For decades, the parking lot at Rite Aid in West Reading's commercial district has served, for better or worse, as the fallback parking location for patrons of shops and restaurants along Penn Avenue.
Whenever there are no vacant on-street spaces, patrons could often find a spot in the spacious West Reading Center - anchored by the Rite Aid pharmacy and Chef Alan's American Bistro - in the 500 block of Penn Avenue.
A brochure published by the West Reading Community Revitalization Foundation even included a capital "P" on the West Reading Shopping Center, giving the impression that it was OK to park there.But if you park your vehicle there and walk to one of the shops, bistros, taverns or craft beer locations along Penn Avenue, you are ignoring the signs posted throughout the shopping center lot advising that it is restricted to customers of the center.Those signs include a message in red print stating that vehicles could be towed at their owners' expense. That is no idle threat, as dozens of patrons have recently discovered.Starting early this year, a towing contractor operating at the behest of the shopping center owner has been hauling vehicles from the lot, often late at night after all the businesses in the center have closed for the day.
The shopping center owner, Chip Lutz, wasn't available for comment. However, one of his tenants, Chef Alan's president Alan Rutter, said in an email:
"The problem with the parking has been brewing for years. This parking lot is a private lot and is owned by Chip Lutz the landlord for the use of the tenants in the shopping center connected to the lot. Those tenants, including myself, pay thousands of dollars per year in leases and for the common area maintenance of the parking lot."The problem, Rutter said, is that many new businesses have been allowed to open in recent years on Penn Avenue with inadequate parking to support them. So, they rely on the shopping center spaces for their customers and employees. This puts a burden on patrons of the shopping center's businesses, who can't always find a parking spaces.
'Killing the goose'
Tavern owners, however, fear that the mass towing equates to "killing the goose that laid the golden egg" for the revitalized business district, which over the last decade or so has become a dining destination.
"It's really, really disheartening, and it's upsetting for me and a lot of restaurant owners in the area," said Mark Woodward, co-owner of West Reading Tavern, 606 Penn Ave.Woodward said that about a month ago, 26 cars were towed between 11 p.m. Saturday and 1 a.m. Sunday. One of the vehicle owners was a friend."They're actually sending like fleets of tow trucks to the parking lot," Woodward said. "We understand it's a private lot, but people have been parking there a long time."A Mohnton woman contacted the Reading Eagle after her car was towed last weekend while she was enjoying a night on the vibrant Penn Avenue strip.When she returned about midnight, a tow truck operator was pulling several vehicles onto a rollback truck. Her car was already gone.She confronted the operator. Come to the impoundment lot during business hours on Monday, the woman said she was told. After insisting she couldn't wait that long, the company agreed to send someone to meet her at the lot, located off the Warren Street Bypass in Reading.The woman also was told that she needed to pay the $250 towing fee in cash or certified check.She took an Uber to the location about 2:30 a.m."Then we stood there, with cash, waiting for someone to show up," she recalled.She got her impounded vehicle that night, but the experience left her frustrated.Woodward said that the borough, while it is not ordering the towing, shoulders some of the blame for the problem because it hasn't planned for off-street parking in the area.Some Penn Avenue business have a few customer parking spaces behind their shops, along Cherry Street, but many people don't know those exist."The borough never addressed the parking situation, that's the biggest thing," Woodward said. "Every Sunday, the West Reading Farmers Market is held directly across from the parking lot that nobody is supposed to use."Woodward delivered that message to borough council in May, when he also distributed 40 fliers titled "Towing the Money" that shows a silhouette of a tow truck hooked to a money bag.
'Victim of success'
Dean L. Rohrbach, manager of the West Reading Community Revitalization Foundation, said West Reading has become a victim of its own success, which has resulted from an investment about 15 years ago in improvements to the sidewalks and streetlights.
The previous owner of the shopping center rarely enforced the parking restriction, Rohrbach said. The property changed hands a few years ago, he said, noting that the new owner "has always been a little peeved that people not using the businesses he rents to are parking there."William Arndt, owner of Arndt's Recovery Solutions, a Robesonia-based company contracted to do the towing, said the issue is no different than if your neighbor threw a party and allowed guests to park in your driveway without asking your permission.According to Arndt, Lutz had West Reading police come out on occasion and cite drivers, but that became a time-consuming burden on the police."So the next step is to tow the vehicles," Arndt said.He denied, however, that the towing is being done exclusively late at night, after all the center's businesses, including Chef Alan's, have closed."We're towing out of there during the day, too," Arndt said, adding that it's usually done in communication with the tenant businesses."We're contracted to do the job, and obviously there's not a lot of companies out there that want to do the job," Arndt said. "I have a lot of angry customers."The issue is they're not patrons of the West Reading Center. A lot of these people are coming back to their vehicle at 12:30, 1, 2 or 3 in the morning. Where were they? At Barley Mow, West Reading Tavern and Chatty Monks, places like that, and it's not right for the property owner to clean up after them."
An issue for borough
Peter Starr, co-owner of The Barley Mow craft beer house at 719 Penn Ave., said some of his good customers recently had their vehicles towed, and he worries about the impact.
With West Reading promoting itself as a good place for the younger crowd, a short-term solution is desperately needed while a long-term solution is pursued, he said."It's certainly not his (the center owner) responsibility to provide parking for the entire Penn Avenue," Starr said. "He is completely within his rights to do that. I don't blame him at all."The best solution, Starr suggested, may be for West Reading to lease part of the shopping center lot."I think it's an issue for the borough to work on," he said.A phone message left with Chatty Monks Brewing Co., a brewpub at 610 Penn Ave., was not returned.West Reading Mayor Valentin Rodriguez Jr. said borough officials are well aware of the problem and are working toward a solution.Borough council's traffic and infrastructure committee will be soon be revisiting the traffic study that was completed in April 2015 by Walker Parking Consultants.The study recommended several options, some of which required further study phases that have yet to be approved. They range from building a parking structure to installing parking meters to ramping up enforcement of two-hour parking limits.Valentin said that there have been preliminary discussions about where to put a parking garage and how to pay for it. The only open space large enough would be the shopping center, which the borough doesn't own.He said another potential solution would be to divert traffic into the surrounding neighborhoods, something that could negatively impact residents."We're displacing our residential parking now with event parking," he said. "There's some pressure there that needs to be looked at. The study is a good start. They're professionals, and it needs to be looked at."
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