This is a story about a private company seizing public land – apparently without seeking, or receiving, permission – to turn a heftier profit than that which it’s already turning across the city of Philadelphia.
It’s also a tale of a years long grudge held by a citizen who finally aired his grievances in recent weeks. In doing so, he forced a private business to apologize to the city for what it had done, and promise to return the land to its rightful owners within 30 days.
The tipster, who doesn’t want to be publicly identified, has worked for various Chinatown businesses for more than a decade. He’d often spend his breaks “reading the papers and drinking coffee” in his car, which he’d park in an E-Z Park Inc. lot near 12th and Vine streets.
“Sometime eight to 10 years ago,” he noticed paving crews rolling into the lot, but didn’t think much of it until the next night.
“Something didn’t look right. I got out and scratched my head,” he told PW near the lot in late September, which sits in the shadows of the now defunct Hahnemann Hospital. “’WTF is this?’ is what I thought. The sidewalk next to the lot had shrunk by three feet!”
That’s right: E-Z Park Inc. – a family owned business which has “owned, leased and managed more than 100 locations in the Philadelphia area, and we continue to seek expansion opportunities”– expanded its parking lot footprint in a fashion that cut the width of the public sidewalk in half for the length of an entire city block.
The crew paved over single slabs of sidewalk along one-tenth of a mile and slid the “concrete parking bumpers” back several feet.
Before, vehicles along one side of the lot were positioned parallel to the street, facing east to west, as the space was too narrow to have two rows of spots running perpendicular to Summer Street. Afterwards, the lot had the room to add dozens of new spots since it was wide enough to back vehicles into spots on both sides of the narrow strip.
Officials with the city Department of Licenses and Inspections told PW that there is no record of the company ever seeking permission or zoning clearance to do so for a parking lot that runs along Summer Street between 12th and 13th.
The expansion – which roughly added 1,584 square feet (3 feet wide over a tenth of a mile block – enabled the lot to add roughly 25 spots to its parking inventory, which translates into unknown profits over the past several years. (The lot currently charges $215 for monthly parking).
That expansion left cars hanging out onto a sidewalk transformed into a slalom course for wheelchair users or people pushing strollers.
It’s that latter part which really set the tipster off a month or so back, prompting him to go public with a story that apparently nobody else noticed.
“I have no idea how people didn’t pick up on this over the years. Even the PPA people who are checking (on-street) meters every day. I just let it go, I guess,” he said. “One day a couple months ago, I saw an elderly gentleman struggling on the passenger side of his car. He got a younger gentleman out and into a wheelchair. That was it: they realized they couldn’t get down the sidewalk. That got me really angry.”
After approaching the men and telling them they should look into potential Americans with Disabilities Act violations, he started “a mission to make those motherfuckers put the sidewalk back.”
He invited a reporter to meet him at the scene and his version of events checked out visually, so calls were made to the Department of Licenses and Inspections, the Philadelphia Parking Authority, E-Z Park Inc., First District City Councilman Mark Squilla, and disability rights advocates.
What we saw was clear evidence of entire sidewalk slabs covered with newer paving. Many vehicles jutted out over the remaining portion of sidewalk, offering limited space between cars, parking meters and the curb line.
Harvey Spear – the company owner whom city officials called the “parking czar” with development interests beyond parking lots – did not respond to several requests to comment on this story. Squilla, the city councilman for the district in which the lot is located, hadn’t heard about the situation until we reached out to him.
Squilla, who received a $1,000 campaign donation from Spear who also hosted a fundraiser for the councilman and Mayor Jim Kenney that fall, said the situation “speaks to the problem of with how our agencies enforce our rules and laws.”
“Most of the time our departments do complaint driven enforcement,” he shared in an email dated Oct. 3. “We come across this a lot and sometimes it takes a while for our survey teams to come up with the proper boundaries.”
As for the overarching issues involved, Squilla noted that, “I am strongly opposed to public land be used by private businesses or residents and believe we need to do a better job of enforcement.”
PPA spokesman Martin O’Rourke deferred to the city for comment, as zoning and development issues aren’t part of the agency’s purview, even though the cars were illegally parked over portions of sidewalks.
Before our calls, neither L&I nor the Streets Department had heard about the repaving issues since they’d fielded no complaints through the city’s 311 system. (That isn’t all too surprising considering that Summer Street along that stretch is essentially a glorified alley.)
Upon learning of the situation, L&I spokeswoman Karen Guss asked around internally. Inspectors were sent out to investigate in mid-September, and they issued 27 code-violation notices to the lot owner for parking vehicles on the sidewalk.
Each one runs $100, and L&I let them know that they weren’t done as they deemed the situation “a flat-out hijacking.”
“Each day this occurs is a separate violation, so L&I inspectors will keep going back and ticketing,” Guss said, noting that there were no Zoning Board of Adjustment records of the project. “For now, we’re going to keep issuing tickets to see if that will work. The process is not the quickest thing in the world, and the fines will add up. That can be a good way of enforcement with this kind of thing. The goal here is that hopefully they’ll get tired of paying the fines off and fix the situation.”
Flash-forward to just last week, and it seems as if that approach had an impact.
An inspector returned after the first round of tickets, spoke with management and let them know that L&I was going to keep the pressure on. The owner, Spear, then contacted L&I, according to department officials.
“He committed to bringing all parking spots back within the boundaries of the lot,” Guss said. “He is also going to repair the car curbs throughout the lot, so that cars in legal spots no longer overhang onto the sidewalk.”
L&I gave him a month to follow-through on those promises. They will check back in early November to determine whether they did. If so, that would likely be the end of the city’s interest in the matter.
“Assuming follow-through by owner, this is a really nice result because gets us the cleared-off sidewalk in a way that conserves public resources,” she said, noting that they didn’t need to spend money going to court or sending people out to issue more tickets while at work. “Thank you for bringing this to our attention.”
Should that happen, people who use wheelchairs or strollers will no longer have to slide between parking meters, the curb line and the bumpers of cars hanging out into an already-reduced sidewalk. That would be a welcomed change.
Liam Dougherty is the policy and project coordinator at Liberty Resources Inc., which “advocates for and works with Persons with Disabilities to ensure their civil rights and equal access to all aspects of life in the community.”
Upon hearing about the situation, he directed his wheelchair over to 12th and Summer streets to check things out. Afterwards, he spoke about the specific issues at that site, and broader issues that impact people who use wheelchairs throughout the city.
“It’s really bad, and it’s the kind of thing that a lot of people don’t think about,” Dougherty told PW. The intersection of business and government is the underlying problem. I’m not exactly sure about the ins-and-outs of L&I, but I know this is wrong. Private businesses being able to do whatever they want until someone gets hurt is not where we want to be. I’m happy to hear L&I was responsive, though. Asphalt from the lot was clearly laid over the concrete sidewalk. That happened, and someone did some major construction to make that happen.”
For his part, the tipster was happy to hear that he may have helped right a wrong, but he isn’t entirely content with the outcome. He’d like EZ-Park to pay back what it made with the extra land.
“I still feel that he should be fined, and there should be some sort of IRS investigation,” he said. “He’s a very powerful individual. Did he pay taxes on those extra spots? Did he declare the extra profits? I doubt the lot was rezoned to include those extra. But, yeah, I’m glad that he has to return what (property) he stole from the city.”