A man believed to be a Hustead's employee removes handmade signs about parking in the Trader Joe's neighborhood in downtown Berkeley

By Linda Hemmila

Residents and workers in the area surrounding Trader Joe’s in downtown Berkeley allege that a local towing company under contract to the city is removing signs made by neighbors to warn drivers of possible parking violations. In doing so, Hustead’s, local residents claim, are hoping to drum up more business for themselves as more cars may require towing.

The accusations emerged in a story published on Berkeleyside on January 5 about parking problems in the area of the Trader Joe’s on MLK Jr Way and University Avenue. City signs regarded by many — including Councilmember Jesse Arreguín — to be confusing, have led some local residents to put up their own signs warning drivers of the risk of being cited.

Hustead’s Manager Janice Lee denied the allegations made against the towing company, saying Hustead’s neither contracts with the city nor works in the Trader Joe’s neighborhood.

However a contract on file with the city, dated May 25, 2011, shows the police department renewing a $90,000 contract with Hustead’s. Berkeley spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross confirmed the company has a contract with the city. She said Hustead’s is one of four tow companies that dispatchers from the Berkeley Police Department’s parking enforcement division call on to remove vehicles.

A car owner with five or more violations can, according to local regulations, have their vehicle towed and impounded at the driver’s expense. Cars are also towed in specific tow-away zones. The cost of retrieving a car can run to about $300 excluding citation fees.

Berkeleyside spoke to seven individuals — local residents and some who work in the neighborhood — who said that at around 3:00 pm on most days they hear or see tow trucks searching for improperly parked vehicles to tow, and those trucks belong to Hustead’s. The individuals declined to give their names for fear of retaliation to their vehicles. Certain areas in the neighborhood are tow-away zones after 3:00 pm.

Hustead’s Collision & Tow, based on Durant Avenue, has operated in Berkeley for more than 60 years. Neighbors say they began calling Hustead’s in early November asking the company to tell their drivers to stop removing the signs. They also say they warned management those drivers would be photographed if they persisted.

Photos taken by a local resident in the Trader Joe’s neighborhood show a man in a uniform close to a Hustead’s tow truck removing one of the distinctive fuchsia-colored handmade signs made by a local resident from a tree which was on private property. Other photos show a woman removing white signs.

Several staff members at Kinetic Search Inc., which is located at 1847 Berkeley Way across the street from Trader Joe’s, are trying to prevent the handmade signs from being removed.

“When we came back after the New Year’s holiday, most of the signs had been torn down,” said a staff member.

Another person who works in an office in the neighborhood said the signs were being taken down at an increased pace since Berkeleyside’s story was published. “As soon as we put them up, they vanish,” she said.

Some neighbors accuse the city of maintaining confusing signage and turning a blind eye to the towing in order to boost city coffers. But Anthony Sanchez, legislative aid to Councilmember Arreguín, says there’s nothing nefarious about the city’s signs.

“It’s more of a staff and resources problem trying to create signs and get the job done more than anything else,” he says. Sanchez also says the city doesn’t make any money from towing cars. “We don’t make one dime, it’s all towing fees and storage. We don’t see any of it.”

He adds that parking revenue generally is down from last year. “It may be the economy or people driving and parking less.”

Sanchez says Councilmember Arreguín would like to hold the city to a higher standard regarding the usability of the signs in an attempt to reduce the number of violations. “We remain committed to helping the citizens of Berkeley and protecting them from these towing practices.”

New, clearer parking signs may eliminate some of the confusion surrounding this issue. Arreguín requested that they be reviewed in November and new ones should be ready in about two weeks, according to comments made at last night’s City Council meeting.

Numerous calls to Hustead’s for further comment were not returned.

Meanwhile, Arreguín is asking that an item be added to the January 31 City Council agenda which would see the City Manager consider possible parking and traffic configurations on the MLK block between University and Hearst Avenues that eliminate the need for rush hour tow away zones.

Parking around Trader Joe’s sparks “vigilante” action [01.05.12]

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