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The intersection of 23rd and South Streets has become a lively neighborhood destination, with a plaza seating area surrounded by a frozen yogurt shop, an Indego bike dock, and a tavern serving craft beer.
But for many residents, getting to that plaza can be harrowing.
An Amazon pickup center sits across the intersection, often fronted by a large delivery truck that completely blocks the sidewalk. Retiree Doug Reese, who lives at nearby Naval Square, said he’s often forced to walk into the middle of the roadway to get past.
It’s not unusual to see parents with kids in tow braving the asphalt as traffic races down 23rd Street, he said — right into a blind curve created by the illegally parked truck.
“Because of the angle, they can’t see the pedestrian until the pedestrian is well in the lane of traffic. At night, it’s not lit that well, either. I am really surprised that there has not been an incident. It really is amazing that someone hasn’t been hurt,” Reese told Billy Penn.
He’s talked to his neighborhood association about the problem, he said, and emailed the mayor and Council members. Yet navigating the sidewalk remains treacherous.
The Amazon center is one of many places around the city where businesses routinely break the law against parking on sidewalks, with little or no enforcement by police or the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
Springfield Avenue between 45th and 46th streets is another one, said Katherine Walsh of West Philly, who described the north side as basically unusable because an auto garage fills the sidewalk with cars.
“The cars are often double parked, bumper to bumper, into the street, so walking into the street isn’t feasible — you’d be walking right in the middle of the lane,” Walsh said. “I have a dog and a baby and have just given up on that block because it feels so unsafe.”
City and parking authority officials say residents’ complaints are justified, and swear they’re not ignoring the problem.
“You’re not supposed to use the sidewalk for vehicle storage,” Deputy Streets Commissioner Richard Montanez said. “Our sidewalks are for our wheelchair users, our moms with strollers or dads with strollers, people walking back and forth.”
Over the next few years, the city will expand its newly created force of unarmed public safety officers and may have them enforce the ban on sidewalk parking throughout the city, Montanez said.
The Police Department did not respond to a request for comment. PPA spokesperson Martin O’Rourke said the agency’s officers should be ticketing any vehicle they see parked on the sidewalk. The agency does not have any agreements with businesses to overlook violations, he avowed.
After Billy Penn started asking about the Amazon trucks, O’Rourke said the PPA plans to crack down on those violations. The agency has ramped up parking enforcement citywide in recent weeks following the appointment of its new executive director.
After violations go unpunished, residents give up reporting them
Commercial vehicles blocking Philly sidewalks are so ubiquitous, residents say, that many have given up trying to do anything about it.
On 20th near McKean in South Philly, an auto body shop double-stacks cars and parks them diagonally on the sidewalk, resident Kara Kneidl said.
When she mentioned it to a police officer from the local precinct, he told her she should “just keep calling and complaining until it gets to the right person or I become annoying enough that they’ll start ticketing,” Kneidl said.
“I kind of gave up reporting things the last couple years. It feels sometimes like being a resident of Philly is a full time job of begging for basic services, and there’s only so much time in the day,” she said.
A Billy Penn social media callout for continually blocked sidewalks drew a flood of responses and emails. Residents expressed frustration and weary outrage at companies that flout the law, take over space that belongs to the public, and face little risk of having their vehicles ticketed or towed.
Many of the businesses they pointed out are auto repair shops or car washes that use the sidewalk for vehicle storage, forcing pedestrians to weave between cars or step off the curb.
Several readers cited a U-Haul rental and storage facility at 12th Street and Washington Avenue in South Philly, where markings for loading dock parking spaces are painted right onto the sidewalk. U-Haul trucks routinely block the route of children walking to nearby Hawthorne Recreation Center and Fanny Jackson Coppin school down the street.
Dena Driscoll, a public space advocate whose two children walked to Hawthorne’s afterschool program for several years, said she used to occasionally report the trucks to the PPA or police. But, like Kneidl, she eventually gave up.
“I would have reported this to 311 a couple of times, I think back in 2017. I really did think this was crazy, and I couldn’t believe anyone was doing this,” she said. “But now it’s 2023 and I’m like, oh yeah, this is just the cost of doing business for them, and they don’t care.”
Driscoll last year posted a series of photos and a video on Twitter showing U-Haul trucks completely blocking the sidewalk on consecutive days. In some of them, the street is further narrowed by large U-Haul trucks legally parked on the opposite curb, while additional trucks fill the street itself.
Officials are well aware of some problem spots but clueless about others
Montanez, the deputy Streets Dept. commissioner, admitted the city is well aware of — and tolerates — certain egregious offenders.
One is the Dave & Buster’s on Columbus Boulevard in Penn’s Landing. On many mornings tractor-trailers park in front of the building for hours at a time to unload restaurant supplies, blocking the popular Delaware River Trail that runs along the side of the road.
“I see tons of people there every morning jogging, walking their dogs, biking to work,” said resident James Burnett, a marathon runner. “In order to cross the boulevard you’d have to cross seven lanes of traffic, so it’s not like you can just easily sneak across to the other side of the street. It’s super dangerous!”
Montanez said the city has tried to get Dave & Buster’s to shift its deliveries to non-peak hours, but doesn’t want to create a hardship for a business that makes good use of what had been an abandoned warehouse.
“Dave & Buster’s was there prior to the city building this trail, and now trail users want the Dave & Buster’s gone,” he said. “We understand what the community wants, but the community also wants jobs. It’s a very delicate balance.”
When it comes to the South Philly U-Haul center, Streets and the PPA seemed flummoxed by questions about the sidewalk parking spots, despite years of complaints from Driscoll and others.
Montanez said he was unaware of the issue, and thought U-Haul was using a loading dock around the corner on Washington Avenue. O’Rourke said the PPA could not comment on the legality of the parking spots and needed more information on who installed them. “We are visiting this location to discuss the angle parking with the manager,” he said.
After viewing one of Driscoll’s photos, Jeff Lockridge, a spokesperson for U-Haul International, admitted the company deliberately parks on the sidewalk — but denied its trucks routinely block the pedestrian right-of-way.
“Our local team may sometimes stage trucks near our loading dock for safer and easier self-checkout in the early morning hours,” Lockridge said in an email. “The arrangement of equipment in the photo… does not reflect how our trucks are typically staged at this location.”
Lockridge said the illegally parked trucks “are backed up as far as possible to minimize any potential imposition for pedestrians,” and said U-Haul employees “would be happy to assist pedestrians in need in safely walking past our trucks, or crossing the street, if requested.”
Amazon sent ‘final warning’ for 23rd Street violations…’probably’
The Amazon pickup center on 23rd Street has been a concern for the South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA), the city, and the PPA for some time.
SOSNA member Dan McGlone said vehicle issues at that corner — from traffic, the Amazon trucks, and a small adjoining parking lot — are the top source of complaints in the neighborhood. Two years ago, he said, SOSNA worked with building owner Jason Nusbaum to apply for a loading zone where trucks could park instead of blocking the sidewalk. The application stalled.
O’Rourke, the PPA spokesperson, said the holdup was that Amazon never supplied missing information about neighbors’ consent. There is already a painted curbside space where the trucks could park, said Montanez, of the Streets Dept.
“We’ve actually probably given them their final warning,” Montanez said last week. “I did ask PPA if they could begin ticketing and towing on Monday.” O’Rourke confirmed the agency is planning to target Amazon for enforcement.
Property owner Nusbaum did not respond to a phone message left at his business, City Philly Living property management, or to an email. Amazon spokesperson Richard Rocha said the company is “looking forward to continuing the conversations with the city and the neighborhood association to find a resolution.”
O’Rourke conceded that, in addition to Amazon, many other repeat violators around Philadelphia are rarely if ever ticketed.
“Our officers do not patrol every block in the city of Philadelphia on a daily basis, so there may be times when we are not in areas to address this issue,” he said.
But the PPA says that lately it has been broadly increasing enforcement of quality-of-life violations like cars parking on sidewalks or in front of fire hydrants, and “ghost autos” without license plates. In the past the agency has said it had to focus on revenue-producing activities like parking meters and garages, but new executive director Richard Lazer says he’s broadening its scope.
“I know from personal experience the disruption and hazards caused by motorists who ignore our parking regulations, which directly impacts the quality of life in a neighborhood,” said Lazer, who was previously a deputy mayor under Mayor Jim Kenney.
“While we will not be perfect in addressing all violations all the time because of finite personnel resources, we are committed to working with neighborhoods throughout the city to work with them and address their ongoing parking related issues,” he said.
The uptick in ticketing has already gotten some attention. “They’ve been ticketing the sidewalk near my house every night recently and tonight there were ZERO cars parked on the sidewalk. A Philadelphia miracle,” one person wrote on Reddit.
The city’s newly created team of public safety officers could also eventually help address the backlog of sidewalk-parking complaints, per Montanez, although it could be years before they have an impact.
The first 10 of a planned 125 officers recently hit the streets in Center City to help reduce traffic congestion and process abandoned vehicles for removal.
“The goal is to keep growing them,” Montanez said of the fleet. “We do anticipate them eventually being in every section of Philadelphia, if that’s possible.”