South Side residents snared in towing 'blitz'

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One month into Pittsburgh's campaign to regain control of the South Side bar district from weekend revelers, some residents and workers say they are happy with the city's efforts but feel they have become part of the collateral damage from the enforcement blitz.

Over the four weekends since Mayor Luke Ravenstahl launched the saturation effort, police have had a total of 250 cars towed. Some have belonged to longtime residents or workers who say their cars were towed from parking spaces they have used for years.

Phil Laboon, who owns Eyeflow Internet Marketing in the 1000 block of East Carson and has lived on Sidney Street for seven years, said his car was towed early Feb. 2 from a spot on Sidney near South 18th Street that he has parked in for years. He had to pay a $140 towing fee and a $96 parking citation for parking within 20 feet of an intersection.

"I've never, ever had a problem before," Mr. Laboon said. "I think a big concern we have here is we have no markings, no parking signs or anything to say we can't park there.

"[Police] obviously are getting more aggressive. They towed my car and I'm a resident."

Assistant police Chief Maurita Bryant, who is coordinating the blitz, said zero tolerance means zero tolerance. She said officers with extensive experience enforcing parking regulations have been involved in enforcing the letter of the law -- no parking in a crosswalk or within 20 feet of an intersection -- and she believes all the tows have been proper.

"It's sometimes difficult to differentiate who belongs there and who doesn't," she said. "How do you tell the good guys from the bad guys when they are illegally parked?

"[The number of tows] will subside. People will park legally because they don't want to be towed."

Mr. Laboon said he believes in some cases residents and workers are getting it from both sides during the blitzes -- revelers urinating on their front steps on the one hand and police having their vehicles towed on the other.

"I think they definitely need to crack down on crime," he said. "I'm totally for what they are doing as long as they don't violate my rights or tow my vehicle."

Michelle Majerich lives outside the city but works six days a week at Piper's Pub in the 1800 block of East Carson Street. She came out of work at 7 p.m. Saturday to find her truck had been towed from 19th Street near Sarah, a spot she uses regularly.

"I totally respect what [the police] are trying to do. Give me the citation -- fine -- but don't tow my truck," she said.

Ray Rost has lived in the 1700 block of Sidney Street for more than 40 years. He was warned that towing was going on a couple of weeks before the formal blitz and still had his vehicle taken, he said.

Mr. Rost said he was coming home from work one Friday night and initially parked a couple of blocks from his house when a woman warned him a car had just been towed from that spot. He drove around until he found a spot a block from home near 18th Street "that I've used a thousand times before" only to discover his car gone the next morning.

"In no way was my car in the crosswalk or even blocking the handicapped ramp," he said. "Good judgment is the thing they need to use. If it's not blocking something or creating a dangerous situation and it happens to be only 18 feet from the intersection, maybe you let it go."

Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven said residents who asked for increased enforcement "can't have it both ways" with laws enforced only against visitors. She said police will look for ways to "temper" the impact on residents.

"When this whole process started, we expected some of this," she said. "It's not convenient for them [to have vehicles towed]. We understand that."

Residents can challenge citations, she noted, and if they win, they get a refund on their towing fee.

Assistant Chief Bryant said she will review citations and complaints from towed vehicles to see why they were towed and decide whether she should give officers additional instructions, but she said she didn't expect major changes.

"For that area, it pretty much is a no-tolerance zone."

In addition to stronger parking enforcement, officers assigned to the South Side blitz have arrested 53 people and issued 819 citations, most of them for traffic violations. Firefighters and staff from the Bureau of Building Inspection also have conducted 181 bar occupancy inspections.

Inspectors have issued about a dozen notices for problems such as defective exit signs or improper hardware on exit doors. In all but one case, the problems were fixed before citations were issued. The one citation was dropped after improvements were made, Ms. Doven said.

"What I'm hearing from everyone is the majority of people are happy with what we are doing over there. The major goal here is to restore the quality of life for South Side residents, and we think we are doing that."

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Ed Blazina: eblazina@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1470.


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