Unable to retrieve her impounded vehicle, Cynthia Floyd, a North Philadelphia resident, returned to the parking lot on Oxford and Carlisle streets, from where her car had been towed earlier that day.
Floyd tried to make sense of what had went wrong. From where she entered the lot on its south side, the sign indicating its rules is only printed on one side, facing inward. Floyd entered from the side that the sign’s printing was not on, leading her to unknowingly park without paying.
“I can’t get it back today at all because I don’t have the money for it,” she said.
George Smith Towing Inc. tows from that parking lot, which has become a site of frustration for people throughout the community. The lot, which has more than 100 usable parking spaces, is located between the Avenue North shopping complex and The Edge apartments near 15th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
Because there are only a few small signs and one kiosk to pay their parking fee, many do not realize they must pay to park. Tow trucks from the company cycle through the parking lot daily and tow cars, whether the cars are not displaying a slip from the kiosk or their paid time has expired.
Last Tuesday evening, three George Smith tow trucks were in the lot at the same time.
The frequent towing has created animosity between the towing company and people attempting to park. Some business owners have complained to their elected representatives about the lot, and one owner said he advises customers to avoid parking there.
The lot belongs to Tower Investments, a private development company that owns Avenue North and several other properties in the city.
A Tower Investments representative, reached by phone last week, declined to comment about the complaints regarding the towing company.
“It’s not just, ‘The company shows up and steals your car,’” said a truck driver for George Smith Towing, who did not give his name because of a company policy barring employees from speaking to reporters. “That’s not how it works. Everything is done through a process.”
He said George Smith Towing is law-abiding and follows every necessary procedure when removing an illegally parked car.
Before towing, drivers are expected to take photos of the car they are about to tow, notify police radio and provide them with the reason why the car was parked illegally, the driver said.
Once this is completed, the driver can tow the car. The company tows to its lot in Southwest Philadelphia, charging customers a $175 towing fee and an additional $25 for each day the car is stored there.
“I didn’t pay the parking [kiosk],” said David Gongora, a freshman biology major. “So I just parked there and didn’t really see the signs. This is the first time I’m ever driving around here.”
Without seeing the George Smith Towing signs in the lot, Gongora parked, went to class and when he returned, his car was being towed.
“For some reason [the kiosk] is hard to find,” Greg Brown, from Germantown, said after paying to park. “They have to get it away from the dumpster.”
At times, the kiosk is unable to accept payment. A sign on the kiosk instructs drivers to avoid parking in the lot if the kiosk is not accepting cash or credit cards, or risk being towed.
If someone returns to find their vehicle attached to a George Smith tow truck, the owner can pay the towing fee in cash directly to the driver, or their car will be impounded.
“He didn’t let me pay with credit card, so I had to run to the ATM, cash out [the fee] and pay him there, or else I would have had to go all the way across the city to the impound,” Gongora said.
Businesses near the parking lot are upset with the practices of George Smith Towing as well.
“They’re towing cars all the time, and there is no place to park,” said John Adams, an employee of New Barber’s Hall, a bar on Oxford and Carlisle streets. “It happens every day.”
Other businesses warn customers of issues with the parking lot.
Mike, a manager of Pizano’s Brick Oven Pizzeria and Grill down the block from New Barber’s Hall, said he tells customers to avoid the lot completely. He declined to give his last name.
“They get towed no matter what,” he said. “Even if they pay, the meter expires and one minute later the company will get notified by text message so they tow it right away.”
Adams said New Barber’s Hall has raised concerns about the company’s tactics to state Rep. W. Curtis Thomas, who represents the 181st legislative district. Adams added that he is unsure if Thomas’ office is taking action.
Charlotte Greer-Brown, a legal assistant in Thomas’ office, said she has received constituents’ complaints about their cars being towed from the parking lot, but couldn’t discuss specific incidents.
This is not the first time George Smith Towing has faced complaints. PhillyVoice reported last month that the towing company was accused of setting up a “bait-and-trap” towing scheme in South Philadelphia. The story said tow truck drivers were accused of putting up “no parking” signs that had not been approved by the city. The signs were used to justify towing from spots on Broad Street which many residents thought were acceptable places to park.
In 2009, City Controller Alan Butkovitz reprimanded the company for “excessive towing fees and excessive storage fees.”
When asked about the allegations against his company, George Smith, owner of George Smith Towing, said: “You can call my lawyer.” After several calls, the company did not provide its attorney’s contact information.
Kelly Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.