permanent impoundment lots that can hold more than 6,000 cars -- two in South Philly; two in Tioga; one in Bridesburg and one in Germantown. The fence, he says, was merely a safety issue.
"Wherever we were, we'd have to secure the vehicles," Cain says. "Even if it was only for four days, we would have put up a fence. We can't tow somebody's car and then put it in a position to be vandalized or tampered with."